Today, February 23, the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr. Polycarp (AD 69–c.155) was the Bishop of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey), one of the early Christian bishoprics known as the Seven Churches of Asia (along with Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Thyatira). His Letter to the Philippians is among the earliest writings in Church history, as is the account of his death, The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is considered an “Apostolic Father.”
In addition to his writings, we remember Polycarp for his relationship with the apostle John, his role in what would be known as the Quartodeciman Controversy, and the extraordinary events surrounding his death.
Disciple of John
Church Father and Doctor of the Church were titles largely bestowed on preeminent writers and teachers of the early Church through the fourth and eighth centuries. An Apostolic Father, however, refers to a teacher or bishop from much earlier times, one who had a direct association with one or more of the Twelve Apostles. In Polycarp’s case, he was a student and disciple of John, the son on Zebedee and brother of the first martyred apostle, James.
John was the last survivor of the Twelve Apostles, living well into his nineties. After his exile on the Aegean island of Patmos, John had settled in Ephesus, where the apostle Paul’s disciple Timothy had been the first bishop of its church. It was here that Polycarp listened to John’s eyewitness accounts of the life and death of Jesus, from their first meeting by the Sea of Galilee to that horrific day on Mount Calvary.
Polycarp also witnessed the passion of John as evangelist, the keeper of apostolic traditions who vehemently countered the “higher truths” in the doctrines of the Gnostics and Marcionites. It was from John’s teachings that Polycarp, appointed Bishop of Smyrna by John, would spend his life sharing throughout the ancient world.
Some fifty years after John’s death, Polycarp traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Anicetus to discuss doctrinal issues within the Church. Foremost on the list was the date on which the Resurrection was to be celebrated. Polycarp and his church in Smyrna had, like other Eastern churches, celebrated it on the 14th day of the old Jewish month Nissan, the date of the Jewish Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which it fell. However, churches in the West held firm that Sunday was the Lord’s Day, and celebrated it on the nearest Sunday following the 14th Nissan.
Polycarp and Anicetus could not agree on a date and parted amicably, with the differences between the two not leading to any schism in the Church. However, over time this disagreement between the Eastern and Western churches intensified into what was called the Quartodeciman controversy, or Passover–Easter controversy. On one side was the Eastern Church that believed the practice of celebrating Easter handed down by the apostle John was sacrosanct. Called quartodecimani, Latin for “fourteenthers,” they fasted during the day and celebrated the Eucharist in the evening on the 14th Nissan.
The Western Church, including Rome, believed that the Paschal festival should be held on Sunday, as was the tradition handed down by two other apostles: Peter and Paul. Thus, they set the Easter date as first Sunday following the 14th Nissan, and commemorated the Crucifixion on the preceding Friday. Although there is no definitive date as to when the controversy ended, by the time of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) Christians throughout the world were celebrating Easter on Sunday.
Death and Martyrdom
Shortly after leaving Rome and returning home, Polycarp fell victim to anti-Christian sentiments that swept through Smyrna during a Roman celebration. The bloodthirsty crowd encouraged Philip the Asiarch to persecute Christians in honor of the emperor. Philip complied; eleven Christians from Phrygia were arrested and executed. Then the crowd called for the death of Polycarp.
Polycarp was brought into the amphitheater and before Philip, who offered to release him if he would “revile Christ.” Polycarp’s response remains one of the most moving defenses of Jesus from the early Church period:
“For eighty-six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Philip ordered Polycarp to be burned at the stake. However, once lit, the fire arched over and above Polycarp, not touching him. As the Acts of the Martyrs recounts, the flames refused to burn him, “but he was within them as bread that is being baked; and we perceived such a fragrant smell as might come from incense or other costly spices.” Finally, the executioner stabbed Polycarp with a dagger, killing him instantly. Tradition holds that when this act occurred, “there came out a dove, and so much blood that the fire was quenched, and all the crowd marveled.”