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Church Fathers: St. Polycarp and St. Papias

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 24, 2015 | In Fathers of the Church

St. Polycarp, Apostolic Father

The earliest extant detailed account of the arrest and martyrdom of a single individual is that of St. Polycarp (70-156), Bishop of Smyrna.

According to St. Irenaeus, who had listened to Polycarp as a child, Polycarp himself had learned from the Apostle John and others who had seen Jesus, and was appointed to the see of Smyrna by the Apostles themselves. It was as Bishop of Smyrna that Polycarp received a letter from St. Ignatius of Antioch, who had met him there on the way to his own martyrdom. Polycarp was a noted opponent of heresies, particularly those of Valentinus and Marcion, some of whose followers he converted.

In 154 or 155 he visited Rome and met with Pope Anicetus in an attempt to resolve the dispute over the date of Easter. While no agreement could be reached, it is a sign of the esteem in which the aged Polycarp was held that Anicetus allowed the Church of Smyrna to keep its own celebration date, different from that of the Roman Church.

The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp

St. Polycarp was martyred at the age of eighty-six, on February 23rd in 155 or 156 A.D. His arrest and martyrdom are described in detail in a letter written within a year of his death, addressed from the Church in Smyrna to the Church in Philomelium in Greater Phrygia. Marcion, the individual who wrote the letter, should be distinguished from the aforementioned heretic leader Marcion of Sinope.

Martyrdom is presented as an imitation of Christ. The account of Polycarp’s steadfast faith and refusal to deny the Lord is moving:

Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear [by Caesar], and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ”; Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

So he was sentenced to be burnt to death:

But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”

This letter also contains our earliest evidence of the cult of martyrs, including the keeping and veneration of relics. The writer beautifully exhibits the praise and reverence due to martyrs, and makes a point of clearly distinguishing it from the worship due to Christ, in order to show that to honor martyrs is not to set up idols in place of Him:

But when the adversary of the race of the righteous, the envious, malicious, and wicked one, perceived the impressive nature of his martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the beginning, and how he was now crowned with the wreath of immortality, having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh. For this end he suggested it to Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to go and entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried, “lest,” said he, “forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.” This he said at the suggestion and urgent persuasion of the Jews, who also watched us, as we sought to take him out of the fire, being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow-disciples!

The feasts of the martyrs are celebrated not only to honor their sacrifice but to prepare Christians to imitate their heroism:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians

Only one letter written by St. Polycarp himself is extant; this is a response to a letter from the Philippians after the visit of St. Ignatius. Actually, the epistle as it comes down to us is probably a combination of two letters. The first (Chapter XIII) is a short note attached to a collection of the Epistles of Ignatius, which the Philippians had requested that he send. This was probably written around or immediately after the time of Ignatius’s martyrdom (110), since Polycarp here asks for news of Ignatius.

The second letter, comprising the first twelve chapters and the conclusion, is a general, edifying exhortation to Christian virtue. It also contains a denunciation of the Docetist heresy (possibly the form of Docetism espoused by Marcion).

Like the letter of Pope St. Clement to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Polycarp was still read at Mass in some places as late as the fourth century. Its greatest significance, however, is that it guarantees the authenticity of the Epistles of Ignatius.

St. Papias

A contemporary of St. Polycarp, St. Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. Irenaeus tells us he was a friend of Polycarp and a hearer of St. John. Papias’s reputation as an Apostolic Father rests on this latter claim of Irenaeus; however, Papias himself writes that he heard not directly from John but secondhand from those who had heard the Apostles. For this reason, Jurgens suggests that Papias ought not be called an Apostolic Father [Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, 1970, p. 38].

Eusebius remarks that, “as is clear from his books, [Papias] was a man of very little intelligence.” He made this judgment for two reasons: first, Papias was a chiliast or millenialist, believing that “there will be a thousand years after the resurrection of the dead when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in a material form in this earth.” Eusebius blames Papias for the subsequent adoption of chiliasm among many other Christian writers, among them Irenaeus. Secondly, Papias seems to have lacked discrimination in passing along certain “fabulous accounts” as part of the oral tradition.

It is in Eusebius that we find the surviving fragments of Papias’s sole work, a five-book Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord (“oracles” = sayings), written around 130 AD. It is a commentary on the Scriptures combined with oral tradition. The fragments contain nothing of doctrinal importance, but have some historical value, particularly regarding the canonicity of St. Mark’s Gospel:

And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.

It also gives evidence that St. Matthew’s Gospel had already been translated by the early second century: “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”

Finally, it is in Papias that one of the more grisly legends about the death of Judas has its origins:

Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.

Previous in series: St. Ignatius of Antioch
Next in series: The Shepherd of Hermas

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Dec. 26, 2017 12:49 PM ET USA

    On my first assignment as a supervisor, I learned that one way to kill morale fast is to fail to enforce the rules.

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Dec. 23, 2017 12:45 PM ET USA

    This lack of discipline is apparent, and has been for awhile! It is harmful to the faithful as they strive to follow what Christ has taught while the leadership seems to, in some cases, flout that teaching. Even those who are not Catholic see! This lack of discipline is doing much more harm than the perceived good that those who are not disciplining feel they are doing.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Dec. 22, 2017 7:54 PM ET USA

    Somewhere I read, a while back, that Pope St. John Paul II hesitated to discipline because of his experiences under totalitarian regimes. It made sense to me. Modern people tend to automatically react against even legitimate expressions of authority. Which ironically is leading to arbitrary, emotion-based totalitarianism. Go figure. (Merry Christmas to you & your family, Dr. Mirus.)

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Dec. 21, 2017 7:50 AM ET USA

    I think one answer to your questions is in your last quotation of de Lubac: “I doubt that this letter will have any influence in convincing my correspondent.” As a teacher, I sense that students are closed off to true learning, which is akin to conversion. Everything is presented as ideology. Every idea is either a reinforcement of freedom (license) or a step backward from it. Vigor and clarity create strong reactions. Few hearts are open, so teachers (and churchmen) dance around hard issues.