A Godly Gladiator: The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a Fragrant Offering

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I want to continue my series on the Apostolic Fathers this week with a foray into the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is an intriguing tale of the arrest, trial, death, and aftermath of Polycarp’s martyrdom. Martyr tales are very interesting works, especially from the early church: see my post about Perpetua and Felicity. Often there are hagiographical elements within them, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp is no exception, as we will see below. I wanted to focus on this text because of some of the statements Polycarp makes prior to being executed. I have titled this post “A Godly Gladiator” because Polycarp’s martyrdom occurred in the arena, as did many Christian martyrdoms in the early Church. The text is probably from 155-160 AD (Holmes, 301), therefore it is a relatively early martyrdom account.

One part that I truly love about this text occurs in chapter 9 (as before, I am using the Holmes translation here). In Martyrdom 9.3, a dialogue is preserved: “When the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear an oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?'”

Polycarp shows great courage and faithfulness in the face of adversity, and likely impending death. Also the sheer fact that he has served Christ for 86 years baffles me. I am about 17 years into my life as a Christian and that makes me roughly 70 years short of Polycarp. SEVENTY years! Amazing and humbling to say the least. I can only imagine the wisdom, and faithfulness Polycarp would have exuded to all who encountered him with such a long faith journey. We see an instance of such faithfulness in another passage below:

“So the proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.’ But he [Polycarp] said: ‘Call for them! For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness.’ Then he said to him again: ‘I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish'” (Martyrdom, 11:1-2).

Now, I ask that you let me be a bit honest and graphic for a minute. There are two ways of dying (drowning be the third) that I would basically choose to avoid if I had my say: those are being burned alive and being ripped apart by hungry wild animals. So many times we read in these martyrdom accounts that Christians were faithful in the face of such threats, even going into battle with wild beasts (see my post on Perpetua and Felicity linked above for another instance of this). I think when we read these accounts we are often focusing on the literary devices and the grand statements of faithfulness by these martyrs (as well we should), but I also sometimes think we miss just how scary and awful the situations were in which they found themselves. The wild beasts and the pyre are two very real, very present threats for these martyrs, and yet they not only go willingly to their deaths, but these punishments don’t always work the way they are supposed to.

I want to close by examining one last aspect from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It comes from two passages which I will link below:

The author of the text (presumably one of Polycarp’s associates since there is a great amount of detail about what happens after Polycarp’s death) describes Polycarp as “a splendid ram chosen from a great flock for a sacrifice, a burnt offering prepared and acceptable to God” (14:1); and notes that “the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant aroma, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice” (15:2).

Clearly this is a comment on the acceptability of Polycarp’s willing sacrifice for his faith. He chose to stay true to God, and God accepted this fragrant offering so much so that the people present observed a pleasing aroma. Now, one can say that this is simply an editorial on the part of the author in an effort to praise Polycarp and contribute to his legacy. Further evidence of this occurs in Chapter 16 when one of the guards had to stab Polycarp (since the fire wasn’t working) and a dove flew out of his chest as well as enough blood to extinguish the fire (16:1). Clearly the latter is an example of hagiographical writing. While some might believe that a literal dove flew out of his chest, most will attribute this to the author trying to show how peacefully Polycarp’s willing sacrifice was.

I want to close this blog by noting how this text has two impactful aspects to me, despite the debatable historical details. The first is that Polycarp is a very old man that likely had not long to live, yet he willingly endured tortures and execution for his faith. He did not hide or run away from the authorities (7:1). One final element of interest from the text occurs in chapter 16 as the author notes that Polycarp’s death shows the difference between the unbelievers and the elect (16:1). Such a statement implies that one can only see whether or not someone is elect after their death. Throughout all of Polycarp’s faithful statements and actions in the Martyrdom, the author only makes the claim that “this man was certainly one of the elect” (16:2) after he died.

How do you read martyrdom accounts like this? Are they historical? Fictional? Somewhere in between? What about theological statements such as that noted above concerning “the elect?” Should we put stock in such theology even if it’s attached to a text that has questionable historical details?

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5 thoughts on “A Godly Gladiator: The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a Fragrant Offering

  1. Dan, I have been saved 63 years since I was 12 and certainly never had to endure such hardships although many times I had to walk alone away from my friends because of their desires of the world. I, too, read back in the 70’s about Polycarp and his statement stirred me so deeply. But, what else is there but God? We can pursue many things but to pursue HIS truth and understanding is the true treasure laid up in heaven for us. We pursue but will never attain all that HE has for us. Paul mentioned that and even in all of his adventures – he felt so low. Thanks for the writing.

    • Thanks for the comment, Uncle Nelson. I admire your long walk in faith. I think you make a good point regarding one’s faith journey as a pursuit that only culminates in heaven. I also like how you point out that throughout such a lengthy journey, one is likely to experience valleys as well as peaks.

  2. Remember that in the OT holocausts were called “sweet-smelling” to the Lord. That is the likely allusion the text is making.
    Most of the fantastic scenes are probably theological symbols.

    • Agreed. I think the work is heavily rhetorical in nature, but I also think that some of the details read as though the author wants the audience to remember the actual events surrounding Polycarp’s martyrdom. Whether or not the audience would understand these things as symbolic, I would argue, is up for debate.

  3. Pingback: Midweek Blog: The Shepherd of Hermas and the Burning of Black Churches | The Historical Christian

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