Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (martyred in his 87th year, ca. 155–167) was a Christian bishop of Smyrna (now İzmir in Turkey) in the second century. He died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed. Polycarp is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. It is recorded that “He had been a disciple of John.” Traditional advocates follow Eusebius in insisting that the apostolic connection of Papius was with John the Evangelist, and that the author of the Gospel of John was the Apostle.
His sole surviving work is his Letter to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the New Testament. It, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that takes the form of a circular letter from the church of Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, form part of the collection of writings Roman Catholics term “The Apostolic Fathers” to emphasize their particular closeness to the apostles in Church traditions. The Martyrdom is considered the earliest genuine account of a Christian martyrdom, and one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.
Polycarp was not a philosopher or theologian. He appears, from surviving accounts, to have been a practical leader and gifted teacher, “a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics,” said Irenaeus, who remembered him from his youth. (Adversus Haereses III.3.4). He lived in an age after the deaths of the apostles, when a variety of interpretations of the sayings of Jesus were being preached. His role was to authenticate orthodox teachings through his reputed connection with the apostle John. Surviving accounts of the bravery of this very old man in the face of death by burning at the stake added credence to his words.
The date of Polycarp’s death is disputed. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, circa 166 – 167. However, a post-Eusebian addition to the Martyrdom of Polycarp dates his death to Saturday, February 23 in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus—which works out to be 155 or 156. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist.