We have been reviewing the life and writings of Polycarp of Smyrna, a First and Second Century Christian and bishop, an Apostolic Father, and student of the Apostle John. In our study, we have seen that Polycarp described the Church as a hierarchical, authoritative institution which derives its teaching power from God. According to Polycarp, we owe our allegiance to the Church as we owe obedience to Christ - this despite the imperfections of the humans who make up the Church. Polycarp acknowledged that the ordained clergy sometimes fall into sin and may need to be removed from office when they are unfit to serve (he offers an example of this in the person of Valens, a presbyter in his own time who was removed for matters of personal sin). Nonetheless Polycarp insisted that the laity must obey their bishops and all properly ordained ministers of the Church because they receive their authority through Apostolic Succession.
Polycarp was not alone in this view of the Church. He recommended the writings of his friend and fellow bishop Ignatius of Antioch (also a student of John) as a source for sound teaching and edification in the faith. Polycarp and Ignatius were part of a network of bishops who held authority over local church communities in the First and Second Centuries. Ignatius referred to this world-wide Church organization as the “Catholic” (or “universal”) Church.
Within the ancient “Catholic Church” the local bishops were united to one another through a succession of bishops going back the Apostles and the thus to Jesus Himself. A further source of unity was the unique honor and respect given to the Bishop of Rome, successor of Peter and head of the Church on earth. The Bishop of Rome possessed an authority recognized by the other bishops within the universal Church. Earlier we saw how Clement, a bishop of Rome in the mid-to-late First Century, exercised an authority over the other churches as he wrote to the Corinthians to clarify a dispute over proper ordination of clergy. And again with Polycarp we saw how the Bishop of Rome was respected for his authority to set the date for the celebration of Easter. Ignatius cited the Roman Church above all others as being “worth of praise” and “worthy of honor.”
These are only a few points of interest which we have explored in past installments. As we proceed in this study of Patristic writing a more complete picture of early Christian doctrine and ecclesial life will emerge. We have thus far examined only three Fathers of the Church, with many more available for our consideration. But for now, we must take one last look at Polycarp, and for that we turn to a text written not by Polycarp but about Polycarp, specifically his martyrdom.
“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was written shortly after the great bishop’s death by an unnamed author (or authors) in his home church of Smyrna. It was addressed to the whole Catholic Church, as a tribute to their fallen leader:
“The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.”
The text tells of Polycarp’s arrest and subsequent trial before the multitudes in the local arena. Polycarp heroically testified to his Christian faith as he faced certain death:
“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.’”
Polycarp was eventually burned at the stake. But first his crime was announced to the crowds gathered there to watch the spectacle:
“…the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium thrice, Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian. This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, ‘This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.’”
Ironically, in this passage, those gathered to condemn Polycarp bestowed on him the title by which he is now known within Christianity: “father of the Christians.” His preaching made him a “father” of the faith just as Paul’s preaching had earned him that title as well: “…for I became your father in Jesus Christ through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:15) The use of the term “father” to describe a spiritual leader is a Christian tradition that is clearly Biblical and that continued into the early Church. The term “father” in this text is a testament to Polycarp’s great spiritual influence, recognized even by his enemies.
In committing to writing “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” the Church of Smyrna hoped to encourage other Christians in the empire who faced persecution and to offer a tribute to a man who had provided a valuable link to the Apostles, transmitting the faith for the next generation. As such, this loving portrayal of Christian martyrdom was not originally written as a source for doctrinal study or as a textbook to explain Church teaching. Nonetheless woven into the account there are glimpses of Christian doctrine which reflect First and Second Century Christian belief, and that sketch out some intriguing theological points. For our own purposes of reflection, we will take into consideration a few individual passages…
“And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals,— a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good.”
This passage seems to suggest a “power” or spiritual significance attached to the body of Polycarp. Perhaps God worked miracles through Polycarp. He certainly was revered as a great teacher and a direct link to the Apostles; perhaps he had gifts of healing as the Apostles did. Whatever the case, the faithful Christians obviously attributed some religious significance to the body of this man who lived such a good and holy life. This recalls what was said of Paul in Scripture:
“God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.” (Acts 19:11-12)
According to the Bible, even the “shadow” of an Apostle could have miraculous powers: “…people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.” (Acts 5:15)
This also brings to mind the familiar story in Mark 5:24-34 of the woman cured by touching Jesus’ garments. We are told that this was a common occurrence: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:56)
So, physical contact with a holy person, with his body or clothing or something else closely associated with his person, was a Christian practice that dates from the time of Jesus and continued through the Apostles and into the First and Second Century.
This brings us to another passage from the Martyrdom…
“…we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”
Even in death, a saint’s bones retained a spiritual significance for ancient Christians. They were “more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold” according to this Second Century account. Christians gathered around the burial places of saints to commemorate the person’s life and death in Christ: “both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.” Obviously, saints and martyrs offered a concrete example of how to live out the faith. Polycarp stood as a first rate example of this as a witness to Apostolic teaching. Certainly this honor shown to saints presents the danger of over-emphasizing human persons and removing the focus from God. The Christians who wrote this account of Polycarp’s martyrdom were well aware of this concern and spoke directly to it...
The official who oversaw Polycarp’s trial “…did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh. For this end he suggested…to go and entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried, lest… forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.”
People who do not understand the Christian practice of honoring and revering saints (such as this pagan official) often assume that we “worship” saints as though they are gods. But this ancient text goes on to correct this fallacy…
“…it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow-disciples!”
Saints and martyrs are not worshiped in place of Christ, or as equals to God. Rather they are honored for their devotion to Christ, “as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love [them] on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master;” they are held up as examples to be imitated as fellow disciples of Jesus. This is not unlike Paul’s instruction regarding the example of his own life: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1; and also 4:16)
Paul does not limit this to himself; he says that others who follow this pattern of life are also worthy of imitation: “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” (Philippians 3:17)
Polycarp fit this model offered by Paul, as The Martyrdom of Polycarp tells us:
“He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.”
(More on Polycarp’s martyrdom in the next installment…)