Some Thoughts On Polycarp’s Martyrdom

I have been listening to a discussion of the writings of the apostolic fathers, those leaders of the second or third generation of Christians who at least had the chance of having heard the Gospel message from the apostles, and it prompted me to think once more about Polycarp and the significance of his martyrdom [1].  Now, the person who was speaking about Polycarp was largely unaware of his importance in discussions of early Christianity and its positive view of the biblical Sabbath and Holy Days, things the person in question associates with judaizing tendencies, and so the talk was not exactly the most illuminating one concerning the reasons for Polycarp’s martyrdom and the way in which such matters worked in the Roman empire.  The person speaking even seemed a bit exasperated that someone would view it as such a matter of importance to avoid sacrificing to emperors as if they were gods.  I do not wish only to talk about such matters in a historical perspective, although I hope to do so at least briefly, because listening to this discussion reminded me of the contemporary threat of governments who wish to be seen as the ultimate authority and who can be expected to behave with a great deal of hostility towards those whose religious beliefs compel them to oppose ungodly governments, something I consider a possible threat for myself and people like me.

Polycarp is known among historians of early Christianity for at least three things, all of which are of interest here.  For one, he was among the early writers in quoting (whether with or without attribution) earlier texts such as the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, as well as other works of interest like 1 Clement.  He was even instrumental in collecting the letters of an earlier Christian martyr, Ignatius, enabling that person’s writings in the apostolic letters to be preserved as well.  Second, he engaged in an argument with an early bishop of Rome about the proper observance of the Passover, ending up with the biblical position as opposed to the Easter worship supported by Rome’s corrupt leader.  This is what he is most famous for among the religious tradition that I spring from personally.  Third, his martyrdom was written by an eyewitness account (from someone unfortunately named Marcion, although not that notorious heretic).  All of these combine to make Polycarp among the most important Christians of the second century of the Christian era, and one well worth remembering.

It is worth noting that Polycarp was martyred largely thanks to a hostile lynch mob of pagans (and apparently Jews) and that due to his age and the respect that the Roman leadership had for him, there was a reluctance on the part of the Roman government to put him to death, although they eventually did so in a way that was strikingly redolent of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  It was not technically a crime to be a Christian, per se, but what was a crime was that Christians belonged to a “novel” religion that refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods or to the imperial cult, because such gods were at best nonexistent and at worst demoniacal.  To be a genuine Christian, one could not offer the sacrifice of incense in such a fashion, and that meant that being a Christian was viewed as being antisocial and, by the more superstitious pagan mobs, as endangering the well-being of the larger community by refusing to honor gods who would punish offending areas with various natural and social disasters.  It should be noted, if it needs to be remembered, that such problems still exist for believers who refuse to accept the claims of the state for primacy when it comes to deciding right and wrong.  Those who disobey the totalitarian claims of corrupt and immoral governments have always put themselves in harm’s way, whether the martyrdom is being thrown to the wild beasts or burned at the stake or merely thrown in prison or face various hostile persecution.

And it is that relevance that leads me to ponder.  To someone who was not genuinely a Christian, it might seem to be no big matter to make some kind of pro forma ritual of worship to a state and its imaginary deities.  But for someone who is genuinely a believer in the Bible, such a betrayal would be deeply felt and full of self-condemnation.  It is not sufficient to know that the claims of the state to be worshiped and viewed as one’s lord and savoir are false in order to resist falling into idolatry.  Many people know that such claims are ridiculous and that most governments throughout history as well as in our contemporary world have been corrupt in the extreme.  It is instead necessary to have a commitment to truth that is so great that one has the courage to resist powerful falsehood, and one does not only need to know the truth about the false systems of worship that desire the fawning praise and groveling and genuflecting of other beings but also the truth about who alone is worthy to be worshiped, come what may.  And it may again come to unpleasantness as it has in times before, as in the days of Polycarp and others who suffered like him as witnesses to God and Jesus Christ.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Some Thoughts On Polycarp’s Martyrdom

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