The Martyrdom Of Polycarp As Genre Template

Given the importance of martyrdom to Christianity of all kinds, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the earliest works of the Apostolic Fathers was a martyrdom narrative, specifically the martyrdom of Polycarp [1].  It is perhaps surprising that it took until the middle of the second century for the first non-biblical such narrative to exist.  In looking at the Martyrdom of Polycarp, we have to be aware of its role as a foundation text for the genre of martyrologies as a whole.  Although Polycarp is a fairly obscure figure about whom little is known directly, we can gain at least some understanding of him if we look indirectly through his writings as well as through the actions of his that we know of, and in so doing we can gain some sense of his importance and his worth.  Before we do that, though, we should deal with one of the paradoxes of his life, and that is that by far the most important thing that Polycarp did was to die.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is not the first account of martyrology that we have in the Bible.  There are at least two notable such accounts that we have that provide some detail as to the marytrdoms involved.  The first, and most obvious, are the four passion narratives in each of the four Gospels that give a great deal of detail about how Jesus Christ died.  Let us keep this in mind as well, as the martyrdom of Jesus Christ was a model that was used in the writing of the martyrdom of Polycarp, and he and other early Christian martyrs were deeply personally aware of the way in which they were living (or, in this case, dying) in imitatio Christi through their martyrdoms and therefore finding parallels was a matter of considerable interest not only for writers but also for those undergoing martyrdom who wanted to imitate their professed Lord and Master.  We additionally have a martyrdom account of Stephen the Deacon, who gave a glorious but upsetting sermon and then found himself stoned to death with stones by an angry lynch mob that included Paul, whose eyewitness account likely accounts for the vividness in Luke’s telling of the martyrdom in Acts.  Now, although we have an idea about the ubiquity of martyrdom in early Christiantiy, we have no further accounts after the closing of the canon with the death of John until we get to Polycarp, despite having traditions of many people being martyred by Nero, Domitian, and others.

Some of the details given in the short account of the martyrdom of Polycarp are notable.  For one, the author of the account is at pains to show how many signs tied Polycarp’s martyrdom to that of Jesus Christ, such that the author says that “it was almost as though all the preceding events had been leading up to another Divine manifestation of the Martyrdom which we read of in the Gospel (125).”  Some of those signs the author specifically notes, such as Polycarp being arrested late at night, his riding a donkey to the place of execution just as Jesus rode a colt into Jerusalem, the vain efforts of a Roman governor seeking to avoid putting to death a devout and obviously harmless old man but being constrained both by the law as well as by the rage of the crowd (which included a great deal of hostile Jews).  Likewise, the account tells of Polycarp being dispatched in the end by being stabbed with a dagger because the flames were not doing their job quickly enough.  Through these means the author of the martyrology seeks to convince the reader of the blessedness of Polycarp because his death so closely resembled that of Jesus Christ.

And given that there were a lot of martyrs during the early centuries of Christianity, even among Hellenistic Christianity, it is unsurprising that this account, which looked at Polycarp’s faith and gentleness in the face of gruesome and public death, would inspire many other similar accounts in the next few centuries.  So long as the mob could be inspired to put Christians to death, and so long as Christians were viewed as scapegoats for natural and political disasters in the unstable Roman Empire, all of which could happen on either a local or a general scale, then all who professed Christ and refused to worship the emperor could be put to death for having brought upon those disasters through their unbelief by the superstitious mob.  In such a case, even where the more rational Roman political leadership did not share in the scapegoating nor believe that Christians were responsible for any harm to the realm, the hostility of the superstitious mob often induced their action because to avoid killing those who admitted openly to being Christians was viewed from the time of Pilate onward as showing no friendship to Caesar, and that was not a charge a Roman leader of any kind wanted to deal with on his record.

What is perhaps most notable is that from the fourth century AD onward there was a division of the ranks when it came to martyrologies.  Martyrdom in the fashion that Polycarp and others suffered requires being a godly believer in an ungodly realm that is at base hostile to one’s belief system.  Once Hellenistic Christianity became the religion of the realm due to the support of Constantine and later Roman Emperors (regardless of their own practices), Hellenistic Christians by and large found themselves unable to practice the martyrdom that many had sought, which encouraged them to find a substitute in the ascetic practices of monasticism which started in Egypt and the Middle East and then spread to Greece and the rest of Europe from there.  From that point it was only Christians who remained out of step with those around them, possibly because of holding to biblical practices like the Sabbath which were harshly proscribed by popes and emperors and refusing to fellowship in the state church, and martyrologies were only written about those who were viewed as heretics by those who put them to death.  It would not be until the 16th century [2] that martyrologies would again become common among believers in Western Europe, in the face of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the rising literacy to write about such experiences rather than to suffer them in silence.

[1] See, for example:

[2] 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.
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7 Responses to The Martyrdom Of Polycarp As Genre Template

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers Series | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  6. Pingback: Rethinking Polycarp As A Friend Of The Sabbath | Edge Induced Cohesion

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