POLYCARP IS MORE INTERESTING as a man and a martyr than a writer. The great early Church historian Eusebius (260-341) believed that Polycarp was acquainted with the apostle John, and “others who had seen the Lord”.
In fact, the most prominent theologian of early Latin Christianity, Tertullian, cites a tradition which says that Polycarp was appointed as Bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John himself. Irenaeus wrote about his memories of having seen and heard Polycarp when he himself was a child in Asia Minor. He recalled how Polycarp talked about his own memories of the first generation of believers.
Polycarp was converted to the Christian faith from a pagan background. Without the benefit of a Jewish heritage, he was perhaps more familiar with the apostolic tradition than the Jewish Scriptures. In fact, he himself disclaimed any profound knowledge of the Scriptures when he wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “I am confident that you are well versed in the sacred writings and nothing is hidden from you. Such a gift has not been granted to me.” In the context of this letter, “sacred writings” refer to the Old Testament.
However, Polycarp’s epistle to the Christians at Phillipi – his only extant work – is peppered by allusions to the New Testament. Scholars maintain that there is enough evidence to suggest that Polycarp was intimately acquainted with the Gospel of Matthew, the epistles of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, 1 Peter and 1 John.
Among these, Polycarp was especially beholden to the writings of the Apostle Paul. The bishop’s letter to the Phillipians was written in the language of edification rather than in the theological language that would characterise much of the works of succeeding theologians. Some scholars opine that Polycarp had little formal education.
Be that as it may, Polycarp was without doubt a fearless Christian witness and a staunch defender of orthodoxy. Irenaeus tells the story of Polycarp’s encounter with the heretic Marcion, who taught that the God of the Old Testament is an evil and malicious demiurge. At that meeting, Marcion demanded to be recognised by Polycarp. But the bishop replied: “I do recognise you. I recognise you as the first-born of Satan.” Irenaeus also reports that while Polycarp was in Rome, he converted many of the followers of heretics like Marcion and Valentinus to orthodoxy by his simple faith and impeccable life.
Polycarp’s unflinching commitment to the orthodoxy of the Church is clearly evident in the short creedal section of his letter to the Phillipians:
“Anyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is an antichrist, and whoever does not acknowledge the martyrdom [or witness] of the cross is of the devil, and whoever manipulates the words of the Lord to suit his own desires and says that there is no resurrection and no judgement is a first-born of Satan. So let us abandon the fatuity and the false doctrines of the populace and return to the traditional word handed down to us from the beginning.”
It was the uncompromising faith of the bishop that led him to his death as a martyr. In the winter of 155, the pro-consul Statius Quadratus arrested the saintly Polycarp on the charge of atheism because he refused to worship the deities of the Roman gods and acknowledge the divinity of Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius. As the Roman guards led the 86-year-old bishop into the stadium to appear before the proconsul, the angry crowd that packed the stadium went ballistic and shouted repeatedly, “Death to the atheists!” Polycarp stood before the proconsul and the roaring crowd with remarkable composure.
THE PROCONSUL MOTIONED the crowd to be silent. He then repeatedly tried to persuade Polycarp to declare that Caesar is Lord and to curse Jesus Christ. The old man looked towards heaven, waved his hands towards them and said: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?”
The proconsul pressed him again: “Swear by the fortunes of Caesar!” Polycarp quietly replied: “Since you pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness: I am a Christian.”
Having lost his patience, the proconsul threatened: “I have beasts at hand.” But the bishop replied, “Call them then. It is well for me to leave this world for a better.” “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts,” the proconsul threatened further. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour but you are ignorant of the fire of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly,” Polycarp answered. The crowd could not keep silent any longer, and demanded that Polycarp be burnt alive.
Wood and fagots were heaped together, making a great bundle ready for the fire. And after the Roman soldiers had bound his hands and brought him to the funeral pile, the godly bishop looked up to heaven and prayed: “Lord, I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, with whom, to you and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and in all ages. Amen.”
As soon as Polycarp uttered “Amen” his executioners kindled the flame. But the flame failed to consume Polycarp’s frail body due to the direction of the wind. In his splendid account in Patres Apostolici, Franz Xaver Funk writes: “The fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr.” When the proconsul saw that the flame had failed to do its work, he commanded the executioner to pierce Polycarp with a dagger and place his body in the midst of the fire.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.