Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, considered to be a link between the patristic and the apostolic ages, is believed to have been a disciple of John the Apostle himself. Thus, he is inferred to be an important Christian theologian; an Apostolic father, alongside Ignatius; the bishop of Antioch and Clement and the bishop of Rome. Known to be a man of unwavering faith and loyalty, even under testing times, he is celebrated as a leader who took up the responsibility to spread the word of Jesus Christ in a true and untainted manner; earning followers, adulation, and fame in the process. Living in an era when challenges to his teachings came from both internal and external forces, he never wavered. He stood firm, both against adversities and in his endeavor to hand down precious knowledge to his disciples. However, this unflinching faith of his also became the reason for his death. When he refused to curse Christ in front of the Roman court, he was labeled a criminal and was ordered to be executed. He attained martyrdom in the process, and thus became the twelfth Christian martyr of Smyrna.
Childhood & Early Life
It is believed that Polycarp was born near today’s Izmir in Turkey around 69 AD, in a non-Christian household and was enslaved as a young boy. Rescued from the Ephesian Gate city, he was adopted by a woman named Callisto, who cared for him and introduced him to ways of Christ.
Even as a child, he showed keen interest in the study of the scriptures and was diligent in following his Christian faith. With a serious demeanor, he spent much of his time learning through reading and keen observation.
He was a direct disciple of one of the last living apostles, John, who was, as per the New Testament, amongst the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. According to Saint Jerome’s writing, it was apostle John who ordained Polycarp as the bishop of Smyrna.
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Polycarp is understood to be an important figure in the history of Christianity as he was one of the few people who had spent time gaining knowledge from an apostle. He passed that knowledge on to his disciples and through them, he helped lay the first foundations for the concept of early Christian church.
He was the leader of the Asia Minor Churches and worked tirelessly towards offering care to the people who had been detained in prisons, as well as those whose fathers or husbands were killed. He ensured to collect money, which was used to feed and clothe the poor.
Due to his learning and strong faith, he was made an elder of the church of Smyrna and eventually became the congregation’s minister and pastor.
He was responsible for combating and converting several heretical sects such as Gnostic groups who flourished during the second century. He is known to have vigorously opposed the “rise of orthodoxy” within the church, during his time. Through his persuasive methods and teachings, he was successful in bringing back into the fold a lot of people who had gone astray.
He was always keen on passing his learnings, which he had gathered from his long years spent with the apostles, and there are many accounts of him preaching the ‘Word of God’ to his disciples and followers.
In 135 AD, Polycarp wrote a letter to the Christian Church of Philippi encouraging him to keep doing good work and preserving their faith; the letter is one of his surviving works.
According to the writings of Irenaeus, Polycarp traveled to Rome to resolve a disagreement between the Roman and the Asia Minor Churches over the date of celebration of the resurrection of Christ, otherwise known as the Quartodeciman Controversy.
While Polycarp, and whole of Asia minor considered it on the 14th day of the 1st month, regardless of what day it fell on, the Roman church observed it on the first Sunday after the 14th. Even though he could not change the mind of Anicetus, the then bishop of Rome on the matter, he chose not to force his beliefs to avoid a strain in relationships.
Polycarp spent over six-decades serving as the bishop of Smyrna and concentrated only on his spiritual teachings.
The Epistle to Philippians is considered to be amongst the major works of Polycarp. It is a letter written by him to the Church urging them to hold on to their faith and persevere through tough times. In his letter, he referred to Apostle Paul’s letters that were sent to the Church and encouraged them to keep up the good works and stand firm with their love for God. The letter also warned about forces within the church that were against their faith, and in a way even spoke to these factions about keeping alive the brotherhood.
Being one of the Apostolic Fathers, his teachings hold a very important place in the early Christian Church history. His quotes and teachings are mentioned in several holy books, and according to scholar David Trobisch, it was the saint’s learnings that laid the foundational stones of the New Testament.
Polycarp attained sainthood and is recognized in both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as a saint, wherein 23rd of February is celebrated as his feast day. Writings elaborating the witnesses’ accounts of his death are considered to be one of the earliest verified martyrdoms in history.
In 155 AD, he died at the age of 86, when he was executed by the Romans. According to writings about his martyrdom, despite being aware of how he was going to be burnt alive, he nevertheless greeted the authorities with a smile and prayed for them. When he was set ablaze, the fire would not burn him. Instead, Roman authorities had to kill him with a dagger to enforce the execution. When the dagger pierced his skin, the blood overflowed out of his body and doused the flames.