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.

Church History Trading Cards: The Apology of Justin Martyr

A trading card for an inanimate object. All the great series of cards have them (except any of the NRL cards I collected as a kid. I also collected Phantom cards (and comics). I think they’re under the house at mum and dad’s.

Justin Martyr’s Apology is one of a suite of Apologies written to Roman Emperors seeking improved treatment of Christians.

Here’s an outline of his argument (quite summarised)…

Justin opens with a call for justice, because it is unjust to punish people for the name that they take rather than their deeds. Some had been denying the name of Christ, but keeping the deeds, and escaping punishment. Justin says his document will provide an overview of Christian beliefs for Caesar to put to the test. Next he deals with the charges of atheism – concluding that Christians believe the Roman gods exist, they just think they are wicked demons.

Christians should be punished if they do wrong, but being a Christian itself isn’t wrong. He says that while Christians can deny the name of Christ (by telling a lie) their lives will still show who they are, and that God will judge the wicked, an idea Plato had already suggested. Everybody knows idols are dumb because they’re made by man.

Christians believe that God provides all things, and requires only virtuous living in return. He says that if Christians pursued a seditious earthly kingdom they wouldn’t die for the cause, but rather lie for the cause. He says that Christians are allies in the moral living cause. He appeals to Caesar’s sense of justice and commitment to wisdom. Then he outlines the gospel, and the crucified Christ’s place in the created order (second to the father, with the Spirit third), and shows that the gospel changes lives. He examines Christ’s teaching, pointing to his teaching about the state (render unto Caesar). Then covers the feasibility of the resurrection, overlaps between Christian doctrine and philosophy, and the Old Testament, finally he talks about Christian practice in their gatherings.

Here’s how he describes his purpose (turned into dot points):

And that this may now become evident to you:

  • that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things
  • that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race:
  • before He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated, in the same manner as they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions

And here, to save anybody else the hassle of reading the document, are some extended quotes about things that might come up in the exam.

On Justice and the treatment of Christians

Again, if any of the accused deny the name, and say that he is not a Christian, you acquit him, as having no evidence against him as a wrong-doer; but if any one acknowledge that he is a Christian, you punish him on account of this acknowledgment. Justice requires that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is.

But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumour, to wrong blameless men, and indeed rather yourselves, who think fit to direct affairs, not by judgment, but by passion.


For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue.


On idol worship as intellectually unjustifiable:

And neither do we honour with many sacrifices and garlands of flowers such deities as men have formed and set in shrines and called gods; since we see that these are soulless and dead, and have not the form of God (for we do not consider that God has such a form as some say that they imitate to His honour)


For why need we tell you who already know, into what forms the craftsmen, carving and cutting, casting and hammering, fashion the materials? And often out of vessels of dishonour, by merely changing the form, and making an image of the requisite shape, they make what they call a god; which we consider not only senseless, but to be even insulting to God, who, having ineffable glory and form, thus gets His name attached to things that are corruptible, and require constant service. And that the artificers of these are both intemperate, and, not to enter into particulars, are practised in every vice, you very well know; even their own girls who work along with them they corrupt. What infatuation! That dissolute men should be said to fashion and make gods for your worship, and that you should appoint such men the guardians of the temples where they are enshrined; not recognising that it is unlawful even to think or say that men are the guardians of gods.


On the way to serve God (good works)

Justin goes pretty close to suggesting that salvation is dependent on works.

“He accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name.”


“And we have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received— of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering.”

“And more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace, seeing that we hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions.”

On Christ as more effective than human law in restraining the natural human inclination towards sin:

“For the restraint which human laws could not effect, the Word, inasmuch as He is divine, would have effected, had not the wicked demons, taking as their ally the lust of wickedness which is in every man, and which draws variously to all manner of vice, scattered many false and profane accusations, none of which attach to us.”


On Hell as a better motivator for good living:

For those who, on account of the laws and punishments you impose, endeavour to escape detection when they offend (and they offend, too, under the impression that it is quite possible to escape your detection, since you are but men), those persons, if they learned and were convinced that nothing, whether actually done or only intended, can escape the knowledge of God, would by all means live decently on account of the penalties threatened, as even you yourselves will admit.


On Christian hope for heavenly kingdom:


“For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”


On the reasonable nature of Christian belief:


“What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him. Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove. For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which, as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed.”


On the changes the gospel brings:

And thus do we also, since our persuasion by the Word, stand aloof from them (i.e., the demons), and follow the only unbegotten God through His Son — we who formerly delighted in fornication, but now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magical arts, dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all. But lest we should seem to be reasoning sophistically, we consider it right, before giving you the promised explanation, to cite a few precepts given by Christ Himself. And be it yours, as powerful rulers, to inquire whether we have been taught and do teach these things truly. Brief and concise utterances fell from Him, for He was no sophist, but His word was the power of God.


On Christianity and Philosophy


“For while we say that all things have been produced and arranged into a world by God, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of Plato; and while we say that there will be a burning up of all, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of the Stoics: and while we affirm that the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence, we shall seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers”


On the “bodily hope” of the new kingdom, and the danger of punishment

For reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings, how they died the death common to all, which, if it issued in insensibility, would be a godsend to all the wicked. But since sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up (i.e., for the wicked), see that you neglect not to be convinced, and to hold as your belief, that these things are true.

…and what you repute as oracles, both of Amphilochus, Dodana, Pytho, and as many other such as exist; and the opinions of your authors, Empedocles and Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates, and the pit of Homer, and the descent of Ulysses to inspect these things, and all that has been uttered of a like kind. Such favour as you grant to these, grant also to us, who not less but more firmly than they believe in God; since we expect to receive again our own bodies, though they be dead and cast into the earth, for we maintain that with God nothing is impossible.

Church History Trading Cards: Tertullian

Tertullian is one of my favourite, if not my favourite writers from early church history. He writes acerbically with wit and biting sarcasm. There’s just something that resonates with me about the good guys from the Latin West (Augustine is cool too). Tertullian’s Apology is a must read. Check out the Tertullian Project for a batch of Tertullian flavoured resources.

Legend: L = Latin West, A = Apologist, Scroll = Author of primary documents you should read, Thumbs up = Theologically sound (mostly), Thumbs Down = Became a Montanist (which actually stopped him becoming a Catholic Saint, so it might have been worth it).

Here’s a sample from the Apology:

On the Legal Process for charges against Christians

“BUT if it is resolved we must be guilty, pray what is your reason for treating us differently from other criminals ? For it is a rule in law that where the case is the same, there the procedure of court ought to be the same also. But when we and heathens are impeached upon the same articles, the heathen shall be allowed the privilege of the council, and of pleading in person for setting off his innocence, it being against law to proceed to sentence before the defendant has put in his answer; but a Christian is permitted nothing, not to speak what is necessary, either to justify his cause, defend the truth, or prevent the injustice of his judges. On the contrary, nothing is attended to in his trial, but how to inflame the mob, and therefore the question is about his name only, and not the nature of his crime : whereas if you sit in judgment upon another criminal, and he pleads guilty to the indictment, suppose of homicide, sacrilege, incest, or rebellion (to instance the common
heads of your libels against us), upon such confession, I say, it is not your method forthwith to proceed to sentence, but you have patience to examine the nature of the fact in all its circumstances, viz.—the place, the time, the manner, and the accomplices of the action: but in the trial of a Christian, all these forms of justice are overruled.

On the foundation of Common Charges against Christians

…you ought on both sides to be equally severe in the examination of fact, and see to the bottom of those reports, so frequently and so falsely thrust upon us. For instance, to bring in a true list of how many infants every Christian has killed and eaten, what incests committed in the dark, what cooks we had for the dressing these children’s flesh, and what pimping dogs for putting out the candles.

On the response to changes wrought in people’s lives when they become Christians

Thus indeed they praise what they know, but vilify what they know not; they blot the fairest examples of virtue shining in their very eyes, because of a religion they are entirely in the dark about; whereas certainly, by all the rules of reason, we ought to judge of the nature of causes we see not, by the effects we see, and not pre-condemn apparent goodness for principles we understand not. Others, discoursing of some persons, whom they knew to be vagrants, and infamously lewd before they came over to our religion, drop their praises upon them in such a manner, that they stigmatize them with their very compliments; so darkened are they with prejudice that they blunder into the commendation of the thing they would condemn. For (say they) how wanton, and how witty was such a woman ! how amorous and frolicsome was such a young gentleman ! but now they are Christians : thus undesignedly they fix the amendment of their lives upon the alteration of their religion.

On the New Atheists (before they were even invented):

Some others are arrived to that pitch of aversion to the very name of Christian, that they seem to have entered into covenant with hatred, and bargained to gratify this passion at the expense of all the satisfactions of human life, acquiescing in the grossest of injuries rather than the hated thing of Christian should come within their doors.

On the Meaning of the word Christian

“But Christians is a Greek word, and means nothing more than a disciple of Christ, which by interpretation is the Anointed; and when you misname it Chrestian1 (for so far are you from understanding our religion, that as yet you know not our true name), even then it implies nothing worse than a benignity and sweetness of temper; thus outrageous are you at the sound of a name as inoffensive and harmless as those who bear it. But do men use to let loose their passions at this rate against any sect merely from the name of its founder ? Is it a new thing for scholars to be named from their masters? Is it not from hence that philosophers are called Platonists, Epicureans, Pythagoreans, etc.?”