Reading through the Fathers – Polycarp’s Epistle to the Phillipians
St. Polycarp was a bishop at Smyrna in the early second century. He was trained by the apostles. He’s probably most famous for
his martyrdom in the mid-second century, approximately 155 AD. We actually have an extended account of it in a document called appropriately enough The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a letter written to other churches. (Found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, directly following the Epistle to the Philippians)
It appears that Polycarp was especially hunted down. When soldiers began torturing his associated to gain information about his whereabouts, Polycarp decided to stop running and give himself up. He fed his captors dinner, asked for time to pray, and then went quietly with them.
The Irenarch Herod (responsible for maintaining the peace) and the proconsul in turn both try to persuade him to deny Christ and save himself. The proconsul apparently tried many arguments. He told Polycarp to say, “Away with the atheists!” (it was well known that Christians denied the power of the gods) to which Polycarp responded by gesturing at the crowds and saying, “Away with the atheists!” (for Christians knew the One God, but the heathens did not.)
At last, Polycarp gave the proconsul his well-known response:
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?
After this, Polycarp is sentenced to be burned. The Martyrdom goes into detail regarding the carrying out of his sentence, but it suffices to know that in the end he left this world for the next.
His composure was so impressive throughout his ordeals, that Herod and his father Nicetes wouldn’t let Christians take his body. Supposedly they were worried that Christians would begin to worship Polycarp like they worshiped Jesus after his death, though the writer of the Martyrdom points out that the Church loves martyrs, but saves worship for Christ alone.
Polycarp writes to praise the Philippians and also to exhort them to various virtues. He reminds them that love of money is the root of evil. Deacons, youths and virgins are to live blameless lives, not to fornicate or pursue various lusts. Presbyters are to be compassionate, to correct false teaching and care for the poor. Christians are to be patient, obedient and subject to each other so that others will praise our good works and not blaspheme God on our account.
Polycarp also has a couple of things he also wishes to warn them about. He tells them that whoever believes Jesus did not come in the flesh, essentially as a human being, is the antichrist. Valens, a presbyter, and his wife, have apparently not been good examples of truthfulness and chastity.
He also teaches us a little bit of early Christian doctrine. Jesus “took our sins in His own body on the tree” and “did no sin.” These and other passages in his letter seem to have parts of the Bible in mind – by which I mean pieces of apostolic letters that were later collected into the canon of Scripture.
Polycarp lists Paul, Zosimus, Rufus and Ignatius as examples of patient righteousness. Polycarp exhorts his audience to pray for saints, kings, potentates, princes, persecutors and enemies of the cross. He also writes a little bit about epistles that he has sent them from Ignatius to them, and promises to send a letter from them on to Syria. He asks them to send him information on Ignatius, who has been martyred by this point.
This epistle is interesting, but I would love to know more details. Who is Valens, and what happened to him and his wife? Polycarp is a contemporary of Ignatius, familiar with him, sends his epistles on, yet makes little mention of bishops – which are a major theme in Ignatius’ epistles. Did the Philippians not have a bishop at this time? Or did Polycarp simply not address the bishop?
Early Christians circulated a lot of epistles or letters. Clearly apostolic letters of Paul and the Gospels would have been written and known (at least in some places) by now. Polycarp seems to reference pieces of them without explicitly saying so. It seems though that circulating letters from various churches and post-apostolic figures to each other also plays an integral role in maintaining the integrity of apostolic teaching.
I wish (as I’m sure many others do!) that we had more of Polycarp’s letters. As one of the last living links to the apostles in his time, his writings would be invaluable as a bridge between the New Testament writings and the more numerous writings of the late second and following centuries.