Polycarp (/ˈpɒlikɑːrp/; Greek: Πολύκαρπος, Polýkarpos; Latin: Polycarpus; AD 69 155) was a Christian bishop of Smyrna.[1] According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to consume his body.[2] Polycarp is regarded as a saint and Church Father in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. His name means "much fruit" in Greek. Both Irenaeus[3] and Tertullian[4] record that Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Apostle, one of Jesus’s disciples. In On Illustrious Men, Jerome writes that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle and that John had ordained him as a bishop of Smyrna.[5] Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.

Martyr, Church Father and Bishop of Smyrna
BornAD 69
DiedAD 155
Smyrna, Asia, Roman Empire
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church,
Church of the East,
Oriental Orthodox Church,
Eastern Orthodox Church
Eastern Catholic Churches
Anglican Communion,
Lutheran Church
FeastFebruary 23 (formerly January 26)
AttributesWearing the pallium, holding a book representing his Epistle to the Philippians
InfluencesJohn the Apostle
InfluencedIrenaeus (?)
Major worksEpistle of Polycarp to the Philippians

Surviving writings and early accounts

The sole surviving work attributed to him is the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the Greek Scriptures, which, along with an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp, forms part of the collection of writings called Apostolic Fathers. After the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the death of Stephen, the Martyrdom is considered one of the earliest genuine accounts of a Christian martyrdom.[1] Charles E. Hill argues extensively that the teachings Irenaeus ascribes to a certain apostolic "presbyter" throughout his writings represent lost teachings of Polycarp, his teacher.[6]


The chief sources of information concerning the life of Polycarp are The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Adversus Haereses, The Epistle to Florinus, the epistles of Ignatius, and Polycarp's own letter to the Philippians. In 1999, the Harris Fragments, a collection of 3rd- to 6th-century Coptic texts that mention Polycarp, were published.[7]


According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a companion of Papias, another "hearer of John", and a correspondent of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius addressed a letter to him and mentions him in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Magnesians.[8]

Irenaeus regarded the memory of Polycarp as a link to the apostolic past. In his letter to Florinus, a fellow student of Polycarp who had become a Roman presbyter and later lapsed into heresy, Irenaeus relates how and when he became a Christian:[9]

I could tell you the place where the blessed Polycarp sat to preach the Word of God. It is yet present to my mind with what gravity he everywhere came in and went out; what was the sanctity of his deportment, the majesty of his countenance; and what were his holy exhortations to the people. I seem to hear him now relate how he conversed with John and many others who had seen Jesus Christ, the words he had heard from their mouths.[10]

In particular, he heard the account of Polycarp's discussion with John and with others who had seen Jesus. Irenaeus reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a presbyter, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He writes that he had had the good fortune, when young, to know Polycarp, who was then far advanced in years.[11]

Visit to Anicetus

According to Irenaeus, during the time his fellow Syrian Anicetus was Bishop of Rome, Polycarp visited Rome to discuss differences in the practices of the churches of Asia and Rome. Irenaeus states that on certain things the two speedily came to an understanding, while as to the observance of Easter, each adhered to his own custom, without breaking off full communion with the other.[12] Polycarp followed the Eastern practice of celebrating the feast on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which it fell, while Anicetus followed the Western practice of celebrating the feast on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. Anicetus allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own church, which was regarded by the Romans as a great honor.[12]

Date of martyrdom

Polycarp miraculously extinguishing the fire burning the city of Smyrna

In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death: "Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong." This could indicate either that he was then eighty-six years old[13] or that he had lived eighty-six years after his conversion.[2] Polycarp goes on to say: "How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked."[10] Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced with a spear for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor.[14] On his farewell, he said: "I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ."[10]

The date of Polycarp's death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, c. 166–167. However, a post-Eusebian addition to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, dates his death to Saturday, February 23, in the proconsulship of Lucius Statius Quadratus, c. 155 or 156. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist.

Great Sabbath

The Martyrdom of Polycarp states that Polycarp was killed on "the Great Sabbath". English patristic scholar William Cave (1637–1713) believed that this was evidence that the Smyrnaeans under Polycarp observed the seventh-day Sabbath, i.e. assembled on Saturdays.[15] J. B. Lightfoot records as a common interpretation of the expression "the Great Sabbath" to refer to Pesach or another Jewish festival.[16] This is contradicted by the standard Jewish calendar, under which Nisan 14, the date of the Pesach, can fall no earlier than late March and hence at least a month after the February 23 dating. Hence, Lightfoot understood the expression in reference to the Purim festival, celebrated a month before Pesach,[17] while other scholars suggest that at the time the Jewish calendar had not yet been standardized, and that this day, both Jews and Christians celebrated Pesach and a (Quartodeciman) Christian Passover, respectively.[18]


Engraving by Michael Burghers, ca 1685

Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the early Christian Church.[7] He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survived. Jerome wrote that Polycarp was a "disciple of the apostle John and by him ordained presbyter of Smyrna".[19] He was an elder of an important congregation that was a large contributor to the founding of the Christian Church. He is from an era whose orthodoxy is widely accepted by Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Church of God groups, Sabbatarian groups, mainstream Protestants and Catholics alike.

According to Eusebius, Polycrates of Ephesus cited the example of Polycarp in defense of local practices during the quartodeciman controversy.[20]

Irenaeus, who as a young man had heard Polycarp preach, described him as[21] "a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics". Polycarp lived in an age after the deaths of the apostles, when a variety of interpretations of the sayings of Jesus were being preached. His role was to authenticate orthodox teachings through his reputed connection with the apostle John: "a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of old apostolic doctrine"[2] "his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers". Irenaeus states (iii. 3) that on Polycarp's visit to Rome, his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus.

Polycarp is remembered in the Church of England with a Lesser Festival on 23 February.[22]


In the church Sant' Ambrogio della Massima in Rome, Italy, there are guarded relics of Polycarp.[23]

See also

  • Christianity in the 1st century
  • Christianity in the 2nd century
  • Early centers of Christianity
  • Early Christianity
  • List of Christian martyrs
  • Saint Polycarp, patron saint archive


  1. Polycarp at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. Henry Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies, s.v. "Polycarpus, bishop of Smyrna".
  3. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3
  4. Tertullian, De praescriptione hereticorum 32.2
  5. Kirby, Peter. "St. Polycarp of Smyrna." Early Christian Writings. 2020. 10 January 2020
  6. Hill, Charles E. (2006). From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus' Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of Ad Diognetum. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. pp. v, 2–3, 7, 8ff (8–94). ISBN 3-16-148699-4. OCLC 64571945.
  7. Hartog, Paul (2002). Polycarp and the New Testament. p. 17. ISBN 978-3-16-147419-4.
  8. Irenaeus, V.xxxiii.
  9. Bacchus, Francis Joseph (1911). "St. Polycarp" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  10. Fr. Paolo O. Pirlo, SHMI (1997). "St. Polycarp". My First Book of Saints. Sons of Holy Mary Immaculate - Quality Catholic Publications. pp. 58–59. ISBN 971-91595-4-5.
  11. Liguori, Alphonsus. "St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna", Victories of the Martyrs, (Eugene Grimm, ed.), New York, Benziger Brothers, 1888, p. 66 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  12. Andrews, Herbert Tom (1911). "Polycarp" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–22.
  13. Staniforth, Maxwell, trans. Early Christian Writings London: Penguin Books (1987): 115.
  14. "Polycarp - Martyrdom". Polycarp.net.
  15. William Cave, Primitive Christianity: or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the First Ages of the Gospel. 1840, revised edition by H. Cary. Oxford, London, p. 84–85).
  16. J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers. Part II. S. Ignatius. S. Polycarp. Vol. 1, p. 610-611.
  17. J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers. Part II. S. Ignatius. S. Polycarp. Vol. 1, p. 713.
  18. August Strobel, Ursprung und Geschichte der frühchristlichen Osterkalenders, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1977, p. 247-248
  19. Schaff, Philip (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2, 3
  20. Eusebius, Church History, Book V, Chapter 24
  21. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3.4
  22. "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 2021-03-27.
  23. Schaubler, Vera; Schindler, Hanns Michael (1998). Heilige und Namenspatrone im Jahreslauf. Augsburg: Pattloch Verlag. p. 77. ISBN 3629008305.
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