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St. Polycarp

 

St. Polycarp

For other uses, see Polycarp (disambiguation).
Saint Polycarp
S. Polycarpus, engraving by Michael Burghers, ca 1685
Martyr, Church Father and Bishop of Smyrna
Born AD 69
Died AD 155
Smyrna
Honored in Roman Catholic Church,
Eastern Catholic Churches,
Eastern Orthodox Church,
Oriental Orthodox Church,
Anglican Communion,
Lutheran Church
Feast February 23 (formerly January 26)
Attributes wearing the pallium, holding a book representing his Letter to the Philippians
Patronage against earache, dysentery
Major work(s) Polycarp's letter to the Philippians

Polycarp (Greek: Πολύκαρπος Polýkarpos; AD 69–155) 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][5] Saint Jerome wrote that Polycarp was a disciple of John and that John had ordained him bishop of Smyrna.

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.[6] 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".[7] 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.

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 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 Pionius' 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.[8]

Papias

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a companion of Papias,[9] 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 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 the Pope, or 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. Pope Anicetus—the Roman sources offering it as a mark of special honor—allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own church.[10] They might have found their customs for observing the Christian Passover differed, Polycarp following the eastern practice of celebrating the feast on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week it fell.

Date of martyrdom

In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, "Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong", which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old[11] 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.[12] 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. Lightfoot would argue for the earlier date of Polycarp's death, with 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. This is plain, not only from some passages in Ignatius and Clemens's Constitutions, but from writers of more unquestionable credit and authority. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, tells us that they assembled on Saturdays... to worship Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath."[13]

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.[8] He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. Saint Jerome wrote that Polycarp was a "disciple of the apostle John and by him ordained bishop of Smyrna".[14] 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, Church of God groups, Sabbatarian groups, mainstream Protestants and Catholics alike. According to David Trobisch, Polycarp may have been the one who compiled, edited, and published the New Testament.[15] All of this makes his writings of great interest.

Irenaeus, who had heard him preach in his youth, said of him:[16] "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.

See also

References

External links

  • from the Ante-Nicene Fathers
  • Early Christian Writings Polycarp, text and introductions
  • Polycarp: The Apostolic Legacy
  • Paul N. Tobin, "The Apostolic Succession: Polycarp and Clement" A skeptical assessment of inconsistencies in the tradition
  • PD-icon.svg 
  • Saint Polycarp of Smyrna at Patron Saints Index
  • The Golden Legend: Polycarp of Smyrna

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