The governor wants Polycarp to deny Christ, and promises if he will, his life will be spared. But the faithful bishop answers, “For 86 years I have served Him, and He has never done me wrong; how then can I now blaspheme my King and Savior?”
Born around AD 69, Saint Polycarp was a central figure in the early church. Said to be disciple of the holy evangelist and apostle Saint John, he provides a link between the first generation of believers and later Christians, including Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, who later wrote of him. Saint Ignatius of Antioch also knew and wrote to him. His home town of Smryna (modern Izmir, Turkey) was one of the seven churches addressed in Revelation (see 2:8-11 for the details).
After serving for many years as bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp was caught up in a local persecution of Christians. While willing to be martyred, others encouraged him to flee. However, he was later arrested, tried, and executed for his faith on 23 February c. AD 156. An eyewitness narrative of his death, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, continues to encourage believers in times of persecution.
According to the ancient records, he was tried solely on the charge of being a Christian. When the proconsul urged him to save his life by cursing Christ, he replied: “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” According the the customary reckoning of his birth and death, this means that he must have been baptized as an infant, raised as a Christian, and lived his entire life as in the Faith. His fidelity follows the encouragement given by the Lord to the church in Smyrna in Revelation 2:10, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (ESV)”
The following prayer is recorded as his immediately prior to the fire being kindled for his martyrdom:
Lord God Almighty, Father of Your blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of You, God of angels and hosts and all creation, and of the whole race of the upright who live in Your presence: I bless You that You have thought me worthy of this day and hour, to be numbered among the martyrs and share in the cup of Christ, for resurrection to eternal life, for soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be accepted before You today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as You, the faithful and true God, have prepared and foreshown and brought about. For this reason and for all things I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through whom be glory to You, with Him and the Holy Spirit, now and for the ages to come. Amen.
O God, the maker of heaven and earth, who gave to Your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for the Faith, give us grace, following his example, to share the cup of Christ and rise to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In the extended entry is a translation of the document The Martyrdom of Polycarp
1:1 We have written unto you, brethren, the things respecting those who were martyred, and concerning the blessed Polycarp, who made the persecution to cease, having as it were set his seal to it by his testimony. For almost all the things that went before happened in order that the Lord might show us from above the testimony that is according to the gospel; 1:2 for he endured to be betrayed, even as did the Lord, that we might become imitators of him, not as considering the things that concern ourselves only, but also the things that concern our neighbours; for it belongeth to true and firm love not only to desire to be saved itself, but also that all the brethren should be saved.
2:1 Blessed, therefore, and noble are all the testimonies that happened according to the will of God, for it is right that we should be the more careful, and should ascribe unto God the authority over all things. 2:2 For who would not admire their nobility and endurance and obedience? who, though they were torn with stripes so that the internal arrangement of their flesh became evident even as far as the veins and arteries within, endured it, so that even the bystanders compassionated them and bemoaned them; and that others even arrived at such a pitch of nobility that none of them would either sob or groan, showing all of us that in that hour the martyrs of Christ departed being tortured in the flesh, or rather that the Lord, standing by, associated himself with them. 2:3 And applying themselves to the grace of Christ, they despised the torture of this world, purchasing by the endurance of a single hour remission from eternal punishment; and the fire of their harsh tormentors was cold to them, for they had before their eyes to escape the eternal and never-quenched fire; and with the eyes of their heart they looked up to the good things that are reserved for those that endure, which neither hath ear heard, nor eye seen, nor hath it entered into the heart of man; but which were shown by the Lord unto them, who were no longer men, but already angels. 2:4 And in like manner they who had been condemned to the wild beasts endured dreadful punishments, lying upon beds of prickles, and punished with various other tortures, in order that, if it were possible, the tyrant might turn them by assiduous punishment to a denial of the faith.
3:1 For the devil contrived many things against them, but thanks be unto God, for he prevailed not against all. For the most noble Germanicus strengthened their cowardice through the patience that was in him, who also in a notable way fought against wild beasts. For when the proconsul would have persuaded him, charging him to have compassion on his youth, he drew upon himself the wild beast by force, wishing to be the sooner freed from their unjust and lawless life. 3:2 From this, therefore, all the multitude, wondering at the nobleness of the God-loving and God-fearing race of Christians, called out, Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be sought for.
4:1 But a certain man named Quintus, a Phrygian, who had newly come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.
5:1 But the most admirable Polycarp at the first, when he heard these things, was not disturbed, but desired to remain in the city. But the majority persuaded him to withdraw secretly; and he departed secretly to a villa not far from the city, and remained there with a few men, doing no other thing either by night or day but pray concerning all men, and for the churches that are in the world, as was his custom; 5:2 and as he prayed he fell into a trance three days before he was taken, and saw his pillow burning with fire, and he turned and said prophetically to those who were with him, I must be burned alive.
6:1 And when those who sought him continued in the pursuit, he departed unto another villa, and straightway they who sought him came up. And when they found him not, they apprehended two lads, of whom the one, when put to the torture, confessed. 6:2 For it was impossible for him to escape their notice, since they who betrayed him were of his own household. For the Eirenarchus, which is the same office as Cleronomus, Herodes by name, hasted to bring him into the arena, that he indeed might fulfil his proper lot, by becoming a partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the same punishment as Judas.
7:1 Having, therefore, with them the lad, on the day of the preparation, at the hour of dinner, there came out pursuers and horsemen, with their accustomed arms, as though going out against a thief. And having departed together late in the evening, they found him lying in a certain house, in an upper chamber. And he might have departed from thence unto another place, but was unwilling, saying, The will of the Lord be done. 7:2 And when he heard that they were present, he descended and talked with them. And they who were present wondered at the vigour of his age and his soundness of body, and that they had had to use so much trouble to capture so old a man. He straightway commanded that meat and drink should be set before them at that hour, as much as they wished, and asked them to grant him an hour to pray without molestation. 7:3 And when they suffered him, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not be silent for two hours, and they that heard him were astonished, and many repented that they had come against so divine an old man.
8:1 And when he had finished his prayer, having made mention of all who had at any time come into contact with him, both small and great, noble and ignoble, and of the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, when the hour of his departure had come, having seated him on an ass, they led him into the city, it being the great Sabbath. 8:2 And the Eirenarch Herodes and his father Nicetes met him in a chariot, who, having transferred him into their car, seating themselves beside him, would have persuaded him, saying, What is the harm to say, Caesar, Caesar, and to sacrifice, and to do such like things, and thus to be saved? But he at the first did not answer them; but when they persisted, he said, I will not do that which ye advise me. 8:3 But they, when they had failed to persuade him, said unto him dreadful words, and thrust him with such haste from the chariot that in descending from the car he grazed his shin. And paying no attention to it, as though he had suffered nothing, he proceeded zealously and with eagerness, being led to the arena, there being such a noise in the arena that no one could even be heard.
9:1 But to Polycarp, as he entered the arena, there came a voice from heaven, saying, Be strong, and play the man, O Polycarp. And the speaker no man saw; but the voice those of our people who were present heard. And when he was brought in there was a great tumult, when men heard that Polycarp was apprehended. 9:2 Then, when he had been brought in, the proconsul asked him if he was Polycarp. And when he confessed, he would have persuaded him to deny, saying, Have respect unto thine age, and other things like these, as is their custom to say: Swear by the fortunes of Caesar; Repent; Say, Away with the Atheists. But Polycarp, when he had looked with a grave face at all the multitude of lawless heathen in the arena, having beckoned unto them with his hand, sighed, and looking up unto heaven, said, Away with the Atheists! 9:3 And when the proconsul pressed him, and said, Swear, and I will release thee, revile Christ; Polycarp said, Eighty and six years have I served him, and in nothing hath he wronged me; and how, then, can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?
10:1 But when he again persisted, and said, Swear by the fortune of Caesar, he answered, If thou art vainly confident that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar, as thou suggestest, and pretendest to be ignorant of me who I am, hear distinctly, I am a Christian. But if thou desirest to learn the scheme of Christianity, give me a day to speak, and hearken unto me. 10:2 The proconsul said, Persuade the people. But Polycarp said, I have thought thee indeed worthy to receive explanation, for we have been taught to render such honour as is fitting, and as does not injure us, to the powers and authorities ordained by God; but those I consider not worthy that I should make my defence before them.
11:1 But the proconsul said unto him, I have wild beasts; I will deliver thee unto them, unless thou repentest. But he said, Call them, for repentance from the better to the worse is impossible for us; but it is a good thing to change from evil deeds to just ones. 11:2 But he said again unto him, I will cause thee to be consumed by fire if thou despisest the wild beasts, unless thou repentest. But Polycarp said, Thou threatenest me with fire that burneth but for a season, and is soon quenched. For thou art ignorant of the fire of the judgment to come, and of the eternal punishment reserved for the wicked. But why delayest thou? Bring whatever thou wishest.
12:1 While he was saying these and more things, he was filled with courage and joy, and his face was filled with grace; so that he not only was not troubled and confused by the things said unto him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald into the midst of the arena to proclaim a third time: Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian. 12:2 When this had been said by the herald, the whole multitude, both of Gentiles and Jews, that inhabit Smyrna, with irrestrainable anger and a loud voice, called out, This is the teacher of impiety, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of your gods, who teacheth many neither to sacrifice nor to worship the gods. Saying these things, they shouted out, and asked the Asiarch Philip to let loose a lion at Polycarp. But Philip replied that it was not lawful for him to do so, since he had finished the exhibition of wild beasts. 12:3 Then it seemed good unto them to shout with one voice that Polycarp should be burnt alive; for it was necessary that the vision that appeared unto him on his pillow should be fulfilled, when seeing it burning, he prayed, and said prophetically, turning to the faithful who were with him, I must be burnt alive.
13:1 These things, therefore, happened with so great rapidity, that they took less time than the narration, the multitude quickly collecting logs and brushwood from the workshops and baths, the Jews especially lending their services zealously for this purpose, as is their custom. 13:2 But when the pyre was ready, having put off all his garments, and having loosed his girdle, he essayed to take off his shoes; not being in the habit of doing this previously, because each of the faithful used to strive which should be the first to touch his body, for, on account of his good conversation, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every good gift. 13:3 Straightway, therefore, there were put around him the implements prepared for the pyre. And when they were about besides to nail him to it, he said, Suffer me thus, for he who gave me to abide the fire will also allow me, without the security of your nails, to remain on the pyre without moving.
14:1 They, therefore, did not nail him, but bound him. But he, having placed his hands behind him, and being bound, like a notable ram appointed for offering out of a great flock, prepared as a whole burnt-offering acceptable unto God, having looked up unto heaven, said, O Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received our knowledge concerning thee, the God of angels and powers, and of the whole creation, and of all the race of the just who lived before thee, 14:2 I thank thee that thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, that I should have my portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, unto the resurrection of eternal life, both of the soul and body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among these may I be received before thee this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, even as thou hast prepared and made manifest beforehand, and hast fulfilled, thou who art the unerring and true God. 14:3 On this account, and concerning all things, I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, together with the eternal and heavenly Jesus Christ thy beloved Son, with whom to thee and the Holy Spirit be glory both now and for ever. Amen.
15:1 And when he had uttered the Amen, and had finished his prayer, the men who superintended the fire kindled it. And a great flame breaking out, we, to whom it was given to see, saw a great wonder; for to this end also were we preserved, that we might announce what happened to the rest of mankind. 15:2 For the fire, assuming the form of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled with the wind, defended the body of the martyr roundabout; and it was in the midst of the flame not like flesh burning, but like bread being baked, or like gold and silver glowing in the furnace. And we perceived such a sweet-smelling savour, as though from the breath of incense, or some other precious perfume.
16:1 At last these wicked men, perceiving that his body could not be consumed by the fire, commanded the slaughterer to come near and plunge in a sword. And when he had done this, there came out a dove and an abundance of blood, so that it quenched the fire, and all the multitude wondered that there was such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. 16:2 Of whom this most admirable martyr Polycarp was one, having been in our time an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic church which is in Smyrna. For every word which he uttered from his mouth both hath been fulfilled, and shall be fulfilled.
17:1 But the evil one, who is the opponent and envier, who is the enemy to the race of men, beholding both the greatness of his testimony and his conversation blameless from the beginning, how he was crowned with a crown of immortality, and how he carried off a prize that could not be spoken against, contrived that not even a relic of him should be taken by us, though many desired to do this, and to communicate with his holy flesh. 17:2 He suborned, therefore, Nicetes, the father of Herodes, and the brother of Alce, to make interest with the governor so as not to give his body to the tomb, Lest, said he, they abandon the crucified and begin to worship this man. And these things they said at the suggestion and instance of the Jews, who also kept watch when we were about to take the body from the fire, not knowing that we shall never be able to abandon Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the blameless on behalf of sinners, nor to worship any one else. 17:3 Him we adore as the Son of God; but the martyrs, as the disciples and imitators of the Lord, we love according to their deserts, on account of their incomparable love for their King and Teacher, with whom may it be our lot to be partners and fellow-disciples.
18:1 Therefore, the centurion, seeing the strife that had risen among the Jews, placed the body in the midst of the fire and burned it. 18:2 Thus we, having afterwards taken up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, laid them where it was suitable. 18:3 There, so far as is allowed us, when we are gathered together in exultation and joy, the Lord will enable us to celebrate the birthday of the martyrs, both for the memory of those who have contended, and for the exercise and preparation of those to come.
19:1 Such were the things that happened to the blessed Polycarp, who together with those from Philadelphia was the twelfth who suffered martyrdom in Smyrna; but he alone is held in memory by all, so that he is spoken of in every place even by the Gentiles; not only being a distinguished teacher, but also an eminent martyr, whose testimony we desire to imitate, since it happened according to the Gospel of Christ. 19:2 For having overcome by patience the unjust governor, and so having received the crown of immortality, rejoicing together with the apostles and all the just, he glorifieth God and the Father, and blesseth our Lord Jesus Christ the Saviour of our souls, and the pilot of our bodies, and the shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.
20:1 Ye therefore desired that the things that had happened should be shown unto you more at length; but we for the present have related them unto you briefly by means of our brother Marcus. Now do ye, when ye have read these things, send on the letter to the brethren who are further off, that they also may glorify the Lord, who is making a selection from among his own servants. 20:2 To him who is able to bring us all in, by his grace and gift, into his eternal kingdom, through his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ; to him be the glory, honour, strength, majesty for ever. Amen. Salute all the saints. They who are with us salute you, and Evarestus who wrote these things, and all his house.
21:1 Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the month Xanthicus, on the twenty-fifth of April, on the great Sabbath, at the eighth hour. But he was apprehended by Herodes, when Philip of Tralles was high priest, Statius Quadratus being proconsul, and Jesus Christ king for ever, to whom be glory, honour, majesty, and eternal throne, from generation to generation. Amen.
22:1 We pray, brethren, that you may fare well, walking by the word of the gospel of Jesus Christ, with whom be glory to God and the Father, and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of the holy elect, even as the blessed Polycarp hath born witness, in whose steps may we be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. 22:2 These things have been transcribed by Gaius, from the manuscripts of Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, who also was a fellow-citizen to Irenaeus. But I, Socrates, made a copy in Corinth from the copies of Gaius. Grace be with you all. 22:3 But I, Pionius, afterwards copied them from the above written, having sought them out, after that the blessed Polycarp had made them manifest to me by a revelation, as I will show in what follows; having gathered them together, when they had already become almost obliterated by time, in order that the Lord Jesus Christ may gather me also together with his elect, unto his heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.