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Detail from a painting of Early Christian martyrs in the coliseum by Jean Leon Gerome.


An Early Christian Martyr


Died ca. AD 155, in Smyrna (Izmir in modern Turkey)

When a young Christian named Irenaeus first encountered the elderly Polycarp teaching in the metropolis of Smyrna, he was captivated.

It’s not hard to understand why. According to Irenaeus, Bishop Polycarp was one of the few living disciples of the apostle John, who was the “beloved disciple” of Jesus himself. Polycarp preached what he had learned directly from eyewitnesses of Jesus. His connection with Christ’s first apostles served as a bridge between the first generation of believers and those who followed, including influential thinkers and theologians such as Irenaeus, who would live to be a prominent church father in his own right.

Polycarp led the church in Smyrna with wisdom and authority, having been appointed to leadership by men who had seen and heard the Lord. He was frequently called on to settle disputes or correct false teaching. Even the other leaders of the early church valued his insight. When Polycarp visited Rome, the bishop there deferred to him regarding when to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, as a sign of honor and respect.

Heeding John’s warnings against false teachers, Polycarp faithfully defended the apostles’ teaching against early heretics, including one Marcion, who held that the God of the Old Testament and the Father of Jesus were separate entities. Polycarp could be fiery, particularly when faced with such dangerous errors. In their only face-to-face meeting, Marcion asked, “Do you know me?”

“I know you, you firstborn of Satan!” Polycarp replied.

He was able to turn many away from such heresies, and thus strengthen the church’s witness.

But Polycarp’s work as a pastor and leader would not continue freely. When persecution broke out in Smyrna, some Christians were rounded up for interrogation, and required to renounce Christ and bow before the Roman emperor as a condition of release. When they refused, they were tortured and executed.

Eventually the crowd took up the refrain, “Away with the atheists! Go find Polycarp!”

Eyewitness accounts from this time highlight the public brutality of the persecution. Believers were lashed until their muscles were laid bare, forced to lie down on shards of shells, and thrown into arenas to be devoured by wild animals in front of the townspeople. There are striking examples of early martyrs welcoming these sufferings in the name of Christ. One Germanicus even embraced the wild beast and pulled it toward himself to meet death as quickly as possible. But not all withstood the brutal torture. A man named Quintus, who had come forward of his own free will rather than wait to be arrested, when confronted with the beasts of prey, renounced Jesus and took the oath of fidelity to the emperor.

Though some bystanders wept with pity for the persecuted Christians, these spectacles of death and drama in the arena also served to sharpen the people’s taste for Christian blood. Eventually the crowd took up the refrain, “Away with the atheists! Go find Polycarp!” (“Atheist” was a popular term for Christians, who in denying the Roman divinities in favor of a God who could not be seen, were thought of as atheists.)

Polycarp was undismayed by the growing public demand for his death. Rather than flee, the old bishop even resolved to remain in the city, where they could easily find him. His companions eventually convinced him to retreat to a farm outside of town, where the threat to his life was less immediate. There he spent his time in prayer, interceding for members of the church throughout the world.

Three days before his arrest, Polycarp fell into a deep trance. On regaining consciousness, he declared that he had received a vision. He had seen his pillow bursting into flame around his head. Polycarp had no question what the vision meant. Turning to his companions, he said, “I am going to be burned alive.”

Polycarp prayed so earnestly that one hour became two, and several of the soldiers regretted their role in his arrest.

Not long after, the Roman authorities captured two slaves. One of them broke down under torture and revealed the location of the farm where Polycarp was staying. When soldiers arrived on horseback to seize him, Polycarp refused to run. Instead, he offered his captors hospitality and food, requesting only that he be allowed an hour for prayer. When they agreed, Polycarp prayed so earnestly that one hour became two, and several of the soldiers regretted their role in the arrest of such a venerable old man.

They then put Polycarp on a donkey and led him back into the city. Upon arrival, his captors ushered him into the carriage of a man named Herod, the captain of the local troops. Herod tried to convince Polycarp to save himself. “Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense?” When Polycarp refused the very suggestion of renouncing Christ, the official grew threatening and forced him out of the carriage so roughly that he injured his shin.

Without even turning, Polycarp marched on quickly as they escorted him to the stadium, where a deafening roar arose from the throngs of spectators. As he entered, his Christian companions heard a voice from above say, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” He was brought before the proconsul, who urged him to deny his faith and bow before the emperor: “Swear by the spirit of Caesar! Repent, and say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”

Turning with a grim look toward the crowd calling for his death, Polycarp gestured at them. “Away with the atheists,” he said dryly.

Undeterred, the proconsul pressed him further to deny Christ. Polycarp declared, “Eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

“We are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil.”

Once more the proconsul urged Polycarp to swear by Caesar. This time Polycarp replied, “Since you pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn more about Christianity, I will be happy to make an appointment.”

Furious, the proconsul said, “Don’t you know I have wild beasts waiting? I’ll throw you to them unless you repent.”

Polycarp answered, “Bring them on, then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil.”

Next the proconsul threatened to burn him alive. To this Polycarp replied, “You threaten me with fire which burns for a little while and is soon extinguished. You do not know the coming fire of judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. What are you waiting for? Do what you wish.”

The fire formed a circle around him, but his body did not burn.

The proconsul sent his herald out into the arena to announce that Polycarp had confessed to being a Christian. At this, the assembled crowd seethed with uncontrolled fury and called for Polycarp to be burned alive. Quickly, they assembled a pyre, gathering wood from workshops and the public baths. Polycarp removed his clothes and tried to take off his shoes, though his advanced age made it difficult. His guards prepared to nail him to the stake, but he told them calmly, “Leave me as I am, for the one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to remain at the stake unmoved without being secured by nails.” They bound his hands behind him. Polycarp offered a psalm of praise and thanksgiving to God. His captors ignited the wood.

According to observers, as the flames grew, they did not consume Polycarp as expected. The fire formed a circle around him, but his body did not burn. Since the fire did not have its intended effect on Polycarp’s body, an executioner was ordered to stab him to death with a dagger. His blood extinguished the flames.

Observers that day were shocked by the contrast between Polycarp’s martyrdom and the deaths of non-Christians they had witnessed. They beheld the same faithful discipleship in Polycarp’s death that had characterized his life: a humble acceptance of God’s will; praise of God in the most extreme trial; and a joyful, unwavering commitment to Christ even when faced with death.

Polycarp’s was among the first recorded Christian martyrdoms. His steadfast obedience to Christ was a powerful testimony, an inspiration not only to the church he pastored so faithfully in Smyrna, but to Christians throughout the centuries.

From Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship.

Taken from three different sources: “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, et al., translated by Marcus Dods (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) is the most complete account. History of the Church in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2: Eusebius, edited by Philip Schaff, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984) includes valuable commentary by Eusebius. Finally, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, translated by Philip Schaff; edited by Alexander Roberts, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001) contains details on Polycarp’s earlier life and character.

A group of Early Christians praying in the coliseum before facing the wild beasts. Jean Leon Gerome, The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (detail). View full image
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