Saint NamePolycarp, Bishop and Martyr, and other martyrs in Smyrna, ob. 2nd c. : S00004
Saint Name in SourceΠολύκαρπος
Type of EvidenceLiterary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom
Literary - Letters
Evidence not before200
Evidence not after400
Activity not before300
Activity not after400
Place of Evidence - RegionAsia Minor
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcSmyrna
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Smyrna
Cult activities - Festivals
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsTransmission, copying and reading saint-related texts
SourceThe 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.
DiscussionThe paragraph of calendrical information on the date of Polycarp’s martyrdom follows immediately after the actual closing of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans in MPol (alongside section 22, on which see E00054). It has the typical format of calendrical entries in hagiographical texts, giving the date of saint’s feast, and concluding with a doxology. According to the standard convention of such texts, it employs the historic present tense in its phrasing. It is most probably a secondary addition to the text, unlikely to predate the late 3rd or 4th centuries, even though some scholars have regarded it as a genuine part of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans (Buschmann 1998, 362-373).
Unlike similar calendrical paragraphs in other martyrial texts, which normally refer to the reigning emperor, this one refers to local officials of the province of Asia, namely the Asiarch Philip of Tralles and the proconsul Statius Quadratus, and mentions the date according to the Macedonian calendar used in Asia alongside the Julian one (on the Asiarchate, see Lightfoot 1889, vol. 3, 404-415; Engelmann 2000; Friesen 1999). Regardless of historical accuracy, this probably betrays a local setting for the emergence of this paragraph – the two names correspond to real officials. It seems that the Letter of the Smyrnaeans was converted into hagiographical/liturgical use in the province of Asia, and most probably at the city of Smyrna.
Polycarp’s feast day is also mentioned at the beginning of another text from Smyrna, the Martyrdom of *Pionios (E00096). This also closes with a calendrical paragraph of similar formulation, including the name of a proconsul of Asia. It is possible that the Martyrdoms of Polycarp and Pionios were included in a single collection of texts concerning the martyrs of the province Asia, the emergence of which cannot predate the late 3rd century AD (see E00014).
Unsurprisingly, this paragraph has been discussed at length with regard to the historical date of Polycarp’s martyrdom, leading some scholars to ascribe the saint’s death to the late AD 150s – based on the identification of 23 February with a Saturday, and on the approximate dates of tenure for Quadratus as proconsul and Philip as Asiarch. Others propose later dates in the 160s or 170s, based on Eusebius who dates Polycarp’s death to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.14.10-4.15.1; Dehandschutter 1993, 497-502; Hartog 2013, 328-330; Lightfoot 1889, vol. 1, 626-637, 646-722).
BibliographyText 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).
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).
On the Asiarchate:
Engelmann, H., "Asiarchs," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 132 (2000), 173-175.
Friesen, S., "Asiarchs," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 126 (1999), 275-290.