In my previous post I talked about a textual problem in the early Christian writing, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” To my surprise, I’ve never talked about this intriguing text on the blog before. It’s time I did!
This is one of the books of the corpus I’ve been calling “The Apostolic Fathers,” a collection of ten or eleven “proto-orthodox” authors (meaning that they attest forerunners of the views that eventually became “orthodox” — that is, widely approved as “true”). It is our first Christian narrative fully devoted to describing a martyrdom (the martyrdom of Stephen is described in the NT in Acts 8, but it one episode in a long narrative; other martyrdoms are mentioned in Acts and Revelation, etc., but are not narrated). This became a kind of genre within early Christian literature–accounts, many of them claiming to be by eyewitnesses, of martyrdoms.
Here is how I discuss the Martyrdom of Polycarp in my Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers (in the Introduction to my translation of the text). This will take two posts.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp has long occupied a place of special intrigue for readers of the Apostolic Fathers. This is an account, evidently based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, of the trial and execution of a prominent church leader of the early and mid-second century, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Known already from the letter addressed to him by Ignatius, an earlier martyr (whose own death is recounted only in later legends), and from the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi (see the Letter of Polycarp), Polycarp was an important figure in the development of proto-orthodox Christianity. Tradition held that in his youth he was the follower of the disciple John and that later in life he became the teacher of the famous bishop of Gaul, Irenaeus, forming a link between the apostles themselves and the emerging proto-orthodox community (Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 5.20; 4.14; see Mart. Pol. 22.2). In any event, this account of his death is the earliest Christian martyrology that we have outside of the New Testament description of the death of Stephen (Acts 7-8). It was not, however, written simply to recount the historical facts of Polycarp’s arrest, trial, conviction, and execution. It was also meant to sanction a particular attitude and approach to martyrdom.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp is in the form of a letter sent by the church of Smyrna to the church of Philomelium, in Phrygia. Its actual author was an otherwise unknown Christian named Marcion (unrelated to the heretic of the same name reportedly opposed by Polycarp), who dictated the account to a scribe named Evaristus (20.1-2). This Marcion begins his account by informing his readers that Polycarp’s death was no mere accident of history or miscarriage of justice: it occurred according to the will of God and happened “in conformity with the gospel” (1.1).
To illustrate the point, the account narrates numerous parallels between the deaths of Polycarp and Jesus. Like Jesus, we are told, Polycarp did not turn himself in, but waited to be betrayed (1.2); he knew about his coming execution in advance and predicted it to his followers (5.2); he prayed intensely before his arrest (7.2-3); he asked that God’s will be done (7.1); the official in charge of his arrest was named Herod (6.2); he rode into town on a donkey (8.3); and so on.
This emphasis that Polycarp’s martyrdom conformed to the will of God can be seen in other aspects of the account as well. Like other martyrs, who are mentioned only in passing (2.2-3), Polycarp receives such divine succor during his torture that he feels no terror and experiences no anguish (12.1; 15.2). When burned at the stake, he does not need to be secured to the upright with nails, but can stand of his own volition. When the conflagration begins, a miracle occurs – the flames do not touch his body but envelop him like a sheet. And rather than emitting a stench of burning flesh, his body exudes a sweet odor like perfume (15.2). Since the flames cannot kill him, an executioner resorts to stabbing him with a dagger, which has the effect of releasing a dove from his side (his “holy” spirit, returning to heaven?), along with such a quantity of blood that it douses the flames (16.1).
The legendary details of the account, in other words, are designed to show God’s stamp of approval on a martyrdom of this kind. The author does not want to insist, however, that every Christian is to suffer like this. Quite the contrary, one of the overarching points of the narrative is that even though a Christian brought up on charges should face death bravely, without denying Christ or performing the acts of sacrifice necessary to escape the ultimate penalty, one must not go out of the way to seek death by martyrdom. The point is stated explicitly early on in the narrative, in the brief account of Quintus, a Christian from Phrygia who volunteers for martyrdom and urges others to do so as well, only to turn coward when confronted by the beasts (ch. 4). And so the author says, “we do not praise those who hand themselves over, since this is not what the gospel teaches.”
It may be, then, that this author wanted to present a moderating view of martyrdom to his Christian readership – against some groups of Gnostics on the one side, who insisted that God never calls a Christian to die for the faith (their logic, in part: since Jesus died for others, others need not die) and against some rigorist groups, on the other side, like the Montanists who later appeared in Quintus’s home territory of Phyrgia, who believed in voluntary martyrdom. For this author, Polycarp did nothing to expedite his death (he actually went into hiding), and yet when his time came, he faced it faithfully and bravely, in imitation of Christ: “my king who has saved me,” he proudly announced at his interrogation, a king he had served for eighty-six years (9.3).
Several other ideas set forth in the account became standard features in the martyrological accounts that were to become increasingly popular among Christian readers: a person could be put to death simply for claiming to be Christian, and part of the crime involved “atheism,” that is, not acknowledging the existence and power of the pagan gods (3.2; 9.2; 12.1); suffering martyrdom brings eternal life (which is no doubt why some Christians sought it out) (2.3); the temporary suffering at the hands of human torturers is nothing compared to the eternal torments reserved for those who oppose God (2.3); the struggle between antagonistic pagan mobs and Christians is actually a cosmic battle between the devil and God (2.4; 3.1; 17.1-2); and God’s certain victory in this contest, seen above all in the fearless and proud demeanor of Christians in the face of death, could not help but attract the notice of pagan onlookers themselves (3.2; 16.1).
Also significant is (a) the claim that even though the obvious opponents of the Christians are the pagan mobs and ruling authorities (and the devil), it is the Jews who are ultimately responsible for the antagonism (13.1; 17.2); (b) the emphasis played on the sanctity of the body of the martyr, both before his death and afterwards, when his remains were preserved as relics (13.2; 17.1; 18.2); (c) the indication that celebrations were held to commemorate the martyrdoms on the anniversaries of their deaths (their “birthdays”!) (18.3); and (d) the curious comment that Christians who were martyred were “no longer humans but already angels” (2.3).