The story you are about to read is the earliest known account of a Christian martyrdom. Written about AD 156, within a year of the event it describes, it is an authentic eyewitness report of the heroic death of an elderly man named Polycarp.
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, today the city of Izmir, on the west coast of Turkey. He was part of the generation of church leaders who succeeded the apostles. According to one tradition, he was taught by the apostle John and was appointed to his office by the apostles themselves.
We owe the account of Polycarp’s death to the Christians of Smyrna, who wrote it up as a letter and circulated it to all the churches. No wonder they wanted to tell the world: Polycarp’s character and personal relationship with the Lord shine out in its simple words. The apparent defeat of his death becomes a triumphant witness to the resurrection.
Polycarp was martyred before the period of the great persecutions organized from Rome by emperors like Diocletian. His story reveals the tensions that were already building up throughout the empire, as Christians rejected the gods and goddesses that everyone else was worshipping. The pagans called the Christians “atheists” for this apparent lack of religious feeling. But as Polycarp made clear to a Roman government official, the real atheists are those who don’t worship the one true God.
As the story opens in this adaptation of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a local persecution of Christians has been going on. Some of Smyrna’s Christians have already been put to death, and search parties have been looking for the bishop, who has been persuaded to do the prudent thing and leave town. Someone has just tipped off the pursuers that Polycarp is hiding out at a farmhouse in the country.
The mounted police set out on Friday about suppertime. They carried their usual weapons, as if they were advancing against a bandit. Late in the evening, they arrived to arrest Polycarp and found that he was resting upstairs. He could have escaped to another place but decided to stay. “God’s will be done,” he said.
When Polycarp heard that the police were there, he went downstairs and talked with them. Everyone was amazed at his age and courage and wondered why there should be so much haste about arresting an old man like this. Despite the lateness of the hour, he had a table set for them to eat and drink, as much as they desired. He asked them to give him an hour to pray undisturbed, and they agreed.
So Polycarp stood and prayed out loud. He was so filled with the grace of God that, for two hours, he could not be silent. Those who listened were astounded, and many were sorry that they had come to arrest such a venerable old man.
When Polycarp had finished his prayer, after remembering everyone who had ever crossed his path—both small and great, high and low—and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the time came for him to leave. They set him on an ass and led him into the city.
“Save Yourself!” The chief of police, named Herod, and his father, Niketas, met Polycarp there and took him into their carriage. Sitting beside him, they tried to persuade him to change his mind: “What harm is there in saying ‘Lord Caesar,’ and offering sacrifice, and saving yourself from death?”
At first Polycarp did not answer them, but when they kept at it, he said, “I am not going to do what you advise.” Then they gave up trying to persuade him and began to make threats. They forced him out of the carriage so fast that he scraped his shin getting out. Without even turning around, as though he had felt nothing, Polycarp walked on quickly and was taken to the noisy stadium.
As he entered, a voice from heaven came to him: “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.” No one saw the speaker, but our friends who were there heard the voice.
No Fear. Polycarp was brought before the proconsul. He also tried to persuade him to deny the faith. “Respect your age,” he said. “Swear by the divine power of Caesar. Change your mind. Say, ‘Away with the atheists!’ “ But Polycarp, with a solemn look at the unruly mob in the stadium, pointed to them and, looking up to heaven, said, “Away with the atheists!”
The proconsul urged him harder. “Take the oath and I’ll let you go. Curse Christ.”
“Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong,” said Polycarp. “How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
When the proconsul kept insisting, “Swear by the divine power of Caesar,” Polycarp answered, “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the divine power of Caesar, as you say, and if you pretend that you do not know who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn the Christian message, arrange a meeting and give me a hearing.”
“I have wild animals,” the proconsul said. “I’ll throw you to them unless you change your mind.”
“Call them in,” Polycarp replied, “for we are not allowed to change from something better to something worse.”
“Scorn the wild beasts and I’ll have you burned alive, if you don't change your mind.”
Polycarp said, “You threaten with fire that burns for a short time and is soon quenched. You don’t know about the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment that awaits the wicked. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”
Power to Endure. Polycarp radiated courage and joy as he said these and many other things. Not only did his face show no sign of distress, it was so full of grace that the proconsul was astonished and sent his herald into the middle of the arena three times to announce: “Polycarp has declared that he is a Christian.”
At the herald’s announcement, the whole crowd roared with wild anger and a loud cry: “This is the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many to stop offering sacrifice to the gods.” Shouting out with one voice, they demanded that Polycarp be burned alive.
This happened incredibly fast—faster than it takes to tell the story. The mob hurried to gather wood and kindling from the shops and bathhouses. When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off his outer clothes, unfastened his belt, and tried to take off his shoes.
Immediately they began to pile the wood around him. They were going to nail him to the stake as well, but Polycarp said, “Leave me the way I am. He who gives me power to endure the fire will help me to remain in the flames without moving, even without being secured by nails.”
Aroma of Life. So Polycarp put his hands behind him and was bound, like a noble ram out of a great flock ready for sacrifice, a burnt offering prepared and pleasing to God. Looking up to heaven, he said:
Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Child, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of you, the God of angels and powers and of all creation, and of the whole family of the righteous, who live before you:
I bless you for considering me worthy of this day and hour—of sharing with the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, so as to share in resurrection to everlasting life of soul and body in the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them into your presence today as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.
For this and for everything I praise and glorify you through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Child. Through him and with him, may you be glorified with the Holy Spirit, both now and forever. Amen.
When he had said the amen and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit it, and a great flame blazed up. We who were given the privilege to witness it saw a great miracle, and we have been kept alive so that we might report to others what happened.
The fire took the shape of a vaulted room, like a ship’s sail filled with wind, and surrounded the body of the martyr like a wall. And he stood inside it—not as burning flesh, but as bread that is being baked, or as gold and silver being refined in a furnace. And we smelled a fragrant aroma, like the scent of incense or other costly spices.
Seeing that his body could not be consumed by the fire, the lawless men finally commanded an executioner to go up and stab Polycarp with a dagger. When he did this, there came out a dove and so much blood that the fire was extinguished.
This indeed was one of God’s chosen ones—the amazing martyr, Polycarp, an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our time, bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna. By his patient endurance he overcame the devil and gained the crown of immortality. Now he rejoices with the apostles and all the saints. He is glorifying God, the Father Almighty, and blessing our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Captain of our souls and bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.