The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp,
Bishop of Smyrna,

as Told in the Letter

of the Church of Smyrna

to the Church of Philomelium


The church of God that sojourns at Smyrna to the church of God that sojourns at Philomelium, and to all those of the holy and Catholic Church who sojourn in every place: may mercy, peace, and love be multiplied from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. [415]

1 We write you, brethren, the things concerning those who suffered martyrdom, especially the blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution by sealing it, so to speak, through his own witness. For almost everything that led up to it happened in order that the Lord might show once again a martyrdom conformable to the gospel. [416] ?^2For he waited to be betrayed, just as the Lord did, to the end that we also might be imitators of him, "not looking only to that which concerns ourselves, but also to that which concerns our neighbors." [417] For it is a mark of true and steadfast love for one not only to desire to be saved oneself, but all the brethren also.

2 Blessed and noble, indeed, are all the martyrdoms that have taken place according to God's will; for we ought to be very reverent in ascribing to God power over all things. ?^2For who would not admire their nobility and patient endurance and love of their Master? Some of them, so torn by scourging that the anatomy of their flesh was visible as far as the inner veins and arteries, endured with such patience that even the bystanders took pity and wept; others achieved such heroism that not one of them uttered a cry or a groan, thus showing all of us that at the very hour of their tortures the most noble martyrs of Christ were no longer in the flesh, but rather that the Lord stood by them and conversed with them. ?^3And giving themselves over to the grace of Christ they despised the tortures of this world, purchasing for themselves in the space of one hour the life eternal. To them the fire of their inhuman tortures was cold; for they set before their eyes escape from the fire that is everlasting and never quenched, [418] while with the eyes of their heart they gazed upon the good things reserved for those that endure patiently, "which things neither ear has heard nor eye has seen, nor has there entered into the heart of man." [419] But they were shown to them by the Lord, for they were no longer men, but were already angels. ?^4Similarly, those condemned to the wild beasts endured fearful punishments, being made to lie on sharp shells and punished with other forms of various torments, in order that [the devil] [420] might bring them, if possible, by means of the prolonged punishment, to a denial of their faith.

3 Many, indeed, were the machinations of the devil against them. But, thanks be to God, he did not prevail against them all. For the most noble Germanicus encouraged their timidity through his own patient endurance -- who also fought with the beasts in a distinguished way. For when the proconsul, wishing to persuade him, bade him have pity on his youth, he forcibly dragged the wild beast toward himself, [421] wishing to obtain more quickly a release from their wicked and lawless life. ?^2From this circumstance, all the crowd, marveling at the heroism of the God-loving and God-fearing race of the Christians, shouted: "Away with the atheists! [422] Make search for Polycarp!"

4 But a Phrygian, [423] named Quintus, lately arrived from Phrygia, took fright when he saw the wild beasts. In fact, he was the one who had forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily. The proconsul by much entreaty persuaded him to take the oath and to offer the sacrifice. For this reason, therefore, brethren, we do not praise those who come forward of their own accord, since the gospel does not teach us so to do. [424]

5 The most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard of it, was not perturbed, but desired to remain in the city. But the majority induced him to withdraw, so he retired to a farm not far from the city and there stayed with a few friends, doing nothing else night and day but pray for all men and for the churches throughout the world, as was his constant habit. [425] ?^2And while he was praying, it so happened, three days before his arrest, that he had a vision and saw his pillow blazing with fire, and turning to those who were with him he said, "I must be burned alive."

6 And while those who were searching for him continued their quest, he moved to another farm, and forthwith those searching for him arrived. And when they did not find him, they seized two young slaves, one of whom confessed under torture. ?^2For it was really impossible to conceal him, since the very ones who betrayed him were of his own household. [426] And the chief of the police, who chanced to have the same name as Herod, was zealous to bring him into the arena in order that he might fulfill his own appointed lot of being made a partaker with Christ; while those who betrayed him should suffer the punishment of Judas himself.

7 Taking, therefore, the young slave on Friday about suppertime, the police, mounted and with their customary arms, set out as though "hasting after a robber." [427] And late in the evening they came up with him and found him in bed in the upper room of a small cottage. Even so he could have escaped to another farm, but he did not wish to do so, saying, "God's will be done." [428] ?^2Thus, when he heard of their arrival, he went downstairs and talked with them, while those who looked on marveled at his age and constancy, and at how there should be such zeal over the arrest of so old a man. Straightway he ordered food and drink, as much as they wished, to be set before them at that hour, and he asked them to give him an hour so that he might pray undisturbed. ?^3And when they consented, he stood and prayed -- being so filled with the grace of God that for two hours he could not hold his peace, to the amazement of those who heard. And many repented that they had come to get such a devout old man.

8 When at last he had finished his prayer, in which he remembered all who had met with him at any time, both small and great, both those with and those without renown, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the hour of departure having come, they mounted him on an ass and brought him into the city. ?^2 It was a great Sabbath. [429] And there the chief of the police, Herod, and his father, Nicetas, met him and transferred him to their carriage, and tried to persuade him, as they sat beside him, saying, "What harm is there to say `Lord Caesar,' and to offer incense and all that sort of thing, and to save yourself?"

At first he did not answer them. [430] But when they persisted, he said, "I am not going to do what you advise me."

^3Then when they failed to persuade him, they uttered dire threats and made him get out with such speed that in dismounting from the carriage he bruised his shin. But without turning around, as though nothing had happened, he proceeded swiftly, and was led into the arena, there being such a tumult in the arena that no one could be heard. ?9 But as Polycarp was entering the arena, a voice from heaven [431] came to him, saying, "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." [432] No one saw the one speaking, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. [433]

And when finally he was brought up, there was a great tumult on hearing that Polycarp had been arrested. ?^2Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, he tried to persuade him to deny [the faith], saying, "Have respect to your age" -- and other things that customarily follow this, such as, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar; change your mind; say, 'Away with the atheists!'"

But Polycarp looked with earnest face at the whole crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and motioned to them with his hand. Then, groaning and looking up to heaven, he said, "Away with the atheists!"

^3But the proconsul was insistent and said: "Take the oath, and I shall release you. Curse Christ."

Polycarp said: "Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

10 And upon his persisting still and saying, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar," he answered, "If you vainly suppose that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you do not know who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. But if you desire to learn the teaching of Christianity, appoint a day and give me a hearing."

^2The proconsul said, "Try to persuade the people."

But Polycarp said, "You, I should deem worthy of an account; for we have been taught to render honor, as is befitting, to rulers and authorities appointed by God [434] so far as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not consider them worthy that I should make defense to them."

11 But the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts. I shall throw you to them, if you do not change your mind."

But he said: "Call them. For repentance from the better to the worse is not permitted us; but it is noble to change from what is evil to what is righteous."

^2And again [he said] to him, "I shall have you consumed with fire, if you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind."

But Polycarp said: "The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will."

12 And when he had said these things and many more besides he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was full of grace, so that not only did it not fall with dismay at the things said to him, but on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his own herald into the midst of the arena to proclaim three times: "Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian."

^2When this was said by the herald, the entire crowd of heathen and Jews who lived in Smyrna [435] shouted with uncontrollable anger and a great cry: "This one is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice nor to worship." [436]

Such things they shouted and asked the Asiarch Philip [437] that he let loose a lion on Polycarp. But he said it was not possible for him to do so, since he had brought the wild-beast sports to a close. ?^3Then they decided to shout with one accord that he burn Polycarp alive. For it was necessary that the vision which had appeared to him about his pillow should be fulfilled, when he saw it burning while he was praying, and turning around had said prophetically to the faithful who were with him, "I must be burned alive." [438]

13 Then these things happened with such dispatch, quicker than can be told -- the crowds in so great a hurry to gather wood and faggots from the workshops and the baths, the Jews being especially zealous, as usual, to assist with this. ?^2When the fire was ready, and he had divested himself of all his clothes and unfastened his belt, he tried to take off his shoes, though he was not heretofore in the habit of doing this because [each of] the faithful always vied with one another as to which of them would be first to touch his body. For he had always been honored, even before his martyrdom, for his holy life. ?^3Straightway then, they set about him the material prepared for the pyre. And when they were about to nail him also, he said: "Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from the nails."

14 So they did not nail him, but tied him. And with his hands put behind him and tied, like a noble ram out of a great flock ready for sacrifice, a burnt offering ready and acceptable to God, he looked up to heaven and said:

"Lord God Almighty, [439] Father of thy beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee, 'the God of angels and powers and all creation' [440] and of the whole race of the righteous who live in thy presence: ?^2 I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, [441] to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, [442] for 'resurrection to eternal life' [443] of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as thou hast prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled, thou that art the true God without any falsehood. ?^3For this and for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen."

15 And when he had concluded the Amen and finished his prayer, the men attending to the fire lighted it. And when the flame flashed forth, we saw a miracle, we to whom it was given to see. And we are preserved in order to relate to the rest what happened. ?^2For the fire made the shape of a vaulted chamber, like a ship's sail filled by the wind, and made a wall around the body of the martyr. And he was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace. And we perceived such a sweet aroma as the breath of incense or some other precious spice.

16 At length, when the lawless men saw that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this [a dove and] [444] a great quantity of blood came forth, so that the fire was quenched and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. ?^2And certainly the most admirable Polycarp was one of these [elect], in whose times among us he showed himself an apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna. [445] Indeed, every utterance that came from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.

17 But the jealous and malicious evil one, the adversary of the race of the righteous, seeing the greatness of his martyrdom and his blameless life from the beginning, and how he was crowned with the wreath of immortality and had borne away an incontestable reward, so contrived it that his corpse should not be taken away by us, although many desired to do this and to have fellowship with his holy flesh. ?^2He instigated Nicetas, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, [446] to plead with the magistrate not to give up his body, "else," said he, "they will abandon the Crucified and begin worshiping this one." This was done at the instigation and insistence of the Jews, who also watched when we were going to take him from the fire, being ignorant that we can never forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the faultless for the sinners, [447] nor can we ever worship any other. ?^3For we worship this One as Son of God, but we love the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord, deservedly so, because of their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher. May it be also our lot to be their companions and fellow disciples!

18 The captain of the Jews, when he saw their contentiousness, set it [i.e., his body] in the midst and burned it, as was their custom. ?^2So we later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. ?^3There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.

19 Such are the things concerning the blessed Polycarp, who, martyred at Smyrna along with twelve others from Philadelphia, is alone remembered so much the more by everyone, that he is even spoken of by the heathen in every place. He was not only a noble teacher, but also a distinguished martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate as one according to the gospel of Christ. ?^2By his patient endurance he overcame the wicked magistrate and so received the crown of immortality; and he rejoices with the apostles and all the righteous to glorify God the Father Almighty and to bless our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls and Helmsman of our bodies and Shepherd [448] of the Catholic Church throughout the world.

20 You requested, indeed, that these things be related to you more fully, but for the present we have briefly reported them through our brother Marcion. When you have informed yourselves of these things, send this letter to the brethren elsewhere, in order that they too might glorify the Lord, who makes his choices from his own servants. ?^2To him who is able [449] by his grace and bounty to bring us to his everlasting Kingdom, through his Servant, the only-begotten Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, might, majesty, throughout the ages. Greet all the saints. Those with us greet you and also Evarestus, who wrote this, with his whole household.

21 The blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first part of the month Xanthicus, the seventh day before the kalends of March, a great Sabbath, at two o'clock P.M. [450] He was arrested by Herod, when Philip of Tralles was high priest, [451] and Statius Quadratus was proconsul, [452] but in the everlasting reign of our Lord Jesus Christ. To him be glory, honor, majesty, and the eternal throne, from generation to generation. Amen.

22 We bid you farewell, brethren, as you live by the word of Jesus Christ according to the gospel, with whom be glory to God the Father and Holy Spirit, unto the salvation of his holy elect; just as the blessed Polycarp suffered martyrdom, in whose footsteps may it be our lot to be found in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

^2These things Gaius [453] copied from the papers of Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp; he also lived with Irenaeus. And Isocrates, wrote it in Corinth from the copy of Gaius. Grace be with all.

^3I, Pionius, [454] again wrote it from the aforementioned copy, having searched for it according to a revelation of the blessed Polycarp, who appeared to me, as I shall explain in the sequel. I gathered it together when it was almost worn out with age, in order that the Lord Jesus Christ might bring me also with his elect unto his heavenly Kingdom. To him be glory with the Father and Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Another Epilogue from the Moscow Manuscript

23 These things Gaius copied from the papers of Irenaeus. He also lived with Irenaeus, who had been a disciple of the holy Polycarp. ?^2For this Irenaeus, at the time of the martyrdom of Bishop Polycarp, was in Rome and taught many; and many of his excellent and orthodox writings are in circulation, in which he mentions Polycarp, for he was taught by him. [455] He ably refuted every heresy and handed down the ecclesiastical and Catholic rule, as he had received it from the saint. ?^3He says this also: that once when Marcion, after whom the Marcionites are called, met the holy Polycarp and said, "Do you know us, Polycarp?" he said to Marcion, "I know you; I know the first-born of Satan." [456] ?^4And this fact is also found in the writings of Irenaeus, that on the day and at the hour when Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna, Irenaeus, being in the city of Rome, heard a voice like a trumpet saying, "Polycarp has suffered martyrdom."

^5From these papers of Irenaeus, then, as was said above, Gaius made a copy, and from Gaius' copy Isocrates made another in Corinth. And I, Pionius, again from the copies of Isocrates wrote according to the revelation of holy Polycarp, when I searched for it, and gathered it together when it was almost worn out with age, in order that the Lord Jesus Christ might bring me with his elect unto his heavenly Kingdom. To whom be glory with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.


[415] I Peter 1:1, 2; Jude 2; I Clem., pref.; Polycarp, Phil., pref.

[416] John 18:37; cf. Rev. 1:5; 3:14. The Passion of Christ is the pattern of that of his martyrs. Cf. Polycarp, Phil. 8:2.

[417] Phil. 2:4.

[418] Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43; Ignatius, Eph. 16:2.

[419] I:Cor. 2:9; Isa. 64:4; 65:16.

[420] The subject is supplied from ch. 3:1.

[421] Cf. Ignatius, Rom. 5:2.

[422] Cf. Justin, Apol. I, chs. 6; 13; Athenagoras, Leg., chs. 3 ff.

[423] The name "Phrygian" was often given to an adherent of the Montanist sect. See the Introduction.

[424] Cf. Matthew 10:23; John 7:1; 8:59; 10:39; Acts 13:51; 17:14; 19:30, 31.

[425] Cf. Polycarp, Phil. 12:3.

[426] Cf. Matt. 10:36.

[427] Matt. 26:55.

[428] Matt. 6:10; Acts 21:14.

[429] Cf. John 19:31.

[430] Cf. Mark 14:61; John 19:9, 10.

[431] Cf. John 12:28.

[432] Josh. 1:6, 7, 9; cf. Deut. 31:7, 23; Ps. 27:14; 31:24.

[433] Acts 9:7.

[434] Rom. 13:1, 7; I Peter 2:13 ff.; I Clem., ch. 61.

[435] Cf. Rev. 2:9.

[436] Cf. Acts 16:20, 21.

[437] See note 40. The Asiarchs were officials who maintained the cult of Rome and the emperor in the province of Asia. Cf. Acts 19:31.

[438] Cf. ch. 5:2.

[439] Rev. 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 21:22.

[440] Ps. 58:6, LXX; Judith 9:12, 14.

[441] Cf. John 12:27.

[442] Cf. Mark 10:38, 39; Matt. 20:22, 23; 26:39.

[443] Cf. John 5:29.

[444] This is probably a late interpolation in the text.

[445] See Smyr. 8:2.

[446] Cf. the Alce mentioned in Smyr., ch. 13; Poly., ch. 8.

[447] Cf. I Peter 3:18.

[448] 1 Peter 2:25.

[449] Cf. Jude 24, 25; 1 Clem., ch. 64.

[450] In the year 156 (a leap year) the Sabbath of Purim was on February 22. The Syriac Martyrology commemorates Polycarp, however, on February 23. See the Introduction.

[451] Gaius Julius Philippus was appointed high priest and Asiarch sometime between 149 and 153. The term of office was four years. See Lightfoot's edition, 1, 628-635, 666 f.; II, 241, 383-385.

[452] Lucius Statius Quadratus was consul in 142, but the date of his proconsulship of Asia is unknown. It could have been c. 154-156. See Lightfoot's The Apostolic Fathers, I, 646-677; II, 368, 369, 635-637.

[453] This may be the Gaius in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. II 25:6.

[454] On the identity of this Pionius, see the Introduction.

[455] See Irenaeus' Letter to Florinus in Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes 5:20:6.

[456] Irenaeus, Adv. haer. III. 3:4.; cf: Polycarp, Phil. 7:1.

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