The Late Invention of Polycarp’s Martyrdom

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by Neil Godfrey

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.




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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “The Late Invention of Polycarp’s Martyrdom”

  1. You’re welcome, Peter. I am sure there are implications, but I kept my post brief because I am limited by 3rd world internet connections while traveling outside Australia until next week. Much more to follow — if I ever catch up.

  2. 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)

    Interesting since that’s exactly Ignatius’ deal.

  3. @Neil

    (1) What ancient writing is the source of the red quotes? Who is “the author of our account of Polycarp’s death”, or where is that account found? And when was it written (or guessed to be written)?

    (2) Your last 2 sentences confused me:
    So, 300s fear of worship of martyr while 200s fear of worship of human bones?
    They worshiped the martyr’s bones before they worshipped the martyr?

    (3) Using this line to suggest that they view Jesus as celestial but not earthly is interesting. But when do we have first evidence of veneration of things supposedly used by an earthly Jesus — like pieces of a cross, the chalice, his shroud …? This data would be important to your point, I think.

    1. Given my fluctuating wifi via my iPhone in a cheap Indonesian hotel right now my reply will be brief.

      Details on Martyrdom of Polycarp can be found at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/martyrdompolycarp.html

      The fear of worshiping martyrs was the fear of setting them on a par with Christ.

      The martyrdom stories serve to support orthodoxy – including the teaching Jesus came as a man to earth.

      Moss is arguing that the internal evidence argues for a date of the Martyrdom document at least a century after P’s actual death. That is, at least a century later than generally thought.

      The point is that we don’t know the details of the martyrdoms, what was said or what they believed. Later propagandists have used them to argue for their own later agendas.

      1. So that letter is passed off as written by Ignatius or whom?
        I think I will make a timeline on my end to help me get a better handle on these chaps — I am sure you already have elaborate timelines in your head.
        Enjoy your stay in Indonesia! I’m envious.

        1. The only evidence for the attribution of the letter comes from its own beginning and end. Ignatius does not appear here, but the Church of the Smyrnaeans, the letter carrier Marcion (otherwise unknown, the famous one, or a late 2nd century one), the secretary or author Evarestus (otherwise unknown), the name of Pionius who found the letter (a martyr of the third century during the Decian persecution), and a whole sequence of intermediary scribes (including Gaius, either otherwise-unknown or possibly the one known in Rome in the late 2nd century) do.

          Preface: The Church of God which sojourns in Smyrna, to the Church of God which sojourns in Philomelium, and to all the sojournings of the Holy Catholic Church in every place.

          Ch. 20: You, indeed, asked that the events should be explained to you at length, but we have for the present explained them in summary by our brother Marcion; therefore when you have heard these things, send the letter to the brethren further on, that they also may glorify the Lord, who takes his chosen ones from his own servants. 2 And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and bounty, to his heavenly kingdom, by his only begotten Child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honour, might, and majesty for ever. Greet all the saints. Those who are with us, and Evarestus, who wrote the letter, with his whole house, greet you.

          Ch. 22: We bid you God-speed, brethren, who walk according to the Gospel, in the word 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 suffered martyrdom, in whose footsteps may it be granted us to be found in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. 2 Gaius copied this from the writing of Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, and he lived with Irenaeus, and I, Socrates, wrote it out in Corinth, from the copies of Gaius. Grace be with you all. 3 And I, again, Pionius, wrote it out from the former writings, after searching for it, because the blessed Polycarp showed it me in a vision, as I will explain in what follows, and I gathered it together when it was almost worn out by age, that the Lord Jesus Christ may also gather me together with his elect into his heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.

          If we conclude that chapter 22 was part of the original text, and it is in all the manuscripts, then it is very simple to date the text to the period shortly after 250 AD, but before 300 AD because of the quotations from Eusebius. But because most critical opinion has separated chapters 21 and 22 from the rest of the text, as might be plausible from the conclusions in chapter 20, further argument is necessary to secure the conclusion. Some of that is offered by Godfrey and Moss above, and some other considerations I go into (though I’m surely not the first).

  4. >>>>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.<<<>>But the worthy John, since he perceived that a great number of people in many of the towns of Greece and Italy had already been infected by this disease, and because he heard, I suppose, that even the tombs of Peter and Paul were being worshipped —-secretly, it is true, but still he did hear this,—-he, I say, was the first to venture to call Jesus God.


      1. Julian’s quote illustrates that perhaps the issue of martyrs being worshipped in place of Christ pre-dates the concern accounted for in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Also Candida R. Moss makes some interesting comments (see link below) concerning the venerating of human bones and the possibility that John the Baptist’s bones were collected shortly after his death.


        1. Julian’s testimony tells us what was believed in Julian’s day but, in the absence of corroborating evidence, not what was believed very much earlier.

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