Martydom of Polycarp (c. 155)

Well, the goal of reading one old source for every three new hasn’t gone to plan, but I’ve read a letter from the Loeb Apostolic Fathers. Hopefully, I’ll read this volume, along with the second in the series, later in the year.

I was struck by the account of the martyrdom, particularly how it was seen as an emulation of Christ’s passion and how those who saw it wished they could be faithful witnesses in the same way. It’s interesting to see (in Greek, even) the command to deny “atheism” and render allegiance to Caesar. Reading this account gives flesh and bones to the stories.

Polycarp’s famous response to his inquisitors—”For eighty-six years I have served [Jesus Christ], and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?”—is so much more powerful when read in context. Having been arrested, Polycarp was taken immediately to the arena to face his trail and immediate death. When he was told to renounce Christianity, which was seen as an atheistic cult, Polycarp looked around at the gathered crowd in the arena and said, “Away with the atheists,” talking about the Caesar-worshippers. Powerful. Then and now.

After that, the inquisitor threatens to call the lions, which Polycarp says to do because he cannot “repent from better to worse.” He added, “[I]t is good, though, to change from what is wicked to what is right.” He said this as an invitation to his judge, who would not repent. Finally, it was decided that Polycarp be burned, fulfilling a vision he’d had about the means of his own death.

Polycarp announced he was a Christian.

Polycarp prayed with thanksgiving to be worthy of martyrdom, giving glory to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

After he said, “Amen,” the executioners lit the fire.

But the fire would not consume him.

They finally stabbed him, at which a dove came forth from the scene and a river of blood poured out of him so great that it extinguished the fire.

His bones were collected by the church and placed “in a suitable place.”

It’s quite a story, and it makes me want to have a faith so strong that it cannot be shaken by threats nor consumed by fire. Amen.

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