Polycarp

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Saint Polycarp

S. Polycarpus, engraving by Michael Burghers, ca 1685
Martyr, Church Father and Bishop of Smyrna
BornAD 69
DiedAD 155
Smyrna
Honored inRoman Catholic Church,
Eastern Catholic Churches,
Eastern Orthodox Church,
Oriental Orthodox Church,
Anglican Communion,
Lutheran Church
FeastFebruary 23 (formerly January 26)
Attributeswearing the pallium, holding a book representing his Letter to the Philippians
Patronageagainst earache, dysentery
Major work(s)Polycarp's letter to the Philippians
 
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Saint Polycarp

S. Polycarpus, engraving by Michael Burghers, ca 1685
Martyr, Church Father and Bishop of Smyrna
BornAD 69
DiedAD 155
Smyrna
Honored inRoman Catholic Church,
Eastern Catholic Churches,
Eastern Orthodox Church,
Oriental Orthodox Church,
Anglican Communion,
Lutheran Church
FeastFebruary 23 (formerly January 26)
Attributeswearing the pallium, holding a book representing his Letter to the Philippians
Patronageagainst earache, dysentery
Major work(s)Polycarp's letter to the Philippians

Polycarp (69 – 155) (Ancient Greek: Πολύκαρπος) was a 2nd century Christian bishop of Smyrna.[1] According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp he died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to touch him.[2] Polycarp is regarded as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.

It is recorded by Irenaeus, who heard him speak in his youth, and by Tertullian,[3] that he had been a disciple of John the Apostle.[4]

The early tradition that expanded upon the Martyrdom to link Polycarp in competition and contrast with John the Apostle who, though many people had tried to kill him, was not martyred but died of old age after being exiled to the island of Patmos, is embodied in the Coptic language fragmentary papyri (the "Harris fragments") dating to the 3rd to 6th centuries.[5] Frederick Weidmann, their editor, interprets the "Harris fragments" as Smyrnan hagiography addressing Smyrna-Ephesus church rivalries, which "develops the association of Polycarp and John to a degree unwitnessed, so far as we know, either before or since."[6] The fragments echo the Martyrology, and diverge from it.

With Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers. The sole surviving work attributed to his authorship is his Letter to the Philippians; it is first recorded by Irenaeus of Lyons.

Contents

Surviving writings and early accounts

The sole surviving work attributed to him is Polycarp's letter to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the Greek Scriptures, preserved/produced in Irenaeus' account of Polycarp's life. It, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that takes the form of a circular letter from the church of Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, form part of the collection of writings Roman Catholics term "The Apostolic Fathers" to emphasize their particular closeness to the apostles in Church traditions. Outside of the Book of Acts which contains the death of Saint Stephen, the Martyrdom is considered one of the earliest genuine[1] accounts of a Christian martyrdom, and is one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.

Life

There are two chief sources of information concerning the life of Polycarp: the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp and the passages in Irenaeus' Adversus Haereses. Other sources are the epistles of Ignatius, which include one to Polycarp and another to the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp's own letter to the Philippians. Other sources, such as the Life of Polycarp or excerpts from Tertullian and Eusebius of Caesarea are considered largely unhistorical or based on previous material. In 1999, some third to 6th century Coptic fragments about Polycarp were also published.[7]

Papias

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a companion of Papias,[8] another "hearer of John" as Irenaeus interprets Papias' testimony, and a correspondent of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius addressed a letter to him, and mentions him in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Magnesians.

Irenaeus regarded the memory of Polycarp as a link to the apostolic past. He relates how and when he became a Christian, and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard Polycarp personally in lower Asia. In particular, he heard the account of Polycarp's discussion with "John the Presbyter" and with others who had seen Jesus. Irenaeus also reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a bishop, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the very great age of Polycarp.

Visit to Anicetus

According to Irenaeus, during the time his fellow Syrian, Anicetus, was Bishop of Rome, in the 150s or 160, Polycarp visited Rome to discuss the differences that existed between Asia and Rome "with regard to certain things" and especially about the time of the Easter festivals. Irenaeus said that on certain things the two bishops speedily came to an understanding, while as to the time of Easter, each adhered to his own custom, without breaking off communion with the other. Anicetus— the Roman sources offering it as a mark of special honor— allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own church.[9] They might have found their customs for observing the Christian Passover differed, Polycarp following the eastern practice of celebrating Passover on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week it fell.

Date of martyrdom

Polycarp miraculously extinguishing the fire burning the city of Smyrna

In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, "Eighty and six years I have served him," which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old[10] or that he may have lived eighty-six years after his conversion.[2] Polycarp goes on to say, "How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt." Polycarp was burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor.[11] The date of Polycarp's death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, c. 166 – 167. However, a post-Eusebian addition to the Martyrdom of Polycarp dates his death to Saturday, February 23, in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus — which works out to be 155 or 156. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist. However, the addition to the Martyrdom cannot be considered reliable on only its own merits[citation needed]. Lightfoot would argue for the earlier date of Polycarp's death, to which Killen would strongly disagree.

Great Sabbath

Because the Smyrnaean letter known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp states that Polycarp was taken on the day of the Sabbath and killed on the Great Sabbath, some believe that this is evidence that the Smyrnaeans under Polycarp observed the seventh day Sabbath.

William Cave wrote, "...the Sabbath or Saturday (for so the word sabbatum is constantly used in the writings of the fathers, when speaking of it as it relates to Christians) was held by them in great veneration, and especially in the Eastern parts honoured with all the public solemnities of religion."[12]

Some feel that the expression, the Great Sabbath refers to the Christian Passover or another annual holy day. If so, then the martyrdom would have had to occur between one and two months later as Nisan 14 (the date that Polycarp observed Passover) cannot come before the end of March in any year. Other Great Sabbaths (if this is referring to what are commonly considered to be Jewish holy days, though observed by many early professors of Christ) come in the Spring, late summer, or Fall. None occur in the winter.

The Great Sabbath may be alluded to in John 7:37. This is called the Last Great Day and is a stand-alone annual holy day immediately following the Feast of Tabernacles. It is, however, disputable whether such biblical references mean a common practice or just onetime events.

Importance

Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the early Christian Church.[7] He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. It is probable that he knew John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus.[13] He was an elder of an important congregation which was a large contributor to the founding of the Christian Church. He is from an era whose orthodoxy is widely accepted by Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Seventh Day Church of God groups, Protestants and Catholics alike. According to David Trobisch, Polycarp may have been the one who compiled, edited, and published the New Testament.[14] All of this makes his writings of great interest.

Irenaeus, who had heard him preach in his youth, said of him:[15] "a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics". Polycarp lived in an age after the deaths of the apostles, when a variety of interpretations of the sayings of Jesus were being preached. His role was to authenticate orthodox teachings through his reputed connection with the apostle John: "a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of old apostolic doctrine," Wace commented,[2] "his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers. Irenaeus states (iii. 3) that on Polycarp's visit to Rome, his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus. Surviving accounts of the bravery of this very old man in the face of death by burning at the stake added credence to his words.

See also

References

  1. ^ a b Saint Polycarp at Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ a b c Henry Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies, s.v. "Polycarpus, bishop of Smyrna".
  3. ^ Tertullian, De praescriptione hereticorum 32.2
  4. ^ Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3, Polycarp does not quote from the Gospel of John in his surviving letter, which may be an indication that whichever John he knew was not the author of that gospel, or that the gospel was not finished during Polycarp's discipleship with John. Weidmann suggests (Weidmann 1999:132) that the "Harris fragments" may reflect early traditions: "the raw material for a narrative about John and Polycarp may have been in place before Irenaeus; the codification of the significance of a direct line of succession from the apostle John through Polycarp may arguably be linked directly to Irenaeus".
  5. ^ Dating according to Frederick W. Weidmann, ed. and tr. Polycarp and John: The Harris Fragments and Their Challenge to the Literary Tradition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).
  6. ^ Weidmann 1999:133.
  7. ^ a b Hartog, Paul (2002). Polycarp and the New Testament. p. 17. ISBN 978-3-16-147419-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=gTMTO_9li4cC.
  8. ^ Irenaeus, V.xxxiii.
  9. ^  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Polycarp". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. http://www.1911encyclopedia.com/Polycarp.
  10. ^ Staniforth, Maxwell, trans. Early Christian Writings London: Penguin Books (1987): 115.
  11. ^ Polycarp.net
  12. ^ Cave, Primitive Christianity: or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the First Ages of the Gospel. 1840, revised edition by H. Cary. Oxford, London, pp. 84-85).
  13. ^ Jerome, Illustrious Men 17
  14. ^ David Trobisch, "Who Published the New Testament?", Free Inquiry, 28:1 (2007/2008) pp.30-33. See http://www.trobisch.com/david/CV/Publications/20071226%20FreeInquiry%20Who%20Published%20Christian%20Bible%20BW.pdf
  15. ^ Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3.4

External links