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Christians owe a great debt to the fourth-century church historian Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea, for bequeathing to us his Ecclesiastical History of the first three centuries of Christianity. Though some modern academics cast doubt on Eusebius’ trustworthiness because of his uncritical support of Constantine and the hard line he takes against Christian heresy, Eusebius’ reliability is supported by the fact that much of his work is a pastiche of primary documents to which he appends his own commentary. It is further supported by how frequently he corroborates his Christian sources by quoting both Jewish and pagan sources.
Of Bishops and Martyrs
In addition to chronicling a host of early church heresies and how they were defeated by the logical reasoning and spiritual discernment of a brave cohort of bishops and apologists, Eusebius organizes his history around two major themes: apostolic succession and martyrdom. Eusebius painstakingly constructs lists of the bishops of such key cities as Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Smyrna, Ephesus, and Alexandria. Since it was part of the charge of bishops to keep the doctrine of the church pure, only a secure apostolic succession could guarantee that purity.
As for the theme of martyrdom, Eusebius offers up a roll call of heroes who are quite distinct from those recorded in the Greco-Roman histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch. In the place of great generals, soldiers, and statesman, Eusebius celebrates a humble group of men and women who never fought back or revolted against Rome, who practiced passive resistance against their often-vicious enemies, and who lived out with literal abandon the Sermon on the Mount’s call to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.
Chief among the martyr accounts that Eusebius preserves is that of Polycarp, a loyal and worthy disciple of the Lord who had the triple distinction of being the Bishop of Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey), a friend and correspondent of another bishop-martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and a disciple of none other than the apostle John. Although Eusebius dates the martyrdom of Polycarp to around 166, during the fourth persecution of Marcus Aurelius, most modern scholars put it about a decade earlier.
Eusebius was certainly not alone in considering Polycarp to be the perfect martyr. Indeed, the martyrdom account of the Bishop of Smyrna became something of a template for all future martyrdoms. The account that has come down to us was written by an eyewitness, and I will pass on that account as if I were that eyewitness, cleaving closely to the details of the text but retelling it in my own words. We who are blessed to live in a time and country where Christians are not martyred for their faith would do well to meditate on the courage, faithfulness, and endurance of Polycarp.
Polycarp’s Fiery Dream
I would share with you now, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the sad but triumphant tale of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Well-named was our beloved Bishop of Smyrna; “much fruit” is what his name means in Greek, and he has done just that, both in his ministry to the church and in the glorious manner of his death.
There are some who claim that Polycarp harbored a death wish, but nothing could be further from the truth. When he was advised to flee the city to avoid arrest, trial, and execution, he humbly complied. But escape was not to be the lot assigned to him by God. Polycarp learned this himself from a prophetic dream that was vouchsafed to him by heaven. In his dream, he lay in bed upon a flaming pillow. When he awoke, he could still see vividly in his mind’s eye the image of that pillow reduced to ashes; it was then that he announced to us that he would die, not by wild beasts, but by fire.
Brave but Humble
When it became clear to Polycarp that he could not escape from his appointed hour, he waited patiently at home for the Roman guards to come and convey him to the arena. They were not evil men, these soldiers of Rome. In fact, when Polycarp requested of them an hour to pray, they graciously agreed. Instead, the venerable Polycarp prayed without ceasing for two hours. In his prayers, he held up all the believers that he knew and loved and all the churches to which he had ministered. The guards, one and all, were amazed by his prayers, struck with awe at the piety and fervor of this aged man.
Never once did Polycarp speak harshly to the guards or accuse them of following wrongful orders. To the contrary, he played the part of a perfect host, seeing to their needs and quenching their hunger and thirst with food and wine. Polycarp knew well that his enemy was neither the guards nor the officials who had sent them, but Satan, the prince of this world and the true foe of God and man.
Like our blessed Savior, Father Polycarp was conveyed to his Passion on a donkey. Atop that lowly beast, Polycarp rode to the arena where he would meet both his death and his new birth. As he entered the stadium and scanned the faces of the austere officials and the bloodthirsty crowd, he looked to heaven and heard the voice of God speak to him like thunder: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.”
Away with the Atheists!
When the Roman governor was informed of the identity of Polycarp, he pleaded with him to recant his faith and swear an oath by the goddess of fortune. Polycarp remained silent, and the governor pleaded with him a second time to renounce falsehood and say, “Away with the atheists.” At this, the brow of Polycarp darkened, and he swept his hand along the crowd of sneering pagans. “Away with the atheists,” he said calmly, defying all the thrones and principalities that stand in opposition to the One True God, His Only-Begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit. It was a glorious moment that brought tears to my eyes, though it provoked angry rumblings from the crowd.
Still, though a spirit of hatred and envy rose up from the spectators in the arena, the governor himself remained calm and continued to press Polycarp to recant. He was not an evil man, this governor; he was only doing his duty as he saw fit. Polycarp sensed this himself, and he spoke no harsh words to the governor. Rather, in response to the governor’s repeated pleas that he renounce Christ, Polycarp said gently: For eighty-six years I have served my Lord, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
Pearls Before Swine
One last time, the governor implored Polycarp to take pity upon himself and his many years and swear by all the gods that he was not a follower of Christ. It was then that Polycarp straightened his back, lifted his chin, and spoke with a voice as clear as a bell: “I declare to you that I am a Christian, and I say to you further that if you would learn more of Christ, you have but to name the day, and I will speak with you of His birth, His ministry, His death, and His resurrection.”
“Come,” said the governor, “turn now and tell all these things to the crowd.”
“I cannot do that, my lord, for my Master has instructed me not to cast pearls before swine. With you, a man of honor and gravity, I would happily discuss the sacred matters of God and His means of salvation, but I would bring disrepute upon such matters if I were to speak them in this place and before such stiff-necked people. Know this, lord governor, that my Lord has taught me and all believers to respect those who have been placed in authority over us. You have my respect, and I would gladly speak with you in private. But do not compel me to treat with contempt the things of God.”
Another Pontius Pilate
Brothers, it has been taught to us in the holy gospels that Pontius Pilate declared our Lord to be innocent of all crime, but that the crowd pressed him to crucify Jesus. So here, the governor tried all he could to find a way to release Polycarp. Nevertheless, when Polycarp refused to recant, the governor, like Pilate before him, gave way to the will of the crowd and to his own craven fears. Both governors knew that the “criminal” brought before them was innocent; yet, both governors chose the path of evil and hardened their hearts against the truth.
“Recant, Polycarp,” the governor cried out in a loud voice so that all in the crowd could hear, “or you will be thrown to the lions.”
“Bring them on, if you must,” answered Polycarp with a hint of sadness in his voice, “but it is not possible that I should exchange a good way of thinking for a bad. Rather, it is altogether right and proper that I should abandon the way of evil for the way of righteousness.”
Of Temporal and Eternal Fires
“Take care, Polycarp, or you shall be cast into the fire.”
“The fire that you threaten me with, lord governor, is short-lived and can do me no eternal harm. After a time, the fire you set will go out and be as if it never was. But I would have you know that there is another kind of fire, the fire of judgment; that fire, my lord, burns eternally and never goes out. That is the fire that awaits the souls of the ungodly. Let all of you take care. But come, we are wasting time. If there is something that you would do to me, let it be done now. I am ready.”
Then, brothers, our beloved Polycarp was taken by the arm and led to his death. And yet, even as he drew near the center of the arena, his face beamed with joy, courage, and grace. When the crowd saw his fearless smile and perceived with what equanimity he faced his death, they became vicious and insisted that he be torn to pieces by the lions.
But that was not to be. God had already told Polycarp, by means of his dream of the flaming pillow, that his death would come to him by fire and that is what happened. Since the wild beast part of the program had already been concluded, the governor had no choice but to order Polycarp’s death by burning.
A Whole Burnt Offering for God
The guards bound Polycarp to the stake and prepared to nail him to it as well. When Polycarp asked them why they should nail a man who was already bound, they replied that it was to prevent him from flinching when the fire began to consume his flesh. “There is no need to nail me to the stake,” said Polycarp with assurance. “The same God who gives me the strength to bear up under the fire will give me the strength not to flinch at the touch of the flames.”
As I gazed upon this spectacle, my dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, it seemed to me as if a noble and flawless ram had been chosen out of a large and mighty flock to be sacrificed to the Lord as a whole burn offering.
Then, bound but not nailed to that grim wooden stake, the thrice-worthy Polycarp lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed. “O mighty and holy God, Father of our Savior Jesus and Lord over the angels, you who created all things out of nothing and called them good, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to die this day for the sake of your Son and your gospel. Now let me share in the cup of your Messiah and so share as well in His glorious resurrection from the dead. May I be to you a sacrifice rich and acceptable and so rise in body and soul, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to dwell in paradise along with the other holy martyrs whom you counted worthy to share in the Passion of the Christ. All praise be to you, God on High, together with your Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
Relics More Precious Than Gold
When Polycarp finished his prayer, the fire blazed and formed a wall around him. As I gazed on with wonder and awe, it seemed to me as if our beloved bishop were standing in a holy chamber or within the sail of a ship that has been furled by the wind. Or again, as I gazed more intently, he appeared to me as a loaf of bread baking in the oven or an ingot of gold being refined in a blazing furnace.
When the guards realized that the fire could neither burn nor touch the sacred flesh of Polycarp, one of them shoved a spear through the fire and pierced the body of Polycarp. Immediately, what looked like a dove flew upward followed by a rush of blood that was so great it put out the flames.
At this, we made to rush forward and save the body of Polycarp that we might give it a Christian burial; but, so great was the jealousy and envy of the crowd, and of the devil that possessed them, that they would not let us take the body until it had been burned completely. Still, we were able to retrieve his bones, which were to us more precious than jewels and finer than pure gold, and lay them to rest in a tomb. Each year, on the anniversary of his death — that is to say, of his new birth into glory — we gather by his tomb and celebrate his martyrdom.
Learning from Polycarp
Though we who live in America in the 21st century need not fear that we will be martyred as Polycarp was, we can learn from his brave resolve and unshakable faith to speak the truth of Christ in love to those in power. Polycarp triumphed because he prayed for his enemies even as they abused him, showed respect to the government authority even as he boldly testified to the gospel, and bore the Cross of Christ while remaining a humble servant of the Lord.
Like Jesus, Polycarp spoke openly to all who had ears to hear but would not allow the message of grace to be treated with contempt. His responses to his accusers are as rhetorically sharp as those of Jesus or Paul, but he never descends to cynicism or bullying. And he remembers throughout that his true foe is Satan.
Martyr in Greek means “witness,” and Polycarp, in his words and actions, paid dual witness to the transformation that Christ wrought in his life. May we do the same!
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian (formerly Houston Baptist) University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 25 books include Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway, 2010), Atheism on Trial (Harvest House Publishers, 2018), The Myth Made Fact (Classical Academy Press, 2018), and Ancient Voices: An Insider’s Look at the Early Church (Stone Tower, 2022), from which the narrative account of Polycarp’s martyrdom has been excerpted.