Here I continue the “Introduction” to my translation of the Martyrdom of Polycarp in my two-volume work, The Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library, vol. 1 (Harvard University Press, 2003).  It is giving a bit of harder hitting scholarship (though completely accessible) and  includes, at the end, some bibliography.

As it turns out, years after I published this edition, I changed my mind about when the first part of this discussion — specifically, about when the martyrdom was written and about whether it was based on eyewitness reports.  That will be the subject of my next posts.  The view I give here had been the consensus for many decades at the time, and is still widely held today.


Date and Integrity

Two of the most disputed issues in the modern study of the Martyrdom of Polycarp involve the integrity of its text (i.e., whether we have the original or a highly interpolated form) and the date of its composition.

Some scholars have held that the surviving text went through several stages of composition.  H. von Campenhausen in particular maintained that the miraculous elements of the account, especially in the death scene itself, were added to a more straightforward description of Polycarp’s death by a later pious redactor, and that someone else added the clear parallels to the passion narratives of the New Testament in order to stress that Polycarp’s death conformed closely to that of Jesus (these parallels are not contained in the quotations of Eusebius).  In addition, according to von Campenhausen, the anti-rigorist story about voluntary martyrs turned coward in chapter 4 was added later in opposition to Montanists.  More recent scholars have argued, however, that the book is a unified whole, written at one time by one author, with the exception, of course, of the material found in the colophon of chapter 22 concerning the history of the transmission of the text by various copyists over the years (and possibly ch. 21; see Barnard, Musurillo, Buschmann, Dehandshutter).

It appears that the letter was written soon after Polycarp was martyred; but there is no agreement about when

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that may have been.  Chapter 21 indicates that it occurred when Philip of Tralles was the high priest of Asia and Statius Quadratus was proconsul.  Unfortunately, the dates in which they each held office evidently did not overlap (Barnes).  Moreover, a number of scholars believe that this chapter was added to the book only later, much as the postscript of 22.2-3 (or the alternative ending in the Moscow manuscript), so that it cannot provide a reliable guide to the dating.  Eusebius locates the martyrdom in the rule of Marcus Aurelius (Eccl. Hist. 4. 14-15).  But questions have been raised about the accuracy of his report: he may well have been making a best guess a century and a half after the fact.

A range of factors have influenced the discussions of dating, including (a) Polycarp’s enigmatic statement made during the trial itself, that he had served Christ for eighty-six years (since his birth? since his baptism as an infant?  since his baptism as a young adult?); (b) his documented relationship with Ignatius around 110 CE, when he was already bishop of Smyrna; (c) the possibility that the text opposes a Montanist understanding of voluntary martyrdom, and so would have to date after the appearance of Montanism in the early 170s.  Weighing these data differently, scholars are divided on whether the account should be dated as late as 177 CE (Gregoire and Orgels), some time in the late 160s (Telfer, Marrou, von Campenhausen, and Frend), or a decade earlier, possibly 155 or 156 (see Lightfoot, Barnes, Musurillo, Schoedel, Bisbee, Bushmann, Dehandshutter.).  On balance, probably the majority of scholars favor the final view.  This would mean that Polycarp was born around 70 CE and became acquainted with Ignatius when about forty years of age, not quite half way through his long life.


Manuscripts, Abbreviations, and Editions

The epilogue (22.2-3, given differently in the Moscow manuscript), indicates the lineage of the manuscript once it was produced.  A copy of the letter, we are told, was  preserved in the personal library of Ireneaus and copied then by a scribe named Socrates; the copy of Socrates was copied by Gaius, which was later discovered and copied by Pionius.  This is presumably the Pionius known from the third century, who was himself martyred during the persecution of Decius (ca. 250 CE).

The text produced by Pionius is now preserved in seven Greek manuscripts, as follows:

a — Atheniensis (10th c.)

h — Hierosolymitanus (11th c.)

b — Baroccianus (11th c)

c — Chalcensis (11th c.)

p — Parisinus (10th c.)

v — Vindobonensis (11-12th c.)

m — Mosquensis (13th c.)

Of these, m stands out as distinctive in many of its readings, a good number of which agree with the quotations of Eusebius, who cites most of the document in his Ecclesiastical History 4.15 (although he paraphrases 2.2-7.3 and gives no citation of 19.2-22.3).  In addition, there is a rather paraphrastic Latin translation (L), which occasionally provides assistance for establishing the Greek text.

The apparatus uses the following abbreviations, in addition to those of the individual manuscripts:


G – the agreement of all the Greek manuscripts

g – the agreement of all the manuscripts apart from m

Eus – Eusebius

The editio princeps of the Martyrdom was published by James Ussher, 1647 (Appendix Ignatiana), based just on the eleventh-century Codex Baroccianus (b).


. Select Bibliography

Barnard, Leslie W.  “In Defence of Pseudo-Pionius’ Account of Polycarp’s Martyrdom.” In Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, ed. P. Granfield.  Münster: Aschendorff, 1970;  1. 192-204.

Barnes, Timothy D.  “A Note on Polycarp.”  JTS n.s. 18 (1967) 433-37.

_______.  “Pre-Decian Acta Martyrium.”  JTS n.s. 19 (1968) 510-14.

Bisbee, Gary A.  Pre-Decian Acts of Martyrs and CommentariiPhiladelphia: Fortress, 1988.

Buschmann, Gerd.  Martyrium Polycarpi: eine formkritische Studie, ein Beitrag zur Frage nach der Entstehung der Gattung Martyrerakte.  Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1994.

Camelot, P. T.  Ignace d’Antioche: Lettres. Lettres et Martyre de Polycarpe de Smyrne.  4th ed.  SC, 10.  Paris: Cerf, 1969.

Campenhausen, Hans F. von.  “Bearbeitungen und Interpolationen des Polykarpmartyriums.”  In Aus der Frühzeit des Christentums.  Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1963.

Conzelmann, Hans.  Bemerkungen zum Martyrium Polykarps.  Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978.

Dehandschutter, Boudewijn.  Martyrium Polycarpi: een literair-kritische studie.  Leuven: Universitaire Leuven, 1979.

_____.  “A ‘New’ Text of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.” ETL 66 (1990) 391-94.


_____.  “The Martyrium Polycarpi: A Century of Research (Bibliography).”  ANRW II.27.1  (1993) 485-522.

Frend, W. H. C.  “Note on the Chronology of the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Outbreak of Montanism.”  In Oikoumen; studi paleocristiani, ed. J. Courcelle, et al.  Catania: Universitá di Catania, 1964; 499-506.

Gregoire, H. and P. Orgels.  “La veritable date du martyre de S. Polycarpe et le Corpus Polycarpianum.”  AnBoll 69 (1951) 1-38.

Lightfoot, Joseph Barber.  The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  Part II: Ignatius and Polycarp.  3 vols. London: Macmillan, 1889; reprinted Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson, 1989.

Marrou, H.-I.  “La date du martyre de S. Polycarpe.”  AnBoll 71 (1953) 5-20.

Musurillo, H. A.  The Acts of the Christian Martyrs.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.

Schoedel, William.  Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp. Fragments of Papias, vol. 5 of The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Robert M. Grant.  Camden, NJ: Thomas Nelson, 1967.

______.  “Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch.” ANRW II.27.1 (1993) 272-358.

Telfer, William.  “The Date of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.”  JTS n.s. 3 (1952) 79-83.