Tuesday, October 08, 2019
Eusebius, EH.4.14-15: The Life and Martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna
This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History. Here is Book 4, chapters 14-15. Listen here.
Notes and Commentary:
The focus of these chapters is the life and martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna.
Chapter 14 begins with an excerpt from book three of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies and his note that from own childhood he knew the aged, respected, and orthodox Polycarp. Irenaeus recalls several anecdotes about Polycarp, including:
How he made a trip to Rome during which he corrected and converted heretics.
How Polycarp said John fled from the baths at Ephesus when the heretic Cerinthus entered for fear the bath would collapse!
How when Marcion asked for his recognition, Polycarp told him, “I recognize you as the first-born of Satan.”
He also mentions Polycarp's letter to the Philippians.
At the end of the chapter Eusebius notes the imperial transition from Antoninus Pius to his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius Verus and Lucius in AD 161.
Chapter 15 then describes the martyrdom of Polycarp, drawn from a written account of it. Lake suggests: “This seems to be a mistake,” since “It is almost certain that the death of Polycarp was in AD 156.”
This chapter then relays an extended account of the death of Polycarp using excerpts and summaries from “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”
The climax comes when the aged Polycarp is taken into the arena and urged to say “Away with the atheists”, but Polycarp turns to the pagan crowd in the arena and says, “Away with the atheists.”
When urged to take an oath to Caesar to avoid death, the aged martyr responds: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
When he was preserved from the fire, Polycarp was then stabbed with a dagger and so much blood flowed that the fire was extinguished.
With his death mention is made of the claiming of his bones, “more precious than precious stones, and finer than gold.”
The chapter ends with reference to other early martyrs, including:
Metrodorous, though he had been “a presbyter of the Marcionite error.”
Pionius, of whose death, Eusebius says, there is a popular written account.
Three martyrs of Pergamon in Asia: Carpus and Papylas, and a woman, Agathonice.
This chapter well illustrates Eusebius’s use of sources. The focus on Polycarp demonstrates the rise of interest in the early martyrs and traditions that grow up about them (the “cult of the martyrs”), including the practice of obtaining relics from them after their martyrdom. The narrative is sure to say, however, that they did not worship the martyrs as they did God but showed respect to them as disciples of Christ. These chapters also demonstrate the price paid for the faith by some early Christians.