One of the most famous Christians in history—and, truly, one of my historical heroes—was an early Christian named Polycarp. Polycarp ministered to the church of ancient Smyrna (modern Izmir, on the western coast of modern Turkey—a city I resided in for two years). Polycarp lived into the middle of the 2nd century A.D., and because of his great age, was a living link to the age of the apostles.
A few years ago, I translated from Greek the majority of a second-century document known as The Martyrdom of Polycarp for an introduction to the Apostolic Fathers I was writing. Today I want to share this account of Polycarp’s death with you. I will not include the first four chapters of the document, which provides some background events leading up to the local police making the decision to arrest Polycarp. Nor will I include the final chapters of the document. I will only include the section of this eyewitness account that details the final days and martyrdom of this great Christian. Here is my English translation of the core of one of the most famous texts in Christian history.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
(excluding chapters 1-4 and 17-22)
An Eyewitness Account
Now the most admirable Polycarp was not dismayed when he first heard about it [that is, that people were calling for his arrest], but wanted to stay in the city. But the others convinced him to leave. So, he went out to a little country house not far from the city and stayed there with a few friends. Night and day, he did nothing but pray for everyone, and for the churches around the world, as was his usual practice.
While praying he had a vision three days before his arrest and saw his pillow blazing with fire. He turned and said to those with him, “It is necessary for me to be burned alive.”
Since they kept searching for him, he moved to another country house. But almost at once his pursuers arrived. When they didn’t find him, they seized two young slaves, one of whom confessed under torture. For it really was impossible for him to stay hidden, since those who betrayed him were from his own household. And the chief constable, who just happened to have the same name as Herod, was determined to bring him into the stadium—that Polycarp might fulfill his appointed destiny by becoming a partner with Christ, while those who betrayed him receive the punishment of Judas himself.
They took the young slave with them. It was Friday around the time of the evening meal. The pursuers headed out, mounted on horses and brandishing their regular weapons as though they were pursuing an armed rebel. Closing in on him late that evening, they found him in bed in a little upstairs room. He still could have escaped from there to another place, but he was unwilling. “May God’s will be done,” he said.
When he heard that they had arrived, he went downstairs and talked to them. Those who were present were amazed at his age and composure, and wondered at the insistence that such an old man be arrested. Right away he ordered food and drink be set before them at that hour—as much as they wanted—but he requested that they give him an hour to pray undisturbed. When they consented, he stood and prayed. He was so full of the grace of God that for two hours he was unable to stop speaking, to the amazement of those who heard. Many regretted that they had come after such a godly old man.
He finally finished his prayer, a prayer in which he remembered everyone he had ever met, whether small or great, well–known or unknown, as well as all those of the true church throughout the world. The time to depart had come, so they seated him on a donkey and brought him into the city, on the day of the great Sabbath. The chief constable, Herod, along with his father, Nicetes, came out to meet him. After transferring him to their carriage, they sat beside him and tried to persuade him, saying, “Why, what’s so bad about saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ offering the incense, doing whatever else is required, and so saving yourself?”
Now at first he didn’t answer them. But when they persisted, he said, “I am not about to do what you want me to do.” So since they failed to persuade him, they started to threaten him. They hurried him out of the carriage so fast that he bruised his shin. But without even turning around—as if nothing had happened—he went along with them willingly and resolutely as they led him to the stadium. When he came into the stadium, the uproar was so intense that no one could hear anything.
But as Polycarp entered the stadium, a voice from heaven came to him, “Be strong, Polycarp—be a man!” No one saw the speaker, but our people who were there heard the voice.
When he was finally brought forward, there was a huge uproar when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. After he was brought forward, the proconsul asked whether he was Polycarp. When he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and all the other things they usually say: “Swear by the genius of Caesar! Turn away! Say ‘Away with the atheists!’”
Polycarp looked solemnly at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, then groaned as he looked toward heaven and said, “Away with the atheists!”
But the proconsul was insistent, and said, “Swear the oath and I will let you go! Revile Christ!”
Polycarp replied, “Eighty–six years I have served him, and he has never wronged me. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
But the proconsul continued to insist, saying, “Swear by the genius of Caesar!” So Polycarp replied, “If you vainly expect that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you do not know who I am, then listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the teaching of Christianity, appoint a day, and give me a proper hearing.”
The proconsul replied: “Persuade the people.”
But Polycarp said, “You I could count worthy of a response, for we have been taught to appropriately respect rulers and authorities appointed by God as long as it does us no harm. As to bringing a defense to them, I do not consider them worthy.”
The proconsul said, “I have wild beasts. I will throw you to them unless you turn away!”
He said, “Call them. Repentance from better to worse is impossible for us; but it is good to turn away from those things that are evil and toward those that are righteous.”
Again he said to him, “I will have you consumed by fire since you don’t care about wild beasts. Unless you turn!”
Polycarp replied, “You threaten with fire that burns for an hour then soon is extinguished, for you do not know about the coming judgment and the eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. So why do you delay? Bring on what you want.”
As he spoke these and many other words, he was filled with courage and joy, and his face was filled with grace. So not only did he not collapse in terror at the things said to him, but on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his own herald into the middle of the stadium to announce three times: “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”
When this was announced by the herald, the entire crowd—both Gentiles and Jews who lived in Smyrna—cried out with uncontrollable anger and loud shouting, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who tells many not to sacrifice or worship!” They said such things and shouted demands that Philip the Asiarch let loose a lion on Polycarp. But he said that it was not lawful for him to do so because the animal sports were already finished. Then it occurred to them to shout at the same time for Polycarp to be burned alive. For it was necessary that the vision he had received about his pillow be fulfilled—when he was praying and saw it burning and then turned and spoke prophetically to the believers with him, “It is necessary that I be burned alive.”
Then everything happened so quickly, quicker than can be told—the crowds hastily gathering wood and kindling from the workshops and baths—the Jews, as usual, being especially eager to assist. When the pyre was ready, he removed all his clothes and took off his belt. He also tried to take off his own shoes, even though he was not used to doing so since the believers always vied with each other to be the first to touch his skin. For he had always been honored—even before his martyrdom—for his holy life. Right away, the materials for the fire were placed around him. They were about to nail him, but he said, “Leave me like this, for the one who gives strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to remain unmoved on the pyre without the security you get from nails.”
So they did not nail him, but tied him instead. After his hands were tied behind him, he looked like a splendid ram from a great flock, a burnt offering ready and acceptable to God. He gazed toward heaven and spoke:
“Lord God Almighty,
Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ,
through whom we have received knowledge of you,
God of angels and powers and every created thing,
and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your presence.
I bless you because you have counted me worthy of this day and hour,
to take a place among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ,
to the resurrection of eternal life,
both of soul and body,
in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.
May I be received among them in your presence today
as a rich and acceptable sacrifice,
just as you previously prepared and now have fulfilled,
oh undeceiving and true God.
I praise you for this and for everything.
I bless you, I glorify you,
through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son,
through whom to you with him and the Holy Spirit
be glory both now and in the ages to come. Amen.“
When he had offered up the “Amen” and finished the prayer, the men attending to the fire lit it. As the great flame blazed we saw a miracle (that is, we to whom it was given to see). We have been preserved so that we can relate to others what happened. For the fire took the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship filled by the wind, encircling the body of the martyr. He was there in the center of it, not like burning flesh, but like baking bread or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we perceived such a sweet aroma like the smell of incense or some other precious spice.
Eventually, when those lawless men realized that his body could not be consumed by fire, they ordered the executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. When he did this, a dove along with a large quantity of blood came out, so that the fire was extinguished. The entire crowd was astonished that there would be such a difference between unbelievers and the elect. Certainly, he was one of the elect, the marvelous Polycarp, who during the time he was among us proved to be an apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the true church in Smyrna. For every word that came out of his mouth was fulfilled and will be fulfilled.
For more on Polycarp and the Apostolic Fathers, see my easy-to-read introduction: The Apostolic Fathers: A Narrative Introduction
One thought on “Polycarp’s Final Days and Martyrdom”
Excellent. Thank you so much for this! So much to learn and read in such a short life. I have seen a lot of horrible things and know man’s cruelty well. I have always prayed for strength that would withstand torture for Christ. Just knowing Richard Wurmbrand’s fourteen years is enough to wonder if I could withstand that? I think it would have to be the Spirit alone. I can’t say what I would do, but if it were my own strength, I imagine I would fail like the servant here. I wouldn’t want to fail, but the pain of ongoing torture is nothing to underestimate.
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