In my previous post I discussed a textual problem in the writings of Ignatius, simply as a way of illustrating the kinds of textual decisions that need to be made when one publishes a new edition of any ancient text. There are lots and lots of textual variants in the various writings of the apostolic fathers. As with the New Testament (where there are thousands more manuscripts and hundreds of thousands more variants), most of the variant readings do not matter for much. But some of them are of real importance.

Another important textual problem is found in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, our earliest surviving Christian martyrology – that is, the first account, outside the New Testament, of a Christian being martyred for his faith. It is a fascinating account – required reading for anyone interested in early Christianity! In it, the old man Polycarp, Christian bishop of Smyrna, is tracked down and arrested by the local officials, who take him to the arena for public judgment. When he refuses to renounce his faith, he is ordered to be burned at the stake. But through a divine miracle, the flames never touch the saint; they instead form a kind of envelope around him, as if he is bread baking in the oven; and the air is filled not with the smell of reeking flesh but of sweet perfume. The pagan authorities are themselves incensed, and order the executioner to put an end to it all. He stabs Polycarp in the side, and there emerges a dove and such a quantity of blood that it extinguishes the fire.

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