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E00008: The Greek Martyrdom of *Polycarp (bishop and martyr of Smyrna, S00004), of the 2nd/3rd c., recounts various miracles accompanying the arrest and martyrdom of Polycarp/Polykarpos. Written in Smyrna (western Asia Minor).

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posted on 2014-08-28, 00:00 authored by CSLA Admin
Martyrdom of Polycarp (BHG 1556)

For an overview of the Martyrdom of Polykarpos, see $E00035.

Polycarp's arrest and execution:

Hearing that the authorities are after him, Polycarp reluctantly flies to a farm near the city, where he spends some time praying and has a vision foretelling his martyrdom. The vision is described as follows:

(5.2) καὶ προσευχόμενος ἐν ὀπτασίᾳ γέγονεν πρὸ τριῶν ἡμερῶν τοῦ συλληφθῆναι αὐτὸν καὶ εἶδεν τὸ προσκεφάλαιον αὐτοῦ ὑπὸ πυρὸς κατακαιόμενον. καὶ στραφεὶς εἶπεν πρὸς τοὺς συνόντας αὐτῷ· δεῖ με ζῶντα καυθῆναι.

'(5.2) And while praying, he fell into a trance, three days before he was arrested. And he saw his pillow burning with fire. And he turned and said prophetically to those who were with him: "I am to be burned alive."'

After his arrest, Polycarp is brought to the stadium of Smyrna to be tried and executed. The trial is attended by pagans, Jews and Christians. He then hears a voice from heaven:

(8.3) … ἐπορεύετο ἀγόμενος εἰς τὸ στάδιον θορύβου τηλικούτου ὄντος ἐν τῷ σταδίῳ, ὡς μηδὲ ἀκουσθῆναί τινα δύνασθαι. (9.1) τῷ δὲ Πολυκάρπῳ εἰσιόντι εἰς τὸ στάδιον φωνὴ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἐγένετο· ἴσχυε, Πολύκαρπε, καὶ ἀνδρίζου. καὶ τὸν μὲν εἰπόντα οὐδεὶς εἶδεν, τὴν δὲ φωνὴν τῶν ἡμετέρων οἱ παρόντες ἤκουσαν. ...

'(8.3) … he walked into the stadium led by them. There was so much tumult in the stadium that one could not here even their own voice. (9.1) And as Polycarp entered into the stadium, a voice came to him from heaven: "Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man!" No one saw who spoke, but those of our people being present heard the voice.'

After failing to convince him to sacrifice, pagans and Jews ask that Polycarp be burnt alive, confirming his prophetic vision:

(12.3) τότε ἔδοξεν αὐτοῖς ὁμοθυμαδὸν ἐπιβοῆσαι, ὥστε τὸν Πολύκαρπον ζῶντα κατακαῦσαι. ἔδει γὰρ τὸ τῆς φανερωθείσης ἐπὶ τοῦ προσκεφαλαίου ὀπτασίας πληρωθῆναι, ὅτε ἰδὼν αὐτὸ καιόμενον προσευχόμενος, εἶπεν ἐπιστραφεὶς τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ πιστοῖς προφητικῶς· δεῖ με ζῶντα καυθῆναι.

'(12.3) Then they decided to shout aloud in unison that Polycarp be burned alive. For the message of the pillow vision revealed to him had to be fulfilled, when he saw it burn up, while praying, and turned and said prophetically to the faithful around him: "I am to be burned alive."'

Polycarp is tied onto the pyre, says a prayer, and the fire is lit:

(15.1) ἀναπέμψαντος δὲ αὐτοῦ τὸ ἀμὴν καὶ πληρώσαντος τὴν εὐχήν, οἱ τοῦ πυρὸς ἄνθρωποι ἐξῆψαν τὸ πῦρ. μεγάλης δὲ ἐκλαμψάσης φλογός θαῦμα εἴδομεν, οἷς ἰδεῖν ἐδόθη· οἳ καὶ ἐτηρήθημεν εἰς τὸ ἀναγγεῖλαι τοῖς λοιποῖς τὰ γενόμενα.

(15.2) τὸ γὰρ πῦρ καμάρας εἶδος ποιῆσαν ὥσπερ ὀθόνη πλοίου ὑπὸ πνεύματος πληρουμένη, κύκλῳ περιετείχισεν τὸ σῶμα τοῦ μάρτυρος· καὶ ἦν μέσον οὐχ ὡς σὰρξ καιομένη, ἀλλ’ ὡς ἄρτος ὀπτώμενος ἢ ὡς χρυσὸς καὶ ἄργυρος ἐν καμίνῳ πυρούμενος. καὶ γὰρ εὐωδίας τοσαύτης ἀντελαβόμεθα ὡς λιβανωτοῦ πνέοντος ἢ ἄλλου τινὸς τῶν τιμίων ἀρωμάτων.

(16.1.) πέρας γοῦν ἰδόντες οἱ ἄνομοι μὴ δυνάμενον αὐτοῦ τὸ σῶμα ὑπὸ τοῦ πυρὸς δαπανηθῆναι, ἐκέλευσαν προσελθόντα αὐτῷ κομφέκτορα παραβῦσαι ξιφίδιον. καὶ τοῦτο ποιήσαντος, ἐξῆλθεν περιστερὰ καὶ πλῆθος αἵματος ὥστε κατασβέσαι τὸ πῦρ καὶ θαυμάσαι πάντα τὸν ὄχλον, εἰ τοσαύτη τις διαφορὰ μεταξὺ τῶν τε ἀπίστων καὶ τῶν ἐκλεκτῶν·

'(15.1) As he offered up his 'Amen' and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire. And as a great flame blazed forth, those of us to whom it was granted to see saw a miracle (θαῦμα, thauma), and we were indeed preserved to announce what happened to the rest.

(15.2) For the fire formed into the shape of a vault, like a ship’s sail filled by the wind, walling around the body of the martyr body. And it was in the middle, not as flesh burning, but as bread baking, or as gold and silver refined in a furnace. For we experienced such strong fragrance, like a waft of incense or some other of the costly spices.

(16.1) Eventually, when the lawless realised that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to go up and plunge a dagger into his body. When he did this, a dove came out and an abundance of blood, so that it quenched the fire. And the whole crowd marvelled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.'

Text: Hartog 2013. Translation: E. Rizos (using Hartog 2013).


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr in Smyrna (ob. AD 155/6 or 160s) : S00004

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom Literary - Letters


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Smyrna Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracle at death Miraculous sound, smell, light Other specified miracle Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Jews Pagans Other lay individuals/ people Officials


The 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.


The miraculous incidents described in these passages are among the most controversial parts of the text, since it has been a matter of dispute whether they can belong to an original 2nd century document or if they suggest a later date. All of them can be found in both MPol and Eusebius, consequently they certainly belong to an early version of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans, preceding the 320s (for Eusebius’ quotations of these passages, see E00066). Polycarp’s prophetic vision of the burning pillow (5.2) is described as an ὀπτασία (optasia = ‘vision’) which Polycarp has while praying. The term ὀπτασία first occurs in the Septuagint and the New Testament, and is subsequently used by Christian authors, always referring to a waking vision, not a dream. The 2nd century AD grammarian Aelius Herodianus glosses ὀπτασία as a synonym of the classical word ὕπαρ (hypar = a waking vision) (On the Declension of Nouns 770.5-7). Eusebius paraphrases the passage of the burning pillow with significant modifications, so as to present the vision as a dream (E00066). The episode with the voice from heaven (8.3-9.1) is one of the most contested passages in the text. Due to its syntactic incoherence and repetition of words, some scholars regard it as a 3rd century interpolation (von Campenhausen 1957, 21; cf. Buschmann 1998, 175-177, 181-183). The note on the terrible noise in the stadium is apparently used to support the claim that the words of encouragement came from heaven: in that tumult it was impossible to hear any human voice; consequently, what the Christians heard must indeed have been a miraculous voice (Hartog 2013, 295-296). The line is quoted with significant modifications by Eusebius (see E00066). The miracles occurring at the death of the martyr (15, 16) have been discussed at length in scholarship. Since the 19th century, there has been a fierce debate as to whether these passages could belong to a 2nd century document, since early martyrdom accounts usually consist of simple 'factual' descriptions of the trials and executions, with minimal references to miraculous events. Whether we accept a 2nd- or 3rd century date for these passages, both the flame miracle and the fragrant smell are early instances of a martyrdom account written through the lens of miraculous interpretation of what may have occurred. The fragrant smell, in particular, is perhaps the earliest appearance in Christian literature of the idea that a saint's body gave off a miraculous fragrance (Hartog 2013, 311-315). The account of the fire miracle is ideologically aligned with that of the divine voice miracle described above, as it claims that not everyone could perceive it: witnessing a miracle is a special spiritual event granted from God mainly to the Christians (Hartog 2013, 311). The phrase θαῦμα εἴδομεν, οἷς ἰδεῖν ἐδόθη ('we saw a miracle, those of us to whom it was given to see': MPol 15.1 = Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.15.36) must be singled out as one of the earliest instances of the word θαῦμα (thauma) in the context of a Christian miracle story. Θαῦμα in classical Greek meant a marvellous, wonderful, surprising or astonishing spectacle or event, or a conjurer's or juggler's trick. Pausanias (2nd century AD) uses it regularly in the sense of an attraction, curiosity or remarkable story. In the New Testament, its meaning as a miracle is still unknown. The gospels refer to Jesus’ miracles as σημεῖα (sēmeia = portent phenomena) and only once as θαυμάσια (‘wondrous acts’, in Matthew 21:15). Acts and Paul’s letters refer to miracles as σημεῖα or δυνάμεις (dynameis = powers). Θαῦμα in the sense of a miracle or divine intervention first appears in Jewish and Christian apocryphal texts of the first centuries AD (e.g. Testament of Abraham 3.31; Joseph and Aseneth 28.1; Acts of Paul 7.4), but it remains rare until the 4th century. This crucial semantic transformation is also evident in the use of the word θαυματοποιΐα (thaumatopoiia, which had hitherto been used for 'fraudulent trickery') by Irenaeus of Lyon referring to Paul’s miracles (Against Heresies 3.12.9 [348]). The Martyrdom of Polycarp is the first hagiographical text to make use of θαῦμα in its Christian sense. An extravagant detail is the miracle of the dove issuing from Polycarp’s fatal wound (MPol 16.1). Eusebius does not have it, but all the manuscripts of MPol do. Unless it is a later interpolation, the ecclesiastical historian must have regarded the phrase as eccentric and removed it. Indeed, its contrast with the generally moderate representation of the supernatural in the text is so stark that it was rejected as inauthentic even by defenders of the text’s 2nd century authenticity, like Lightfoot and Musurillo. More recent students of MPol regard it as authentic (Buschmann 1998, 312-315; Moss 2010, 543-544; Hartog 2013, 313-315). The bird coming out of the flames of a funerary pyre was a powerful metaphor for the human soul being liberated from the body in Roman times, as attested in the literature and art of the time: one may recall the custom of letting an eagle fly from the pyres of the Roman emperors, the apotheosis relief from the base of the column of Antoninus Pius in Rome or Lucian's satirical story about a vulture rising during the suicide of the Cynic Peregrinus Proteus on the burning altar of Zeus at Olympia (De morte Peregrini 36-40; Lightfoot 1889, vol. 1, 606-607).


Text and Translations: Dehandschutter, B. Martyrium Polycarpi. Een literair-kritische studie (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium; Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 1979). 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. Zwierlein, O. Die Urfassungen der Martyria Polycarpi et Pionii und das Corpus Polycarpianum. 2 vols. (Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte; Berlin/Boston: Walter De Gruyter, 2014). Further reading: Buschmann G. Das Martyrium des Polykarp (Kommentar zu den Apostolischen Vätern 6; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998). von Campenhausen, H. Bearbeitungen und Interpolationen des Polykarpmartyriums, Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.- Histor. Klasse, Heidelberg 1957; reprinted in H. von Campenhausen, Aus der Frühzeit des Christentums. Studien zur Kirchengeschichte des ersten und zweiten Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: Mohr, 1963), 253-301. Dehandschutter, B. "Le martyre de Polycarpe et le développement de la conception du martyre au deuxième siècle," Studia Patristica 18:2 (1982), 659-668. Dehandschutter, B. "The New Testament and the Martyrdom of Polycarp," in A.F. Gregory, and C.M. Tuckett (eds.), Trajectories through the NT and the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 395-405. Dehandschutter, B. Polycarpiana. Studies on Martyrdom and Persecution in Early Christianity. Collected Essays edited by J. Leemans (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 205; Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2007). Dehandschutter, B. "The Martyrium Polycarpi: a Century of Research," Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.27.1 (1993), 485-522. Dehandschutter, B. "Martyr-Martyrium. Quelques observations à propos d’un Christianisme sémantique," Instrumenta Patristica 24 (1991), 33-99. Delehaye, H. Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires (Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes, 1966), 15-46. Lightfoot, J., The Apostolic Fathers II: S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp (London: Macmillan, 1889), vol. 1, 604-722. Moss, C.R. "On the Dating of Polycarp: Rethinking the Place of the Martyrdom of Polycarp in the History of Christianity," Early Christianity 1 (2010), 539-574. Moss, C.R. Ancient Christian Martyrdoms: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012). Ronchey, S. Indagine sul martirio di San Policarpo: critica storica e fortuna agiografica di un caso giudizario in Asia Minore (Nuovi studi storici 6; Roma: Istituto storico italiano per il Medio Evo, 1990).

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