Polycarp Of Smyrna: The Unsung Hero Of The Apostolic Fathers

When we look at the selection of texts that is known (however accurately) by the title of the Apostolic Fathers, Polycarp plays a large role in these collections.  It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Polycarp [1] is the unsung hero of the collection, since his life and efforts are responsible for a large amount of the entire collections that we know under the title of the Apostolic Fathers as a whole.  In fact, in looking at the heroic nature of Polycarp as a figure within the collection of works, we can see that he served three vital roles let us examine these three roles so that we can come to a better appreciation of Polycarp’s work and ponder how we may serve in these roles ourselves as we are given the opportunity to do so.  There are many ways to glory, so to speak, even when one looks at the world of texts, and those who encourage the spread of texts so that they are better known and so that they better survive are worthy of praise for serving as handmaidens to the texts that others have written.

The most obvious role that Polycarp had within the Apostolic Fathers was as a writer.  He wrote one of the texts within the collection, an epistle to the Philippians.  Since Polycarp was in Smyrna, on the Aegean shore of what is now Turkey, the church of Philippi, which was on the Aegean side of Greece, was not very far away and there was probably a pretty healthy degree of communication between the two cities.  While few people have considered this epistle to be a work of particular textual beauty and elegance, the work is well known because it provides an early second century witness to a great deal of biblical (and some nonbiblical) writings that makes it a worthwhile source for dating other texts.  Since we know the epistle to the Philippians to be a genuine text, and we have a good idea of when it was written (several decades before his own martyrdom), we know that anything quoted in his epistle to the Philippians was written before he wrote.  This may seem to be an obvious point, but as writers can serve as a testimony to other writers by showing that texts they are familiar with in what they quote and what they refer to, the writings of even the most inelegant but comprehensible sort can be of use as a record of history even if it is not treasured as an example of transcendent writing.

Another somewhat obvious role that Polycarp served in the creation of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers was to be martyred in such a spectacular fashion that it ended up helping to found an entire genre of literature.  While Polycarp obviously did not write the narrative of his own death, as fascinating and grim as the story is, the narrative equally obviously would not have been written without him.  It was the fact that his death served as such an inspirational death in imitatio Christi that led someone else to write about his death and the compelling nature of that text and of the life that Polycarp had lived as a well-respected and even venerable figure, dying in such a way in his old age due to the prejudice of the ignorant mob, that others thought to commemorate the deaths of later martyrs in writing as well.  Successful literary efforts breed imitation, and the fact that the Roman Empire persecuted a great many Christians who were blessed in having literate people to record those deaths as a testament to the faith and piety of Christians who were facing such persecution led to the proliferation of texts about martyrs.  It should be noted as well that this was not a phenomenon limited to the ancient world alone, as there are still moving and inspirational texts being written to this day about Christian martyrs in countries like China and others who are hostile to the truths of scripture and to those who hold them, however inoffensive they may be in their own private and personal lives.

The third way that Polycarp served as a hero of the Apostolic Fathers collection of writings was in anthologizing the works of others.  We know, for example, that Polycarp was responsible for collecting the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, whose martyrdom was not long before the writing of the epistle to the Philippians, because he speaks of that effort in the epistle itself:  “When you welcomed these copies of the True Love, and took the opportunity of setting them forward on their road, it made me as happy in Jesus Christ as it did you.  For these chains they were wearing were the badges of saints; the diadems of men truly chosen by God and our Lord (119).”  And later he says:  “I am sending you Ignatius’ letters, as you requested; the ones he wrote to us, and some others that we had in our possession.  They are enclosed herewith; you will be able to derive a great deal of benefit from them, for they tell you all about faith, and perseverance, and all the ways of self-improvement that involve our Lord.  And if you should have any certain news of Ignatius himself and his companions, pray let us know (124).”  In collecting the letters of Ignatius and sending them on to others, Polycarp helped enough copies of this work to survive that there could be a collection of Apostolic Fathers in the first place, an accomplishment that merits our gratitude if we are students of ancient history.

So, what do we have here?  The martyrdom of Polycarp, Polycarp’s own letter to the Philippians, and the collected letters of Ignatius are themselves somewhat short texts.  Yet together they make up a large proportion of the Apostolic Fathers collection as a whole.  It is not too much to say that without the seven short letters of Ignatius sent by Polycarp’s hand to the brethren at Philippi, Polycarp’s own letter to them, and the moving account of Polycarp’s death as an old man in Smyrna, there would likely not be enough text to have a whole collection to call the Apostolic Fathers.  Although I must say that there is a great deal within that collection that I strongly disagree with in terms of its approach and perspective, and much that I find troublesome because of its future implications, at the same time I think we would be the poorer as students of the past if we had even less information about the second century AD and the thinking of those who professed to follow Christ than we do at present.  We have little enough as it is to look at in order to understand what happened in those bygone times.  Without Polycarp, we would likely have still less understanding of those times.

[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.
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11 Responses to Polycarp Of Smyrna: The Unsung Hero Of The Apostolic Fathers

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