Polycarp: Bishop of Smyrna

Discover the riveting tale of Polycarp, the early Christian bishop whose extraordinary devotion and dramatic martyrdom offer a timeless testament to faith and courage. Step into the annals of Christian history and uncover the enduring legacy of a man who stood as a beacon of conviction in the face of death​.


Justin Hoke

11/6/20239 min read

"Let us, therefore, foresake the vanity of the crowd and their false teachings, and turn back to the word delivered to us from the beginning." ~ Polycarp

In the dim light of dawn, as the first rays pierced through the small windows of the modest classroom, Polycarp stood, his aged yet resilient figure casting an elongated shadow on the earthen floor. His eyes, filled with the wisdom of years and the gentle fire of unwavering faith, met the gaze of his young disciples, each one perched on the edge of their seats, hearts open and minds yearning for the sacred teachings that flowed from their beloved bishop.

“My dear children in Christ,” Polycarp began, his voice a harmonious blend of strength and tenderness, “let us reflect upon the tale of the great Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, and his fiery furnace—an account that teaches us the sovereignty of our God even in the midst of the flames.”

He paced slowly, his hands gesturing as if painting the ancient narrative in the air before them. “Imagine, if you will, the king's astonishment when, upon looking into the inferno intended for God's faithful servants, he beheld not three, but four figures. The fourth was unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and he was like the Son of God.”

The room hung on every word, the story unfurling like a divine tapestry before their eyes. “Such was the power of the Almighty that the king's madness was stayed, his heart struck with awe. For within those flames, the true King made His presence known, a testament that no earthly power can confine the Divine.”

In the annals of early Christian history, few figures loom as large, yet remain as enigmatic, as Polycarp. "Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong," declared Polycarp, standing firm in the face of fiery martyrdom. His life, a mosaic of devotion and courage, offers a window into the soul of early Christianity. Within the narrative of Polycarp's journey, we trace the contours of faith tested by flames, a steadfast witness to truth in a time of tumult. His story is not merely one of antiquity; it echoes through the corridors of time, challenging and compelling. As we delve into his life, we uncover the enduring legacy of a believer, a bishop, and a bridge between the apostolic age and a faith that was rapidly spreading across the globe. Let us embark on a path that winds back to a world where Christianity was still nascent, yet vibrantly alive in the heart of Polycarp, whose conviction would illuminate the path for generations to come.

Early Life

Born into the tumultuous and transitioning landscape of the 1st century, around 69 AD, Polycarp's life began in the backdrop of Asia Minor's earliest Christian communities1. His entry into the world was not marked by the comforts of a Christian home, nor the privilege of freedom; he was born into a non-Christian household and experienced the harrowing confines of enslavement during his tender years2​​,3.

The young Polycarp's life, however, was to take a providential turn, reflective of the transformative power of faith that would later define his life's work. He was rescued from bondage and taken under the wing of a woman of faith, Callisto, whose nurturing care introduced him to the Christian doctrine. Under her tutelage, the seeds of faith were sown, and Polycarp embraced Christianity with a precocious zeal4.

This early conversion laid the foundation for his spiritual education, which was further cultivated under the tutelage of none other than the Apostle John or John the Presbyter. This mentorship is of no minor note; studying under a direct disciple of Jesus, Polycarp was afforded a living link to the teachings and traditions of early Christianity. His education was not merely academic but deeply spiritual, embedding within him the doctrines that would later emerge in his own teachings and writings3.

These formative years in Polycarp's life were more than a mere prelude; they were the crucible in which his faith and character were forged. His experiences as an adopted son in a pious household, coupled with his instruction under a prominent Christian figure, equipped him with a unique perspective and conviction. These early insights into the faith would manifest in his later writings, such as his Letter to the Philippians, and would echo through the annals of Christian history as one of the earliest surviving Christian documents1.

As we transition from Polycarp's early beginnings, it is crucial to recognize that these were not isolated chapters of a life story but the underpinnings of a journey that would see him rise to become a pivotal figure in the Early Church. His transition to adulthood and the phases that followed were but continuations of a life steeped in faith and marked by an unwavering commitment to the Christian cause, setting the stage for the significant events and interactions that would define his legacy.

Key Life Events

The transition to a pivotal phase in Polycarp's life is marked by his consecration as the Bishop of Smyrna, a role in which he demonstrated extraordinary leadership during the initial surge of Christian theological literature5. His tutelage under John the Apostle, a direct disciple of Jesus, imbued Polycarp with a profound understanding of the teachings of Christ, which he would come to defend vehemently against heretical interpretations6. As a revered Church Father and Apostolic Father, Polycarp's influence was not confined to his locale but spread across the budding Christian communities of his time.

Polycarp's achievements and struggles are vividly documented through his surviving work, notably the Epistle to the Philippians, which offered refutations against Gnostic heresies that threatened the orthodoxy of Christian doctrine5. His commitment to preserving the apostolic traditions was also seen in his defense and clarification of Pauline writings, which played a crucial role in the canonization of New Testament texts5.

His interactions with significant contemporaries were instrumental in shaping the early Church's practices and beliefs. A pivotal moment came with his visit to Anicetus, the Bishop of Rome, where they discussed the divergent practices of their respective churches. This meeting underscored Polycarp's stature and the respect he commanded, as evidenced by Anicetus permitting him to celebrate the Eucharist in Rome—an honor that signified a deep mutual respect, despite their differing stances on ecclesiastical matters like the date of Easter6.

The culmination of Polycarp's life is intimately tied to his martyrdom, which is among the earliest attested accounts of Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament. His refusal to renounce his faith in the face of persecution, his profound last words, and the manner of his death by burning at the stake are testaments to the unwavering conviction he held in his beliefs6. Polycarp's legacy was thus sealed not only through his contributions to Christian theology and practice but also through his ultimate sacrifice, which would inspire generations of Christians to come.

Influence and Interactions

Polycarp’s significant correspondence, "The Letter to the Philippians," reveals a man deeply entrenched in the theological debates of his time. By refuting Gnostic claims and employing the writings of St. Paul, Polycarp anchored his authority in the apostolic tradition, reclaiming Paul as a figure of orthodoxy and steering the interpretation of scripture away from heretical distortions5. This epistle is noteworthy not just for its theological content but for its historic significance, as it offers early testimony to the existence of various New Testament texts, marking an era where the written word began to supersede oral tradition in the Christian faith5.

His interactions were not limited to the written word; they were profoundly personal and at times, publicly dramatic. The visit to Rome to discuss the Easter controversy with Bishop Anicetus, for example, underscores Polycarp's standing within the early Church. Despite their disagreement, the mutual respect between the two leaders prevented schism, highlighting Polycarp's influence in maintaining ecclesiastical unity5.

Another profound interaction was with the young Christian, Irenaeus, who would later become a significant Church Father. Irenaeus considered Polycarp not just a teacher but a living connection to the apostles and, through them, to Christ himself. This relationship exemplifies Polycarp's role as a bridge between generations, passing on the teachings he had received directly from those who knew Jesus7.

Polycarp's confrontations with heretics, most notably Marcion, also demonstrate his resolute defense of Christian orthodoxy. His sharp rebuke of Marcion as the "firstborn of Satan" underscores his uncompromising stance against doctrines that threatened the unity and purity of Christian teaching7.

Towards the end of his life, Polycarp's steadfastness was put to the ultimate test during the persecution in Smyrna. His refusal to recant his faith, even in the face of death, and his reported miracles during his martyrdom — such as the fire not consuming his body — only amplified his influence, leaving an indelible mark on the collective memory of the early Church7.

Contributions, Beliefs, & Lagacy

The gravity of Polycarp’s work is also seen in his embrace of Pauline texts. Against the backdrop of the gnostic sects appropriating Paul for their own, Polycarp reasserted the Apostle's writings as foundations of orthodox Christianity. His affirmation helped solidify Paul’s epistles, including the pastoral letters, as theologically significant and authoritative within the canon5. This was not just a theological endeavor but a strategic realignment, as he rescued and reclaimed these texts from the hands of those who sought to distort Christian teachings.

Moreover, Polycarp's interactions with the apostle John and his instruction to Irenaeus, a formidable second-century theologian, underscored his direct line to the apostolic tradition and his influence on subsequent generations of Christian thought8. His correspondence with other Church Fathers, such as Ignatius, and his discourse with Anicetus, the Bishop of Rome, over the dating of Easter, showcased his dedication to unity within the nascent Church, even when it meant agreeing to disagree for the greater good5.

His martyrdom, a testament to his convictions, stood in stark contrast to the prevailing heretical view that sought martyrdom as a work of righteousness. Polycarp, enduring arrest and execution without seeking it out, demonstrated a profound understanding of faith and witness—emphasizing that martyrdom is not a goal but a possibility to be faced with resolve if it arises8.

In the broader narrative, Polycarp's contributions are manifold: his theological writings, his pastoral leadership, and his personal sacrifice. Each facet reflects a deep commitment to preserving and propagating the authentic teachings of Christianity. Through his efforts, Polycarp not only confronted contemporary challenges but also laid a foundation for future theological development, ensuring that core Christian doctrines were transmitted unaltered to succeeding ages. His legacy, therefore, is etched into the very framework of Christian orthodoxy, demonstrating that true doctrinal fidelity is not just about what one believes, but also about how one lives and, if necessary, how one dies for those beliefs.


As the sun reached its zenith, casting a harsh light upon the gathered crowd, the air was thick with an expectation that bordered on dread. Polycarp stood in the arena, an island of calm amid a sea of chaos. There was no classroom here, no eager disciples hanging on his every word—only the roar of the masses, crying out for a spectacle. Yet, as the soldiers labored to ignite the pyre, the flames seemed reluctant to fulfill their grim duty. The wood crackled and smoked, but the fire did not claim him as its own.

Above the crackle of the tinder, Polycarp's voice rose, serene and untroubled, “O Father, I bless You that You have deemed me worthy of this day and this hour, to partake in the cup of Christ among the number of Your martyrs.”

The crowd fell silent, the spectacle they had come for unraveling before their very eyes. The flames, as if in reverence to the saint they encircled, bowed away from his body, leaving him untouched, unscathed. It was as if an unseen companion walked with Polycarp in the fire, just as the Son of God had walked with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The parallel was striking, the divine narrative unfolding anew; yet, the hearts of those who watched were as stone.

The proconsul, unmoved by the miracle before him, signaled impatiently. His madness, unlike Nebuchadnezzar's, was not stayed by the divine display. He did not see a revelation of God's power but an obstacle to his authority. With a gesture as cold as the metal of the dagger he commanded to be used, he ordered the completion of the execution. As the blade pierced Polycarp's flesh, it was not the saint's spirit that was released, but rather, the final vestiges of hope that divine mercy would turn the tide of hatred against the Christians.

And so, as the earthly form of Polycarp fell, the echo of his earlier teachings resonated with a prophetic clarity. Just as he had foretold, his demise did not soften the hearts of his persecutors. The flames of his martyrdom, instead of converting the onlookers, served to fortify the resolve of those who would carry his message of faith forward. They understood now, more than ever, that their path would not be eased by miraculous signs but by the steadfastness of their faith.

In the days and years that followed, the story of Polycarp's martyrdom was told and retold, not with the despair of loss, but with the reverence of legacy. His disciples, and countless Christians to come, would draw strength from his example, an enduring testament not to the malleability of human hearts, but to the unassailable truth of the gospel he had lived and died for. In the end, the fire had not been meant to consume flesh, but to ignite a flame of unwavering conviction in the hearts of the faithful—a flame that would burn across generations, undimmed by persecution or the passing of time.


POLYCARP the Movie (Free to watch with ads)

St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna by Edmund Sharpe

Writings of the Apostolic Fathers: Mathetes, Polycarp, Barnabas, and Papias

End Notes:

1. https://earlychurch.com/polycarp-disciple-of-the-apostle-john

2. https://www.prca.org/books/portraits/polycarp.htm

3. https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/polycarp-37149.php

4. https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/who-was-polycarp.html

5. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Polycarp

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polycarp

7. https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/witness/polycarp

8. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/polycarp