Church History Trading Cards: The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Polycarp was featured earlier in the Trading Cards series. He was an early church father said to have been a disciple of the Apostle John. He lived to a ripe old age, and then was famously martyred having been a Christian for 86 years in a very public setting, with tremendous courage and dignity and as a faithful witness to the end. We know about his martyrdom because of this document – an account sent out by the church of Smyrna to another church, to be passed on to churches around the world. While some of the account may well be historiographical, and even if some of the miracles did not happened, the document provides an insight into the persecution the early church suffered at the hands of Rome, and the way they sought to encourage one another (essentially through the spread of this sort of propaganda (note: not all propaganda is bad)). The letter strongly associates Polycarp’s martyrdom with Christ’s. And paints martyrdom as a desirable thing for the church.

It contains this little gem of a story about Germanicus, another martyr, who having fought off the beasts being used for his execution for a while, made them attack him instead of renouncing Christ:

“Germanicus strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought heroically with the wild beasts. For, when the proconsul sought to persuade him, and urged him to take pity upon his age, he attracted the wild beast towards himself, and provoked it, being desirous to escape all the more quickly from an unrighteous and impious world.”

This spectacle caused the crowd present to shout for the Romans to find Polycarp, perhaps clamouring to see another old Christian die with such dignity. The letter also tells the story of a guy named Quintus who turned away from Christ to save his own life:

“Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to escape suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.”

Polycarp hears that people are after him – and he was just going to hang out in the city going about his business, but his friends persuaded him to head to the hills. Which he did. But then a servant gave him up (betrayed just like Jesus). And he was caught, and brought to trial. When the horde of armed soldiers caught him (again, lots of armed soldiers, just like the arrest of Jesus) he fed them, and asked for some time to pray. After he had prayed (and the account says his attitude convicted some of the soldiers that they were doing the wrong thing).

“So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them. And as those that were present marvelled at his age and constancy, some of them said. “Was so much effort made to capture such a venerable man?” Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he besought them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And on their giving him leave, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not cease for two full hours, to the astonishment of those who heard him, insomuch that many began to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”

He’s mistreated by the Romans on his way to trial (just like Jesus):

“And the Irenarch Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes (both riding in a chariot ), met him, and taking him up into the chariot, they seated themselves beside him, and endeavoured to persuade him, saying, “What harm is there in saying, Lord Cæsar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?” But he at first gave them no answer; and when they continued to urge him, he said, “I shall not do as you advise me.” So they, having no hope of persuading him, began to speak bitter words unto him, and cast him with violence out of the chariot”

At his trial he is asked to confirm that he is who he says he is (just like Jesus) and given a chance to recant (just like Jesus) – and he turns their requests against them beautifully. I love this paragraph:

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to your old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “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?””

His approach to his trial, and those trying him, is quite Pauline (he tries to convert the governor).

And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar,” he answered,

Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Cæsar, and pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them.

The proconsul replied, “Persuade the people.” But Polycarp said,

To you I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1 But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me.

His response to the Proconsul’s threats are fantastic.

“The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.”

But he answered,

“Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”


But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.”

But Polycarp said,

“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.”

After hearing his testimony the mob in the stadium call for Polycarp, the father of Christians and the teacher of the province of Asia who taught people not to worship the Roman gods, to be fed to the lions. The governor says the animal shows are finished for the day, but he lets them burn Polycarp to death instead. A task they tackle with relish and gusto. Polycarp complies, the soldiers are going to nail him in place, and he tells them that will be unnecessary:

“Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”

Polycarp’s Prayer

” O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen. “

The fire is said not to have had any effect on Polycarp:

“And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

And they have to stab him instead, at which point his blood spurts out in the shape of a dove and puts out the flames (or so it is reported). The biography contains a few pieces of anti-Jewish sentiment, including blaming the Jews for preventing the church from receiving Polycarp’s body “lest they start worshipping him instead of Christ” – which the writers say is not possible for the Christian to do.

The Romans, not seeking to make the mistake of letting Polycarp come back to life, instead put his body in the fire, where it burns, and the Christians collect his bones and bury them in a fitting place where they can gather together to celebrate the anniversary of the event and rejoice over Polycarp’s life.

The letter says Polycarp was the 12th martyr in Smyrna. And that it has been sent around the churches in order to encourage them to glorify the Lord.

“Since, then, you requested that we would at large make you acquainted with what really took place, we have for the present sent you this summary account through our brother Marcus. When, therefore, you have yourselves read this Epistle, be pleased to send it to the brethren at a greater distance, that they also may glorify the Lord, who makes such choice of His own servants. To Him who is able to bring us all by His grace and goodness into his everlasting kingdom, through His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, to Him be glory, and honour, and power, and majesty, for ever. Amen. Salute all the saints. They that are with us salute you, and Evarestus, who wrote this Epistle, with all his house.”

There’s an online version of the document here.

New Testament 102: Paul and Parousia

Paul doesn’t just spend a lot of time in 1 and 2 Thessalonians talking about his parousia but also about the parousia, the second coming of Christ. There was certainly an element of eschatological hope underpinning the gospel the Thessalonians are said to have accepted – but Paul’s main concern seems to be putting those expectations in their right place.

Ben Witherington III (or BW3 as Tamie called him in the comments the other day) suggests the word parousia often had royal significance, he notes that Christ’s parousia is mentioned six times in the letters to the Thessalonians – he suggests Paul is co-opting the imperial terminology here and applying it to Christ.

Paul’s view of Christ’s parousia involves him descending from heaven and the dead rising – it is eschatological. BW3, and BW1 (Bruce Winter) both think that the talk about the second coming is to help comfort the bereaved. Bruce argues that food shortages and earthquakes had been taking a toll, and that this had caused a heightened eschatological anxiety. BW3 says the hope of heaven, and the second coming, was part of that healing process. Especially in 1 Thessalonians 4-5. Which he says (I should mention this is in his socio-rhetorical commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians) in verses 14-16 are about reassuring the Thessalonians that their dead loved ones will take part in the parousia event.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 makes the Imperial context clear – if the son of lawlessness is understood to represent the Roman Imperial Cult, and the Emperors who turn themselves into gods. It also draws a direct contrast between Jesus’ parousia, and that of the emperor.

Dunn says that Thessalonians is dominated by the parousia like no other Pauline writings – and suggests that 1&2 Thessalonians are amongst his earliest letters (implicitly suggesting that Paul got over this phase), he also (like BW3) points out that the parousia will bring relief from the Thessalonian’s present sufferings (at the hands of lawless men). Paul was concerned that they know the day of the Lord had not arrived already, which some had suggested, but that they’d know it if they saw it. He says that it’s clear Paul was addressing a particular concern of the Thessalonians here that didn’t come up elsewhere. Paul was not surprised, as the Thessalonians were, that some of them had died. And the dead were to share in the benefits of the kingdom too.

Here are some related paragraphs regarding the Imperial Cult in Thessalonica from the same extended edition of an essay that I used for the Galatians post (read: this is the stuff that got deleted from the final version so I’m just happy to be using it). He says that it is particularly in cases where Paul speaks eschatologically that imperial terminology crops up.


Harrison (2002) suggests Thessalonica was enraptured with the ‘imperial gospel’, whose ‘eschatology’ proclaimed that Augustus had arrived as the ultimate Saviour, and that Paul writes to radically subvert this idea.[1] He suggests use of κυριο without deference to Rome was inconceivable.[2]

Numismatic and epigraphic evidence support the notion of a flourishing imperial cult in the city.[3] Its citizens are zealous for the emperor. The accusation brought against Jason and his fellow Christians in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-7) is that they preach a different emperor. Judge (1971) suggests this charge arises from an oath of fealty the Thessalonians swore to the emperor as part of their cultic practices.[4] Donfried (1997) suggests Christians in Thessalonica had been martyred at the time of Paul’s epistle, for breaking this oath.[5]

Paul believes the Thessalonians to have given up on idol worship (1 Thess 1:9), which included the deified Caesars.[6] Donfried suggests the calling of the Christians into God’s own kingdom (1 Thess. 2:12), and παρουσία, απάντηση (1 Thess. 4.15-17) has imperial undertones,[7] Harrison agrees, drawing on the use of the Latin equivalent of παρουσια on imperial coinage to support this view,[8] Oakes suggests the use of παρουσια, in this case, has no imperial significance, [9] but agrees with both that the use of the shorthand form of an imperial slogan (1 Thess. 5.3), was deliberate. [10]


[1] Oakes, P, p 306, Harrison, ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessoloniki,’ JSNT 25 1, 2002, pp 71-96, Harrison suggests 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 is a deliberate and provocative reimagining of Augustan eschatology, post death Augustus is believed to rule the world from heaven via his star sign, maintaining the political status quo. Paul’s contrast of a king who will return from death is couched in imperial terminology and could not fail to be understood that way.

[2] Harrison, J.R, p 78

[3] Harrison, J.R, ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessoloniki,’ p 81, “The obverse of a series of Thessalonian coins show the laureate head of Caesar and carry the legend ΘΕΟΣ. The reverse displays the bare head of Octavian either with the legend ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΩΝ or ΘΕ|ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΥ”

[4] Judge, E.A, ‘The Decrees of Caesar at Thessalonica,’ The First Christians in the Roman World: Augustan and New Testament Essays, ed. Harrison, J.R, (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck), pp 456-462, orig 1971, the oath (CIL II172) the people of Antium swore to Caligula thirteen years before Thessalonians was written reads: “On my conscience, I shall be an enemy of those persons whom I know to be enemies of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, and if anyone imperils or shall imperil him or his safety by arms or by civil war I shall not cease to hunt him down by land and by sea, until he pays the penalty to Caesar in full I shall not hold myself or my children dearer than his safety and I shall consider as my enemies those persons who are hostile to him If consciously I swear falsely or am proved false may Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the deified Augustus and all the other immortal gods punish me and my children with loss of country, safety, and all my fortune.

[5] Donfried, K.P, ‘The Imperial Cults and Political Conflict in 1 Thessalonians,’ Paul and Empire, ed Horsley, R.A, pp 221-223

[6] Oakes, P, p 309

[7] Donfried, K.P, ‘The Imperial Cults and Political Conflict in 1 Thessalonians,’ Paul and Empire, pp 215-216

[8] Harrison, J.R, ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessoloniki,’ JSNT 25 1, 2002, pp 71-96, p 81, 83

[9] Oakes, P, p 315, though it was common terminology that described an arriving political leader

[10] Oakes, P, p 318, Harrison, p 86-87

New Testament 102: The Galatian Equation

Galatia. A place Paul wrote to. That’s about all I know about Galatia, not having been there. Except that Galatian Christians faced much the same problem from Rome as Christians throughout the empire. Which is where this post is heading. I’m finally finding a use for the extended edition of an essay I wrote last semester (the extended edition was twice the word limit, I removed half the essay and handed it in – taking out pages at random1). Eagle eyed readers will notice the same clump of references regarding the legal status of Christianity that featured in the last post. It’s from a different essay. I aim to include them in every essay I write for Bruce (3 out of 3 so far)2.

Basically, one of the issues going on in Galatia is circumcision. Sometimes you just have to cut to the chase on these things. Romans weren’t circumcised. As demonstrated by this picture that Facebook flagged as inappropriate.

Romans weren’t circumcised, but Jews were – which meant that Roman converts to Christianity could literally blend in by getting the snip (really? How literal is that? Did they invert their clothing in the first century? Covering everything but their bits?). Well no. But Romans thought circumcision was an abominable practice, and they tolerated it in Jews but abhorred it personally – and it was a real marker of converting to Judaism, which earned one exemption from the Imperial Cult, and thus freedom from some of the persecution that came from converting to Christianity. Below you’ll find my take on the issue from the essay I hacked to pieces (the footnotes are there so you can dig up Bruce’s article on the matter – except I can’t find it on google, I think last time I found it I found the book of the proceedings of the conference it was presented at somewhere on the interwebs), it was more than possibly identical to whatever handouts he gave us in class. Anyway, here are some bits and bobs:

The question of references to the Imperial Cult in Galatians is a Jewish question. Winter’s (2002) thesis on the motives behind Jewish agitation in Galatia (Galatians 6:12) is that Jewish Christians were encouraging gentile converts to use Jewish camouflage to avoid participating in imperial cult, or persecution for failing to participate.[1] Jews in the Roman Empire are understood to have been exempt from cultic practices, free instead to practice their own religion.[2] This freedom varied from emperor to emperor, and region to region. There was no written charter providing such freedom.[3]

Josephus and Philo record that the Jews abrogated their cultic responsibilities by offering sacrifices for the emperor,[4] Herod, not content with this arrangement, built three temples dedicated to the emperor and Rome, McLaren (2005) suggests honouring the cult was a major priority in Judea.[5] This did not prevent the use of the cult as a weapon in Jewish-Roman relations.[6]

Winter (2001) argues that Gallio’s decision (Acts 18:12-17) initially served to protect Christians from participating in the Imperial Cult under the mos maiorum, and Gentile converts to Judaism were recognised as Jewish by imperial law.[7]

Hardin (2008) in his extensive treatment of the situation follows Winter, adding a minor addendum to reflect his findings that the Jews actually participated almost fully in the practices of the Imperial Cult. He suggests Christians were in no man’s land – neither Jew, nor gentile, and that the agitators, Jewish converts, wanted the church to pick a side.[8] He concludes his monograph by suggesting that the imperial cult forms an important backdrop for the study of Galatians, and the New Testament as a whole.[9]


[1] Winter, B.W, ‘The Imperial Cult and Early Christians in Roman Galatia (Acts XIII 13-50 and Galatians VI 11-18),’ in Actes du ler Congres International sur Antioche de Pisidie, eds., T. Drew-Bear, M. Tashalan and C. M. Thomas: Iniversite Lumiere – Lyon 2 and Diffusion de Boccard, 2002, 67-75, This thesis finds some support from Stanton, G, Jesus and Gospel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2004, pp 43-46, and Hardin, J.K, ‘Avoiding Persecution and the Imperial Cult,’ Galatians and the Imperial Cult, (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck), 2008, pp 85-115

[2] Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, Papyrus found at Philadelphia in the Fayum, Egypt, The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian, ed. and trans. Shrek, R.K, pp 83-86 – “Therefore, even now I earnestly ask of you that the Alexandrians conduct themselves more gently and kindly toward the Jews who have lived in the same city for a long time, and that they do not inflict indignities upon any of their customs in the worship of their god, but that they allow them to keep their own practices just as in the time of the god Augustus, which practices I too have confirmed after hearing both sides”

[3] Rajak, T, ‘Was there a Roman Charter for the Jews?’, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol 74 (1984) pp 107-123, Pucci Ben Zeev, M, ‘Jewish Rights in the Roman World – The Greek and Roman Documents quoted by Josephus Flavius’, 1998, Mohr Siebek, pg 412, Rutgers, L.V, ‘Roman Policy Towards Jews’, Judaism and Christianity in First Century Rome edited by Donfried, K.P and Richardson, P, pp 93-116, one only needs to consider Caligula’s aborted attempt to hijack the temple, and its destruction under Nero to accept this point.

[4] McLaren, J.S, ‘Jews and the Imperial Cult,’ p 271

[5] McLaren, J.S, ‘Jews and the Imperial Cult,’ p 259, these temples were constructed at Caesarea Maritima, Sebaste, and Banias

[6] McLaren, J.S, ‘Jews and the Imperial Cult,’ p 262, Imperial cultic requirements were a flashpoint. The Greek citizens of Alexandria triggered the incident leading to Claudius’ missive by erecting statues of the emperor in the synagogue. If the Jews removed the statues this would be seen as imperial impropriety, Josephus’ account of the incident suggests the Greek citizens used the cult as a weapon, Pilate also caused some consternation in Judea by introducing inscribed shields to Jerusalem, see Fuks, G, ‘Again on the episode of the gilded Roman shields at Jerusalem,’ Harvard Theological Review, 75 no 4, 1982, pp 503-507

[7] Winter, B.W, After Paul Left Corinth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 2001, pp 278-280, Winter, B.W, ‘Gallio’s Ruling on the Legal Status of Early Christianity (Acts 18:14-15),’ Tyndale Bulletin 50.2 (1999) 213-224.

[8] Hardin, J.K, ‘Avoiding Persecution and the Imperial Cult,’ Galatians and the Imperial Cult, (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck), 2008, pp 85-115

[9] Hardin, J.K, Galatians and the Imperial Cult, p 155

1 That is simply not true, and I apologise for the dishonesty.
2 That is actually true.