February 23 – St. Polycarp’s martyrdom

February 19, 2015

St. Polycarp’s martyrdom

St. PolycarpPolycarp’s martyrdom is described in a letter from the Church of Smyrna, to the Church of Philomelium “and to all the brotherhoods of the holy and universal Church”, etc. The letter begins with an account of the persecution and the heroism of the martyrs. Conspicuous among them was one Germanicus, who encouraged the rest, and when exposed to the wild beasts, incited them to slay him. His death stirred the fury of the multitude, and the cry was raised “Away with the atheists; let search be made for Polycarp”. But there was one Quintus, who of his own accord had given himself up to the persecutors. When he saw the wild beasts he lost heart and apostatized. “Wherefore”, comment the writers of the epistle, “we praise not those who deliver themselves up, since the Gospel does not so teach us”. Polycarp was persuaded by his friends to leave the city and conceal himself in a farm-house. Here he spent his time in prayer, “and while praying he falleth into a trance three days before his apprehension; and he saw his pillow burning with fire. And he turned and said unto those that were with him, ‘it must needs be that I shall be burned alive’ “. When his pursuers were on his track he went to another farm-house. Finding him gone they put two slave boys to the torture, and one of them betrayed his place of concealment. Herod, head of the police, sent a body of men to arrest him on Friday evening. Escape was still possible, but the old man refused to flee, saying, “the will of God be done”. He came down to meet his pursuers, conversed affably with them, and ordered food to be set before them. While they were eating he prayed, “remembering all, high and low, who at any time had come in his way, and the Catholic Church throughout the world”. Then he was led away.

Herod and Herod’s father, Nicetas, met him and took him into their carriage, where they tried to prevail upon him to save his life. Finding they could not persuade him, they pushed him out of the carriage with such haste that he bruised his shin. He followed on foot till they came to the Stadium, where a great crowd had assembled, having heard the news of his apprehension. “As Polycarp entered into the Stadium a voice came to him from heaven: ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man’. And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice.” It was to the proconsul, when he urged him to curse Christ, that Polycarp made his celebrated reply: “Fourscore and six years have I served Him, and he has done me no harm. How then can I curse my King that saved me.” When the proconsul had done with the prisoner it was too late to throw him to the beasts, for the sports were closed. It was decided, therefore, to burn him alive. The crowd took it upon itself to collect fuel, “the Jews more especially assisting in this with zeal, as is their wont” (cf. the Martyrdom of Pionius). The fire, “like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round the body” of the martyr, leaving it unscathed. The executioner was ordered to stab him, thereupon, “there came forth a quantity of blood so that it extinguished the fire”. (The story of the dove issuing from the body probably arose out of a textual corruption. See Lightfoot, Funk, Zahn. It may also have been an interpolation by the pseudo-Pionius.)

Saint PolycarpThe officials, urged thereto by the Jews, burned the body lest the Christians “should abandon the worship of the Crucified One, and begin to worship this man”. The bones of the martyr were collected by the Christians, and interred in a suitable place. “Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the month of Kanthicus, on the seventh day before the Kalends of March, on a great Sabbath at the eighth hour. He was apprehended by Herodes … in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus etc.” This subscription gives the following facts: the martyrdom took place on a Saturday which fell on 23 February. Now there are two possible years for this, 155 and 166. The choice depends upon which of the two Quadratus was proconsul of Asia. By means of the chronological data supplied by the rhetorician Aelius Aristides in certain autobiographical details which he furnishes, Waddington who is followed by Lightfoot (“St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp”, I, 646 sq.), arrived at the conclusion that Quadratus was proconsul in 154-55 (the proconsul’s year of office began in May). Schmid, a full account of whose system will be found in Harnack’s “Chronologie”, arguing from the same data, came to the conclusion that Quadratus’ proconsulship fell in 165-66.

For some time it seemed as if Schmid’s system was likely to prevail, but it has failed on two points:

  • Aristides tells us that he was born when Jupiter was in Leo. This happened both in 117 and 129. Schmid’s system requires the later of these two dates, but the date has been found to be impossible. Aristides was fifty-three years and six months old when a certain Macrinus was governor of Asia. “Now Egger (in the Austrian ‘Jahreshefte’, Nov., 1906) has published an inscription recording the career of Macrinus, which was erected to him while he was governing Asia, and he pointed out that as the birth of Aristides was either in 117 or 129, the government of Macrinus must have been either in 170-171, or 182-183, and he has shown that the later date is impossible”. (Ramsay in “The Expository Times”, Jan., 1907.)
  • Aristides mentions a Julianus who was proconsul of Asia nine years before Quadratus. Now there was a Claudius Julianus, who is proved by epigraphic and numismatic evidence to have been proconsul of Asia in 145. Schmid produced a Salvius Julianus who was consul in 148 and might, therefore, have been the Proconsul of Asia named by Aristides. But an inscription discovered in Africa giving the whole career of Salvius Julianus disposes of Schmid’s hypothesis. The result of the new evidence is that Salvius Julianus never governed Asia, for he was proconsul of Africa, and it was not permitted that the same person should hold both of these high offices. The rule is well known; and the objection is final and insurmountable (Ramsay, “Expos. Times”, Feb., 1904. Ramsay refers to an article by Mommsen, “Savigny Zeitschrift fur Rechtgeschichte”, xxiii, 54). Schmid’s system, therefore, disappears, and Waddington’s, in spite of some very real difficulties (Quadratus’ proconsulship shows a tendency to slip a year out of place), is in possession. The possibitity of course remains that the subscription was tampered with by a later hand. But 155 must be approximately correct if St. Polycarp was appointed bishop by St. John.
Martyrdom scenes with St Polycarp being burned and stabbed in foreground, St Justin being beheaded in right background, St Corona tied to two tree in central background, St Victor of Siena being burned and stabbed with an axe in left background; letters A-D within composition indicating different scenes.

Martyrdom scenes with St Polycarp being burned and stabbed in foreground, St Justin being beheaded in right background, St Corona tied to two tree in central background, St Victor of Siena being burned and stabbed with an axe in left background; letters A-D within composition indicating different scenes.

There is a life of St. Polycarp by pseudo-Pionius, compiled probably in the middle of the fourth century. It is “altogether valueless as a contribution to our knowledge of Polycarp. It does not, so far as we know, rest on any tradition, early or late, and may probably be regarded as a fiction of the author’s own brain” (Lightfoot, op.cit., iii, 431). The postscript to the letter to the Smyrneans: “This account Gaius copied from the papers of Irenaeus … and I, Socrates, wrote it down in Corinth … and I, Pionius again wrote it down”, etc. probably came from the pseudo-Pionius. The very copious extracts from the Letter of the Smyrneans given by Eusebius are a guarantee of the fidelity of the text in the manuscripts that have come down.

F.J.BACCHUS (Catholic Encyclopedia)

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