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E00035: The Greek Martyrdom of Polycarp describes the martyrdom of *Polycarp/Polykarpos (bishop and martyr of Smyrna, S00004), including accounts of miracles and references to the veneration of his remains. Written in Smyrna (western Asia Minor) between the late 2nd and 3rd centuries. 3rd/4th century interpolations are possible. Overview entry

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posted on 10.09.2014, 00:00 by admin
Martyrdom of Polycarp (BHG 1556-1560)

The text has the form of a letter addressed by the Christian community of Smyrna to that of Philomelium in Phrygia. The prologue and opening paragraph are as following:

Inscription: Ἡ ἐκκλησία τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ παροικοῦσα Σμύρναν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ τῇ παροικούσῃ ἐν Φιλομηλίῳ καὶ πάσαις ταῖς κατὰ πάντα τόπον τῆς ἁγίας καὶ καθολικῆς ἐκκλησίας παροικίαις ἔλεος εἰρήνη καὶ ἀγάπη θεοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ πληθυνθείη.

(1.1) ἐγράψαμεν ὑμῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὰ κατὰ τοὺς μαρτυρήσαντας καὶ τὸν μακάριον Πολύκαρπον, ὅστις ὥσπερ ἐπισφραγίσας τῇ μαρτυρίᾳ αὐτοῦ κατέπαυσε τὸν διωγμόν. ...

Prologue: 'The church of God sojourning in Smyrna, to the church of God sojourning in Philomelion and to all the communities of the holy and catholic church in every place, mercy, peace and love of God the Father and of our Lord Jesus Christ be multiplied.

(1.1) We write to you, brothers, the events concerning the martyrs and the blessed Polycarp who ended the persecution, having sealed it, as it were, with his martyrdom ...'

The letter starts describing its subject, namely the stories of the martyrs of Smyrna and Polycarp who was the last to be martyred. Polycarp provided an example of true martyrdom conducted according to the gospel, and with a view to benefiting others rather than saving himself only. (1) The letter continues with praise for the courage of the martyrs, and gives a brief account of the martyr *Germanikos and his companions who were thrown to the beasts. Although pressed by the proconsul to apostatise, Germanikos offers himself to be eaten by a lion. Animated by the death of Germanikos, the mob demands the arrest of Polycarp (2, 3). There follows an account of the cowardice of Kointos (Quintus), a Phrygian, who had willingly given himself up to the authorities, but was afraid of the beasts and apostatised - an example against spontaneous surrender to the authorities (4).

Hearing that the authorities are after him, Polycarp reluctantly flees to a farm near the city, where he spends some time praying and has a vision foretelling his martyrdom by fire (5) [see E00008]. As the guards are searching for him, Polycarp flees to another farm where he is eventually arrested, having been betrayed by a slave. He willingly presents himself to the guards and asks to be allowed to pray, while his companions offer them food and drink (6, 7). On the next day, a ‘great Sabbath’, Polycarp is brought to Smyrna where he meets the head of the city guard Herodes and his father Niketes. Both try unsuccessfully to persuade Polycarp to profess faith to the emperor and sacrifice, in order to save his life. He is then brought to the stadium in order to be tried by the proconsul (the provincial governor of Asia) before the mob (8). As he enters, he hears a voice from heaven encouraging him (8.3), [see E00008]. The proconsul repeatedly admonishes Polycarp to take an oath by the emperor, to offer sacrifice and denounce Christ, which the martyr refuses (9-10). The proconsul threatens to throw him to the beasts or burn him alive, but Polycarp refuses and professes his Christian faith thrice. Then the mob of pagans and Jews asks to have a lion loosed on Polycarp, which is denied, because the time of hunting games had passed. Eventually, they decide to have Polycarp burnt alive (11-12); he recalls the vision he had foretelling his martyrdom by fire - see E00008.

A pyre is prepared and Polycarp is stripped of his clothes and bound on it; the Christians, out of reverence, seek to touch his body [see $E00057]. He says a prayer of thanksgiving and the fire is lit (13-14). The flames miraculously surround Polycarp's body without consuming it, and a fragrant smell like frankincense is given off (15). As the body is not burnt, an executioner kills Polycarp with a dagger and from the wound emerges a dove and a large quantity of blood which puts out the flames (16). [For these miraculous events, see E00008.] After describing Polycarp’s death, the text states:

(16.2) ὧν εἷς καὶ οὗτος γεγόνει ὁ θαυμασιώτατος Πολύκαρπος, ἐν τοῖς καθ’ ἡμᾶς χρόνοις διδάσκαλος ἀποστολικὸς καὶ προφητικὸς γενόμενος ἐπίσκοπός τε τῆς ἐν Σμύρνῃ καθολικῆς ἐκκλησίας. πᾶν γὰρ ῥῆμα, ὃ ἀφῆκεν ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐτελειώθη καὶ τελειωθήσεται.

'(16.2) And one of the elect indeed was the most wonderful Polycarp, who was in our days an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and a bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna. For every word he uttered from his mouth has indeed been fulfilled and will be fulfilled.'

The Christians wish to take the body, but Niketes asks the proconsul not to give it up, lest the Christians start worshipping it (17). The body is cremated and the Christians collect Polycarp's bones which they bury. They intend to celebrate the anniversary of his death at his tomb on his ‘Birthday’ as a martyr (18). [For these events and aspirations, see $E00087.] Polycarp was the most renowned and revered of the twelve martyrs of Smyrna. The letter closes with the following paragraphs:

(19.1) τοιαῦτα τὰ κατὰ τὸν μακάριον Πολύκαρπον ὃς σὺν τοῖς ἀπὸ Φιλαδελφίας δωδέκατος ἐν Σμύρνῃ μαρτυρήσας, μόνος ὑπὸ πάντων μᾶλλον μνημονεύεται ὥστε καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν ἐθνῶν ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ λαλεῖσθαι. οὐ μόνον διδάσκαλος γενόμενος ἐπίσημος ἀλλὰ καὶ μάρτυς ἔξοχος, οὗ τὸ μαρτύριον πάντες ἐπιθυμοῦσιν μιμεῖσθαι κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον Χριστοῦ γενόμενον. …

(20.1) ὑμεῖς μὲν οὖν ἠξιώσατε διὰ πλειόνων δηλωθῆναι ὑμῖν τὰ γενόμενα, ἡμεῖς δὲ κατὰ τὸ παρὸν ἐπὶ κεφαλαίῳ μεμηνύκαμεν διὰ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ ἡμῶν Μαρκίωνος. μαθόντες οὖν ταῦτα καὶ τοῖς ἐπέκεινα ἀδελφοῖς τὴν ἐπιστολὴν διαπέμψασθε ἵνα καὶ ἐκεῖνοι δοξάζωσιν τὸν κύριον τὸν ἐκλογὰς ποιοῦντα ἀπὸ τῶν ἰδίων δούλων. … 

'(19.1) Such were the events concerning the blessed Polycarp who, with those from Philadelphia, was the twelfth person martyred in Smyrna, but he alone is especially remembered by everyone and is everywhere mentioned, even by the pagans. He was not only a distinguished teacher, but also an eminent martyr whose martyrdom everyone desires to imitate, because it was performed according to the gospel of Christ …'

(20.1) You indeed, then, requested that the events be reported to you at length, but we, for the present, have recounted them to you in summary through our brother Markion. Therefore, having learned these things, send the letter to the brothers further on, in order that they too may glorify the Lord who chooses the elect among his own servants. …'

After the closure of the letter, there follows a paragraph on the date of Polycarp’s martyrdom (21), a second, secondarily added epilogue of the letter, and a colophon on the transmission history of the text. The latter survives in two versions (22 and 22alt), on which see $E00054.

Text: Hartog 2013. Translation: E. Rizos (using Hartog 2013).
Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity




Evidence ID


Saint Name

Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr, and other martyrs in Smyrna, ob. 2nd c. : S00004 Anonymous Martyrs : S00060

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom Literary - Letters



Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Smyrna Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Scepticism/rejection of the cult of saints

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle at death Changing abilities and properties of the body Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Miraculous sound, smell, light

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Crowds Pagans Jews Heretics Officials

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - bones and teeth


The letter of the Church of Smyrna describing the martyrdom of Polycarp (Letter of the Smyrnaeans) is one of the most important and controversial documents on early Christianity. It is viewed by many as the earliest martyrdom account, indeed as the document that inaugurates martyrial literature as a genre ($E00035). Written in the form of a general epistle addressed from the church of Smyrna to the church of Philomelion in Phrygia, it purports to be written shortly after the martyrdom of Polycarp in the 2nd century. It survives in two versions: (a) A version, partially summarised and partially quoted in full, in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (4.15.1-46), written in the 320s. Eusebius' quotations prove that the letter is a genuinely early composition. Eusebius apparently regards it as an important original document on the history of the persecutions, and he reports that the version he consulted included other accounts concerning martyrdoms in Smyrna (4.15.46) ($E00014). (b) A self-standing version (MPol = Martyrdom of Polycarp) preserved in eight manuscript collections of hagiographical texts (menologia for February) dating from the 10th to the 13th centuries. All of these contain similar versions of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans, and are thought to belong to the same line of manuscript tradition, except the 13th century Codex Mosquensis 150 (in the Synodal Library, Moscow) which belongs to a different manuscript family. At the end of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans proper, the menologium version attaches a paragraph on the date of Polycarp's feast, a second paragraph of greetings (which purports to be the epilogue of the letter), and the so-called epilogue with information about the transmission history of the text (MPol 21, 22 and 22a, on which see $E00054 and $E00056). MPol sections 1.1 and 8.1-19.1 coincide with the paragraphs of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans quoted in full by Eusebius, with minor alterations. MPol 2-7.3 are summarised by him. The Letter of the Smyrnaeans as quoted in MPol includes a series of passages which draw a parallel between the martyrdom of Polycarp and the passion of Christ. These are absent from Eusebius’ quotation. For some scholars, they were secondarily interpolated into the original text, before or after Eusebius. The Letter of the Smyrnaeans also survives in Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian versions, all dependent upon the Eusebian text. There is also an Old Church Slavonic translation of MPol in a 15th century menologion, and an abridged Latin translation. It is a text of the utmost importance for the history of the cult of saints and saint-related literature. Unlike other early martyrdom accounts, it is characterised by a relatively developed narrative sophistication, pronounced references to miracles ($E00008, $E00066) and to the veneration of the saint's remains ($E00087, $E00057). It is structurally and stylistically closely related to the late 2nd century Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne (see $E00212) and the 3rd century martyrdom accounts of *Pionios and *Fructuosus ($###). For bibliography, see: Hartog 2013, 165-239; Rebillard 2017, 82-85.


Written in the authoritative early Christian genre of a general epistle, the Letter of the Smyrnaeans is one of the earliest Christian texts composed with the purpose of spreading information relating to the martyrdom of a particular saint, the bishop of Smyrna Polycarp (c. AD 70/80-160/170) (Dehandschutter 1979, 157-175). The fact that the letter is addressed to the church in Philomelion (prologue), a small town of Phrygia, may be related to the anti-heretical intentions of the text, since Phrygia was the cradle of Montanism, and other sectarian Christian groups also flourished there. § 1 states that the subject of the text is the stories of Christians killed in Smyrna during a persecution, most likely in the mid 2nd century AD. Polycarp was the last to be killed, and after his death the persecution halted. §§ 19 and 20 form the actual closing paragraphs of the letter, while 21 and 22 are secondary additions. § 19 states that the overall number of the martyrs of Smyrna was twelve, but that Polycarp's veneration prevailed (see E00087), while § 20 mentions a certain Markion who may be the source of the information, the actual author of the letter, or the envoy carrying it to Philomelion. It is requested that the text be broadly circulated (Dehandschutter 1979, 187-189). Both the opening and the closing paragraphs (1 and 19) mention other martyrs, about whom the text makes no mentions, except for Germanikos (2). This has led scholars to assume that the current version of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans is fragmentary and that its original form included a summary description of the deaths of the other martyrs of Smyrna (for a discussion see E00014). The Letter of the Smyrnaeans constitutes a major landmark in the history of the cult of saints and saint-related literature for the following reasons: - It is thought by many to be the text inaugurating martyrial hagiography as a literary genre. At the same time, it is a work of literary sophistication – perhaps one of the most beautifully written martyrdom accounts. Besides, it is also a work of theological sophistication, demonstrating remarkable awareness of the New Testament canon in its fullness. It has been described as a 'christological-kerygmatic text with parenetic intentions' (Buschmann 1998, 47-66, esp. 48; Dehandschutter 2005; Dehandschutter 1979, 175-187, 233-258). - It uses the words μάρτυς (martys = martyr), μαρτύριον (martyrion = martyrdom) and μαρτυρέω (martyreō = to be martyred) in their technical meaning referring to Christian martyrs and their deaths, instead of their original literal meaning ('witness'). For some scholars it is the earliest text introducing this semantic shift (Dehandschutter 1982 and 1991). - It includes miracles in the description of the martyr’s death. It is indeed the first instance in Christian hagiography of the Greek word θαῦμα (thauma = wonder) referring to a miracle (see E00008). - It is the earliest text to defend theologically the legitimacy of special reverence for martyrs as a part of Christian religious life (see E00087). - It is one of the earliest attestations of the belief in the physical sacredness of a saint’s body and remains (see E00057, E00087). - It is perhaps the earliest testimony of the collection and burial of a saint’s remains, and of the establishment of a yearly memorial celebration at his resting place. Nevertheless, it does not refer to posthumous miracles or to the saint’s power as an intercessor after his death (see E00087). - It is the earliest attestation of hagiography being produced in the context of Christian denominational competition. The text is subtly polemical against heretical groups, and offers one of the earliest instances of the term ‘Catholic Church' (καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία) used in a Christian denominational sense (for an analysis and earlier bibliography, see Buschmann 1998, 316-323; Moss 2010, 558-550; Moss 2012, 69-74; Hartog 2013, 315-317). It not only relates the story of a martyr, but also outlines the criteria of true martyrdom and sanctity, linking them to the saint's adherence to a particular Christian group. Polycarp is described as a teacher of apostolic and prophetic charisma and bishop of the catholic church of Smyrna, whose teachings and prophecies were fulfilled (MPol 16.2 = Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.15.39). This categorical statement aims to connect the saint’s special charisma and grace with his community, thus presenting the catholic church of Smyrna as both the cradle and inheritor of Polycarp’s spiritual and doctrinal legacy. For these reasons, the debate on the text’s chronology is closely connected to the question of the origins of the Christian cult of saints and martyrs, and of the literature related to them. It is questionable when the saint-related beliefs, practices, and debates attested in the text can be dated, and whether their chronology must guide our dating of the text or vice versa. Both versions of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans (Eusebius and MPol) originate from a common pre-Constantinian model, but it is a matter of debate whether they represent an authentic martyrdom account of the 2nd century AD, a substantially interpolated version of it, or a pseudepigraphal composition of the 3rd century. The main theories are as following: (a) Those rejecting the text's 2nd century integrity and authenticity recognise in it several recensions and additions datable to the 3rd century or later. The most important study on this line is by Von Campenhausen (1957). According to his theory, the text derives from a simple original account of the 2nd century, which received at least two phases of redaction in the 3rd century. Its several interpolations echo cultic practices and sectarian polemics which are anachronistic in a 2nd century context. (b) The defenders of the text’s authenticity and integrity, notably Dehandschutter (1979, 2007) and Buschmann (1998), believe that the Letter of the Smyrnaeans is a genuine document written by a single author in the AD 150s, shortly after the martyrdom of Polycarp. It is therefore one of the earliest documents concerning the development of practices and beliefs concerning the Christian cult of martyrs. (c) The thesis of Ronchey (1990) rejects both the interpolation theory and the 2nd-century authenticity of the text. Ronchey accepts that the Letter of the Smyrnaeans is the composition of one single author, but she dates its composition to the 3rd century, regarding the saint-related ideas and practices it describes as anachronistic before AD 200. A similar position was recently taken by Moss (2010, 2012). With regard to the history of the cult of martyrs, the opponents of the text’s 2nd century authenticity (e.g. von Campenhausen 1957; Ronchey 1990; Moss 2010 and 2012) believe that the nuanced views of the text concerning the cult of saints can only have emerged in a 3rd century context. Thus the passages referring to them are anachronistic to their purported 2nd century date and the chronology of the text must be modified accordingly. By contrast, those defending the text’s redactional unity and 2nd century authenticity, notably Dehandschutter and Buschmann, use it as a reliable 2nd century testimony to an early development of Christian theory and practice on the veneration of martyrs and relics. For bibliography, see: Hartog 2013, 165-239; Rebillard 2017, 82-85.


Text and Translations: Dehandschutter, B. Martyrium Polycarpi. Een literair-kritische studie (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium; Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 1979). Hartog, P. Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Oxford Apostolic Fathers; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 240-271. Musurillo, H. The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford Early Christian Texts; Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1972, 2-21. Rebillard, E. Greek and Latin Narratives About the Ancient Martyrs (Oxford Early Christian Texts; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 90-105. Zwierlein, O. Die Urfassungen der Martyria Polycarpi et Pionii und das Corpus Polycarpianum. 2 vols. (Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte; Berlin/Boston: Walter De Gruyter, 2014). Further reading: Buschmann G. Das Martyrium des Polykarp (Kommentar zu den Apostolischen Vätern 6; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998). von Campenhausen, H. Bearbeitungen und Interpolationen des Polykarpmartyriums, Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.- Histor. Klasse, Heidelberg 1957; reprinted in H. von Campenhausen, Aus der Frühzeit des Christentums. Studien zur Kirchengeschichte des ersten und zweiten Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: Mohr, 1963), 253-301. Dehandschutter, B. "Le martyre de Polycarpe et le développement de la conception du martyre au deuxième siècle," Studia Patristica 18:2 (1982), 659-668. Dehandschutter, B. "The New Testament and the Martyrdom of Polycarp," in A.F. Gregory, and C.M. Tuckett (eds.), Trajectories through the NT and the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 395-405. Dehandschutter, B. Polycarpiana. Studies on Martyrdom and Persecution in Early Christianity. Collected Essays edited by J. Leemans (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 205; Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2007). Dehandschutter, B. "The Martyrium Polycarpi: a Century of Research," Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.27.1 (1993), 485-522. Dehandschutter, B. "Martyr-Martyrium. Quelques observations à propos d’un Christianisme sémantique," Instrumenta Patristica 24 (1991), 33-99. Delehaye, H. Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires (Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes, 1966), 15-46. Lightfoot, J., The Apostolic Fathers II: S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp (London: Macmillan, 1889), vol. 1, 604-722. Moss, C.R. "On the Dating of Polycarp: Rethinking the Place of the Martyrdom of Polycarp in the History of Christianity," Early Christianity 1 (2010), 539-574. Moss, C.R. Ancient Christian Martyrdoms: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012). Ronchey, S. Indagine sul martirio di San Policarpo: critica storica e fortuna agiografica di un caso giudizario in Asia Minore (Nuovi studi storici 6; Roma: Istituto storico italiano per il Medio Evo, 1990).



Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity