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.
Another detail pointing to a later than generally understood date is that the author of our account of Polycarp’s death expresses concern that some readers would confuse a martyr with Christ himself. After describing the way the Romans removed the remains of Polycarp to avoid devotion to his relics, we are told that we do not worship the martyrs, but Christ only. And this is related to yet a third detail suggesting a much later date for this account than generally supposed, the veneration of relics.
But when the adversary of the race of the righteous, the envious, malicious, and wicked one, perceived the impressive nature of his martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the beginning, and how he was now crowned with the wreath of immortality, having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh.
For this end he suggested it to Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to go and entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried,lest,said he,forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.This he said at the suggestion and urgent persuasion of the Jews, who also watched us, as we sought to take him out of the fire, being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners ), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master
The fear of martyrs being worshiped in place of Christ is nowhere else attested until the fourth century CE.
The interest in venerating human bones as holy relics is nowhere else a problem until the third century CE.