Having seen a glimpse of the type of person Bishop Polycarp was in his epistle to the Philippians, we are more prepared to appreciate the tragic beauty of his martyrdom as recorded in The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Martyrdom was considered the greatest honor that those in the early church could have, and so it is today as well. Perhaps this is why a kind of perverse “cult of the martyrs” sprung up in early Christianity.
The Smyrnans are writing to the Philomeliuns (Phrygia) about the death of their leader, Polycarp. Interestingly, they take the time at the beginning of the letter to condemn those who look for martyrdom, using Quintus the Apostate as an example:
“Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.”
And so it is today: those who bluster the most about their faith are usually the first to cut and run. No, the early church did not seek martyrdom, but neither did they flinch in the face of it. Thus, Polycarp consents to be moved from place to place when the church hears that his oppressors are seeking to kill him, but, when they do in fact catch up with him, he shows an amazing courage for an 86-year-old man. He only asks the guards for time to pray and has a meal prepared for his captors while they wait.
Chapter 9 of The Martyrdom of Polycarp is achingly beautiful and should be read by every Christian today:
“Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
There are elements of this epistle that bear the mark of exaggeration or romanticization (his body does not burn, a dove flies out of his pierced side, etc.)…but, then again, who knows? I’m more and more prone to listen sympathetically to the so-called “embellishments” of the early post-biblical writers. Who knows but that we have simply grown too skeptical in our day of suspicion? Who knows but that God might still wish to do such miracles among us, were He only able to find faith here?