Lipsius brings the date of the epistle down to about 260, though he admits many of the statements as trustworthy. Keim, too, endeavours to show that, although it was based on good information, it could not have been composed till the middle of the 3rd century. A similar position has also been taken up by Schürer, Holtzmann, Gebhardt, Réville, and van Manen. The last named regards the document “as a decorated narrative of the saint's martyrdom framed after the pattern of Jesus' martyrdom,” though he thinks that it cannot be put as late as 250, but must fall within the limits of the 2nd century. It cannot be said, however, that the case against the document has been at all substantiated, and the more moderate school of modern critics (e.g. Lightfoot, Harnack, Krüger) is unanimous in regarding it as an authentic document, though it recognizes that here and there a few slight interpolations have been inserted. Besides these we have no other sources for the life of Polycarp; the Vita S. Polycarpi auctore Pionio (published by Duchesne, Paris, 1881, and Lightfoot Ignatius and Polycarp, 1885, ii. 1015-1047) is worthless.
Assuming the genuineness of the documents mentioned, we now proceed to collect the scanty information which they afford with regard to Polycarp's career. Very little is known about his early life. He must have been born not later than the year 69, for on the day of his death (c. 155) he declared that he had served the Lord for eighty-six years (Martyrium, 9). The statement seems to imply that he was of Christian parentage; he cannot have been older than eighty-six at the time of his martyrdom, since he had paid a visit to Rome almost immediately before. Irenaeus tells us that in early life Polycarp “had been taught by apostles and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ” (iii. 3,4). This testimony is expanded in the remarkable words which Irenaeus addresses to Florinus: “I saw thee when I was still a boy (παῖς ἔτι ὤν) in Lower Asia in company with Polycarp . . . I can even now point out the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he discoursed, and describe his goings out and his comings in, his manner of life and his personal appearance and the discourses which he delivered to the people, how he used to speak of his intercourse with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words. And everything that he had heard from them about the Lord, about His miracles and about His teaching, Polycarp used to tell us as one who had received it from those who had seen the Word of Life with their own eyes, and all this in perfect harmony with the Scriptures. To these things I used to listen at the time, through the mercy of God vouchsafed to me, noting them down, not on paper but in my heart, and constantly by the grace of God I brood over my accurate recollections.” These are priceless words, for they establish a chain of tradition (John-Polycarp-Irenaeus) which is without a parallel in early church history. Polycarp thus becomes the living link between the Apostolic age and the great writers who flourished at the end of the 2nd century. Recent criticism, however, has endeavoured to destroy the force of the words of Irenaeus. Harnack, for instance, attacks this link at both ends. (a) The connexion of Irenaeus and Polycarp, he argues, is very weak, because Irenaeus was only a boy (παῖς) at the time, and his recollections therefore carry very little weight. The fact too that he never shows any signs of having been influenced by Polycarp and never once quotes his writings is a further proof that the relation between them was slight. (b) The connexion which Irenaeus tries to establish between Polycarp and John the apostle is probably due to a blunder. Irenaeus has confused John the apostle and John the presbyter. Polycarp was the disciple of the latter, not the former. In this second argument Harnack has the support of a considerable number of modern scholars who deny the Ephesian residence of John the apostle. But, as Gwatkin has pointed out, Harnack's arguments are by no means decisive. (a) When Irenaeus describes himself as a boy (παῖς), he need not have meant a very young lad, under thirteen, as Harnack makes out. Lightfoot has cited many instances which prove that the word could be used of a man of thirty. Nor does the alternative phrase which Irenaeus uses in iii. 3, 4 (ὅν καὶ ἡμεῖς ἑωράκαμεν ἐν τῇ τρωτῇ ἡμῶν ἡλικίᾳ) militate against this interpretation, for elsewhere Irenaeus himself distinctly says “triginta annorum aetas prima indoles est juvenis” (ii. 22, 5). It is true that Harnack has adduced arguments which cannot be discussed here to prove that Irenaeus was not born till about 140; but against this we may quote the decision of Lipsius, who puts the date of his birth at 130, while Lightfoot argues for 120. The fact that Irenaeus never quotes Polycarp does not count for much. Polycarp wrote very little. He does not seem to have been a man of great mental capacity. “His influence was that of saintliness rather than that of intellect.” (b) A discussion of Harnack's second line of argument is impossible here. His theory with regard to the confusion of names is a gratuitous assumption and cannot be proved. The tradition of St John's residence at Ephesus is too strong to be easily set aside. In spite therefore of much modern criticism there seems to be no solid reason for rejecting the statements of Irenaeus and regarding Polycarp as the link between the Apostolic age and the first of the Catholic fathers.
Though Polycarp must have been bishop of Smyrna for nearly half a century we know next to nothing about his career. We get only an occasional glimpse of his activity, and the period between 115 and 155 is practically a blank. The only points of sure information which we possess relate to (1) his relations with Ignatius, (2) his protests against heresy, (3) his visit to Rome in the time of Anicetus, (4) his martyrdom.
1. His Relations with Ignatius.—Ignatius, while on his way to Rome to suffer martyrdom, halted at Smyrna and received a warm welcome from the church and its bishop. Upon reaching Troas he dispatched two letters, one to the church at Smyrna, another addressed personally to Polycarp. In these letters Ignatius charged Polycarp to write to all the churches between Smyrna and Syria (since his hurried departure from Troas made it impossible for him to do so in person) urging them to send letters and delegates to the church at Antioch to congratulate it upon the cessation of the persecution and to establish it in the faith. The letters of Ignatius illustrate the commanding position which Polycarp had already attained in Asia. It was in the discharge of the task which had been laid upon him by Ignatius that Polycarp was brought into correspondence with the Philippians. The Church at Philippi wrote to Polycarp asking him to forward their letters to Antioch. Polycarp replied, promising to carry out their request and enclosing a number of the letters of Ignatius which he had in his possession.
2. Polycarp's Attack on Heresy.—All through his life Polycarp appears to have been an uncompromising opponent of heresy. We find him in his epistle (ch. vii.) uttering a strong protest against certain false teachers (probably the followers of Cerinthus).
“For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is Antichrist; and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore let us forsake their vain doing and their false teaching and turn unto the word which was delivered unto us from the beginning.”
Polycarp lived to see the rise of the Marcionite and Valentinian
sects and vigorously opposed them. Irenaeus tells us that on
- Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol. (1874), p. 200 seq.
- Aus dem Urchristenthum (1878), p. 90.
- Zeitschr. f. hist. Theol. (1870), p. 203 seq.
- Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol. (1877).
- Zeitschr. f. hist. Theol. (1875).
- De anno Polycarpi (1881).
- Oud-Christ (1861), and Ency. Bib. iii. 3479.
- Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 589 seq.
- Gesch. d. altchrist. Lit. II. i. 341.
- Early Christian Lit. (Eng. trans., 1897), p. 380.
- Amongst these we ought probably to include the expression ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία (xvi. 19), καθολικὸς being here used in the sense of orthodox—a usage which is not found elsewhere at so early a date.
- Chronologie, i. 325-329.
- Contemp. Review, February 1897.
- Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 432, for instance, Constantine (Euseb. V.C. ii. 51) describes himself as κομιδῇ παῖς, though he must have been over thirty at the time.
- Chronologie, i. 325-333.
- See Lightfoot, op. cit. i. 432.
- Essays on Supernatural Religion, 264, 265.