But when the proconsul persisted and said, “Take the oath and I will release you. Revile Christ.” Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years 10 I have served him and he has done me no wrong. How could I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Polycarp: In Context
Polycarp was an early Christian disciple, born around 69AD. He would have been born shortly after the death of the Apostle Paul. Polycarp would have been alive during the later parts of the Apostle John’s ministry. History indicates that Polycarp may very well have been a disciple of John. It is speculated that Polycarp was martyred sometime between 155AD and 167AD. The earlier date is preferred.
Having given the nuts and bolts, let’s consider some historical context. Polycarp’s life would have begun just prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70AD and ended just before the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The time of his ministry service was during some of the most volatile, expansive, and influential of the early Christian era. As such, he is considered one of the three key Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Obviously, Polycarp did not write the story of his own martyrdom. However, the story of his death for the cause of Christ and the gospel is inspiring. Having been a minister of the gospel for decades, he was brought before the Roman leadership and called upon to renounce his faith. In front of a crowd of angry Roman citizens, Polycarp stood his ground, refusing to deny Jesus in the face of death. He was threatened with being mauled by beasts and burned with fire. In essence, Polycarp called for the governing authorities to do their worst. There was nothing they could threaten him with that would cause him to turn away from the Living Christ.
In the work, most issues are pretty self-explanatory. There is one issue, however, that needs some cultural clarification that makes the point all the more profound. Not quite halfway through the work, this interaction takes place: “Therefore when he was brought forward the proconsul asked him if he was Polycarp, and when he admitted it, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, ‘Have respect for your age’ and ⌊so forth⌋. As is their custom to say, ‘Swear by the fortune of Caesar, repent, say ‘Away with the atheists!’ But Polycarp, with a serious face, looked at the whole crowd, those lawless heathens in the stadium, and shook his hand at them, both groaned and looked up to the heaven, and said, ‘Away with the atheists!’ What exactly is going on here?
Throughout parts of Roman history, and particularly during the days of Polycarp, the Romans would call anyone that did not believe in the pantheon of Roman gods an “atheist.” The Christians often received this title, because they only believed in the One, True God. As such, they were called “atheists,” or, those who do not believe in the “gods.” When Polycarp was brought before the proconsul and the mob, he was summoned upon to declare “…away with the atheists.” In its own way, this would have been a denial of Jesus and an affirmation of the Roman gods. Boldly, Polycarp did just that – but not in the way that the Romans expected! He shook his hand at the crowd of Romans and called them atheists, and announced that they should be the ones taken away!
What We Learn and What Is Next
We learn from Polycarp three key things. First, we should not be afraid of those claiming “power.” We should not be afraid of those who can only kill the body, but rather we should fear God. Second, we should take every opportunity to boldly proclaim Christ. Third, while we shouldn’t seek death, we should be prepared for it if it comes in the day of persecution. Polycarp gives us an example of bold, faithful Christianity. He was a true hero of the faith.
For the month of April, we will be reading the third book on our list, On The Incarnation by Athansius. Enjoy!