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E00087: The Greek Martyrdom of *Polycarp/Polykarpos (bishop and martyr of Smyrna, S00004), of the 2nd/rd c., recounts how, after the saint's martyrdom, the Christians collected and buried his cremated bones, and intended to celebrate the anniversary of his death. Written in Smyrna (western Asia Minor).

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posted on 2014-10-20, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
Martyrdom of Polycarp (BHG 1556)

For an overview of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, see E00035.

(17.1) ὁ δὲ ἀντίζηλος καὶ βάσκανος καὶ πονηρός, ὁ ἀντικείμενος τῷ γένει τῶν δικαίων, ἰδὼν τό τε μέγεθος αὐτοῦ τῆς μαρτυρίας καὶ τὴν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς ἀνεπίληπτον πολιτείαν ἐστεφανωμένον τε τὸν τῆς ἀφθαρσίας στέφανον καὶ βραβεῖον ἀναντίρρητον ἀπενηνεγμένον, ἐπετήδευσεν ὡς μηδὲ τὸ λείψανον αὐτοῦ ὑφ’ ἡμῶν ληφθῆναι, καίπερ πολλῶν ἐπιθυμούντων τοῦτο ποιῆσαι καὶ κοινωνῆσαι τῷ ἁγίῳ αὐτοῦ σαρκίῳ. 

(17.2) ὑπέβαλεν γοῦν Νικήτην τὸν τοῦ Ἡρώδου πατέρα, ἀδελφὸν δὲ Ἄλκης, ἐντυχεῖν τῷ ἄρχοντι, ὥστε μὴ δοῦναι αὐτοῦ τὸ σῶμα μή, φησίν ἀφέντες τὸν ἐσταυρωμένον τοῦτον ἄρξωνται σέβεσθαι· καὶ ταῦτα ὑποβαλλόντων καὶ ἐνισχυόντων τῶν Ἰουδαίων, οἳ καὶ ἐτήρησαν μελλόντων ἡμῶν ἐκ τοῦ πυρὸς αὐτὸν λαμβάνειν, ἀγνοοῦντες ὅτι οὔτε τὸν Χριστόν ποτε καταλιπεῖν δυνησόμεθα τὸν ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ παντὸς κόσμου τῶν σωζομένων σωτηρίας παθόντα ἄμωμον ὑπὲρ ἁμαρτωλῶν, οὔτε ἕτερόν τινα σέβεσθαι. 

(17.3) τοῦτον μὲν γὰρ υἱὸν ὄντα τοῦ θεοῦ προσκυνοῦμεν, τοὺς δὲ μάρτυρας ὡς μαθητὰς καὶ μιμητὰς τοῦ κυρίου ἀγαπῶμεν ἀξίως ἕνεκα εὐνοίας ἀνυπερβλήτου τῆς εἰς τὸν ἴδιον βασιλέα καὶ διδάσκαλον, ὧν γένοιτο καὶ ἡμᾶς κοινωνούς τε καὶ συμμαθητὰς γενέσθαι.

(18.1) ἰδὼν οὖν ὁ κεντυρίων τὴν τῶν Ἰουδαίων γενομένην φιλονεικίαν, θεὶς αὐτὸν ἐν μέσῳ ὡς ἔθος αὐτοῖς, ἔκαυσεν. 

(18.2) οὕτως τε ἡμεῖς ὕστερον ἀνελόμενοι τὰ τιμιώτερα λίθων πολυτελῶν καὶ δοκιμώτερα ὑπὲρ χρυσίον ὀστᾶ αὐτοῦ ἀπεθέμεθα ὅπου καὶ ἀκόλουθον ἦν. 

(18.3) ἔνθα ὡς δυνατὸν ἡμῖν συναγομένοις ἐν ἀγαλλιάσει καὶ χαρᾷ παρέξει ὁ κύριος ἐπιτελεῖν τὴν τοῦ μαρτυρίου αὐτοῦ ἡμέραν γενέθλιον εἴς τε τὴν τῶν προηθληκότων μνήμην καὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἄσκησίν τε καὶ ἑτοιμασίαν.

(19.1) Τοιαῦτα τὰ κατὰ τὸν μακάριον Πολύκαρπον, ὃς σὺν τοῖς ἀπὸ Φιλαδελφίας δωδέκατος ἐν Σμύρνῃ μαρτυρήσας, μόνος ὑπὸ πάντων μνημονεύεται, ὥστε καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν ἐθνῶν ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ λαλεῖσθαι … 

'(17.1) But the jealous and envious and evil οne, the adversary of the race of the righteous, having seen the greatness of his martyrdom, his blameless conduct from the beginning, and that he had been crowned with the crown of immortality and captured the indisputable prize, took care that not even his body should be taken away by us, although many were desiring to do this and to be with his holy flesh.

(17.2) So he incited Niketes, the father of Herodes and brother of Alke, to appeal to the governor not to hand over his body."Lest", he said, "forsaking the crucified one, they should worship this one." And all that, at the instigation and insistence of the Jews, who even kept watch as we were about to remove the body from the fire. For they ignored that we shall never be able to abandon Christ – who, innocent himself, suffered on behalf of sinners, for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved – and worship someone else.

(17.3) For we worship Him, since He is the Son of God, whereas the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, worthily because of their unsurpassed loyalty towards their King and Master. May we too become their companions and fellow disciples!

(18.1) And so, seeing the opposition raised by the Jews, the centurion put him in the middle and, as is their custom, burned him.

(18.2) So we later took up his bones - more valuable than precious stones and finer than gold - and laid them where it was fitting.

(18.3) The Lord will grant that we, as far as we can, shall gather there in joy and gladness, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom, both in remembrance of those who have already fought the contest, and for the training and preparation of those who will do so in the future.

(19.1) Such was the story of the blessed Polycarp. Although, together with those from Philadelphia, he was the twelfth to be martyred in Smyrna, he alone is remembered by all and is everywhere talked about, even by the pagans …'

Text: Hartog 2013. Translation E. Rizos.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr, and other martyrs in Smyrna, ob. 2nd c. : 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 - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting graves and shrines

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Scepticism/rejection of the cult of saints

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Jews Pagans Other lay individuals/ people

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - bones and teeth


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.


MPol 17-18, discussed here, is a key passage concerning the early history of the cult of martyrs and their relics. It is quoted, with very minor differences (none substantive), by Eusebius writing in the 320s; consequently, they can be shown categorically to belong to an early form of the text. It is, however, much debated quite how early these passages may be (see E00035). Offering as they do a theory and apologia for the cult of martyrs and their remains, these sections have been regarded by some scholars as either a 3rd century interpolation or as evidence for a 3rd century composition of the text altogether (see von Campenhausen 1957; Ronchey 1990; Moss 2010, 2012). By contrast, those regarding MPol as a genuine 2nd century document, regard these as the very earliest testimony to a developed theory and practice of Christian veneration of martyrs and relics (Dehandschutter 1993, 503-504; Buschmann 1998, 324-335). MPol 17.1 is important as one of the earliest instances of the metaphor of martyrdom being described in terms of athletic contest and victory (Buschmann 1998, 327-328). The idea that the devil leads pagans to destroy the bodies of the martyrs and to prevent the Christians from collecting them can also be found in the letter on the *Martyrs of Lyon (Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History 5.1.57-63; E00212). The lines that follow (17.1-2), however, go even further than that: Niketes, the father of the eirenarch Herodes, supported by the Jews, petitions to prevent the Christians from taking Polycarp’s body, lest they start worshipping it instead of Christ. The question raised here is the correct level of veneration of martyrs, and its possible impact on the Christian religion. This is obviously a crucial matter for our Christian author, though it would seem unlikely a concern for a pagan like Niketes. Here our author seems to be responding to critics of the veneration of martyrs, by implying that only pagans and Jews could consider such veneration a displacement of the central role of Christ. The author explains that martyrs are to be venerated as disciples and imitators of Christ. All this presupposes a debate on the position of the veneration of martyrs and shows that our author was aware of its potential pitfalls. For some scholars, this is implausible in a second-century context (Moss 2010, 565-568; Hartog 2013, 320). The phrase referring to the collection and storage of the bones also merits some comments (MPol 18.2: 'Thus we later picked up his bones ... where it was appropriate' = οὕτως τε ἡμεῖς ... ἀκόλουθον ἦν). A florid expression of reverence for the bones of the saint, 'dearer than precious stones and finer than gold', indicates the author's pious attitude towards the saint’s remains. The text describes the remains merely as bones (ὀστᾶ, osta), instead of using the term λείψανον (leipsanon = ‘relic’). The description of the deposition of the relics is very vague. The author employs the verb ἀποτίθημι (literally 'to lay down') in the middle voice (ἀπεθέμεθα). In a sense, ἀποτίθεμαι was a subtle – and, for that matter, less explicit – way of referring to a burial, similar to the English expression ‘to lay to rest’. Appearing in classical and Hellenistic texts with a meaning of putting off, abandoning or renouncing, ἀποτίθεμαι is increasingly used in the Roman period in the sense of storing up, depositing, keeping, or burying in a tomb. In its funerary sense, it appears regularly in Christian authors from Ignatius of Antioch into the Byzantine period (as a search in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae reveals). Ecclesiastical authors use this verb to describe the burial of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea, where the New Testament simply uses τίθημι (= to place). The vagueness of the expression in our passage is increased by the cryptic phrase 'where it was appropriate' (ὅπου καὶ ἀκόλουθον ἦν), which seems to be deliberately avoiding naming the place and nature of the burial. Was it a grave or an ossuary? Was it at a cemetery, in a church or somewhere else? (Hartog 2013, 322 with earlier bibliography on the question of the burial) The statement on the celebration of the martyr's 'birthday' on the site where his remains rest is also significant (ἔνθα ... ἑτοιμασίαν = 'The Lord will grant ... in the future.') (MPol 18.2-3). It provides a direct reference to a usage and terminology well-established by the 3rd century. We should single out the use of the verb ἐπιτελέω (epiteleō = ‘to celebrate, perform’): in pre-Christian sources, it was regularly used in relation to religious feasts, ceremonies and sacrifices, while in the Christian period it became one of the standard verbs referring to the celebration of feasts and memorials, and it is used regularly in liturgical texts (cf. Buschmann 1998, 342). The term for the martyr’s ‘birthday’ (ἡμέρα γενέθλιος, hēmera genethlios) directly corresponds to the Latin natalitia or the dies natalis. The latter is used to describe the anniversary of a Christian's death (not necessarily a martyr's death) in early 3rd century Christian texts from Africa, notably Tertullian (De corona 3) and the Martyrdom of *Perpetua and Felicitas. 'Birthday', of course, refers to rebirth into eternal life through death. If the Martyrdom of Polycarp dates from the 2nd century, as it professes, this is the earliest attestation of both the term and the practice of celebrating a martyr’s memorial feast at his resting place (Buschmann 1998, 339-342; Hartog 2013, 323; Delehaye 1933, 31-36). With regard to the text's content and dating problems, we should note the use of the future tense (18.3 παρέξει ὁ κύριος = 'the Lord will grant') in relation to the celebration of the martyr's Birthday. This has been used by the defenders of the document's 2nd century authenticity to propose that it was written shortly after the actual death of Polycarp - perhaps within the first year (Dehandschutter 1979, 194, 219; Buschmann 1998, 340-343; cf. Hartog 2013, 323). This, however, stands in contrast with the following paragraph which refers to the relative popularity of Polycarp over the other martyrs of Smyrna (MPol 19.1). This sounds like an assessment of an established cult, presupposing the lapse of some time. Lines 18.3 and partly 19.1-19.2 are regarded by von Campenhausen as interpolated – as opposed to line 18.2 (von Campenhausen 1957). Despite the annual celebration and describe the many miracles occurring during Poylcarp’s martyrdom (E00008), there is no mention of posthumous miracles or healing powers, nor of the role of the dead saint as an intercessor. The purpose of the celebration appears to be commemorative and edifying, directly connected with the reality of the persecution experienced by the Christian community (MPol 18.3) (Buschmann 1998, 340).


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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