Martyrdom of Polycarp (BHG 1556)
For an overview of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, see E00035
(13.2) ὅτε δὲ ἡ πυρκαϊὰ ἡτοιμάσθη, ἀποθέμενος ἑαυτῷ πάντα τὰ ἱμάτια καὶ λύσας τὴν ζώνην ἐπειρᾶτο καὶ ὑπολύειν ἑαυτόν, μὴ πρότερον τοῦτο ποιῶν διὰ τὸ ἀεὶ ἕκαστον τῶν πιστῶν σπουδάζειν ὅστις τάχιον τοῦ χρωτὸς αὐτοῦ ἅψηται. ἐν παντὶ γὰρ ἀγαθῆς ἕνεκεν πολιτείας καὶ πρὸ τῆς μαρτυρίας ἐκεκόσμητο.
'(13.2) When the pyre was ready, he (Polycarp) took off all his clothes and unfastened his belt, and he tried to take off his shoes, which he did not do before this point, because each of the faithful always vied with one another, who would be the first to touch his skin. For, even before his martyrdom, he was honoured in every way, on account of his virtuous life.'
Text: Hartog 2013. Translation: E. Rizos.
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 before150
Evidence not after300
Activity not before100
Activity not after180
Place of Evidence - RegionAsia Minor
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcSmyrna
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Smyrna
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsVisiting/veneration of living saint
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesOther lay individuals/ people
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.
DiscussionMPol 13 is almost identical with Eusebius' 4.15.30-31, except for the phrase καὶ πρὸ τῆς μαρτυρίας ('before his martyrdom'), which Eusebius has as καὶ πρὸ τῆς πολιᾶς ('before reaching old age'). The passage probably attests belief in the physical sacredness of holy people and their bodies. The Christians sought 'to touch the flesh' of the living Polycarp (τοῦ χρωτὸς αὐτοῦ ἅψηται, MPol 13.2) and, after he was martyred, to 'come into contact with/touch his holy flesh/body' (κοινωνῆσαι τῷ ἁγίῳ αὐτοῦ σαρκίῳ, MPol 19.1) (see E00087) probably expecting that something good could be obtained through physical contact with the holy person.
The phrase ‘although he had never done that before, since all the faithful always rushed, who would be the first to touch his skin’ is somewhat obscure. It has been suggested that it may mean that the aged Polycarp depended on friends or disciples for such small services as taking off his shoes (Staniforth and Louth 1987, 134, n. 19). Untying and taking off the sandals of a person was an act of servitude offered by slaves to their masters. The evangelical phrase 'I am not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals' (John 1:27; Mark 1:7; Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16) refers precisely to it. It seems that the Christians were accustomed to offering this service to their bishop as a gesture of obedience. It is more clearly described in the Martyrdom of *Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius (see Musurillo 1972, 180-181). In the scene discussed here, this detail is added in order to stress Polycarp's utter humiliation in the eyes of the Christians who saw their bishop taking off his own shoes in public for the first time after decades of dignified ministry.
BibliographyText and Translations:
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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.
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