Daily Archives: 2013-11-13 03:42:55 UTC

The Late Invention of Polycarp’s Martyrdom

I’m currently reading The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, by Candida Moss. (See her Wikipedia entry for her credentials and links to several reviews of The Myth of Persecution.) One aspect of her discussion of Polycarp’s martyrdom struck me more than the details alerting us to the fictional elements of the account, and that was the evidence suggesting our account of his death was composed a hundred years later than commonly thought.

One piece of evidence is the sub-narrative about Quintus, a clear foil for the true martyr, Polycarp. Of Quintus we read:

Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.

Quintus was one who rushed to martyrdom. He believed Christians should actively seek out martyrdom. Yet his position is shown to be a complete sham once he confronts reality, and he departs the faith instead.

Candida Moss comments:

Some years after the death of Polycarp, around the turn of the third century, voluntary martyrdom became an issue in the early church. Clement of Alexandria, for instance, a Christian philosopher and teacher in Egypt, argued that those who rushed forward to martyrdom were not really Christians at all, but merely shared the name. (p. 101)

It may be significant, too, that Quintus is singled out as a Phyrgian. It was in Phrygia that the anarchic Montanist movement began from around 168 CE. The Montanists were notorious for their wild prophetic utterances and zealous seeking of martyrdom.

The problem of suicidal volunteering for martyrdom was a phenomenon of the late second and third centuries. Polycarp was supposed to have been martyred 155 CE. read more »