Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the Christian Church. He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. It is probable that he knew John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus. He was an elder of an important congregation in an area where the apostles laboured. And he is from an era whose orthodoxy is widely accepted by Orthodox Churches, Oriental Churches, Seventh Day Church of God groups, Protestants and Catholics alike. All of this makes his writings of great interest.
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. 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: “a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of apostolic doctrine,” Wace commented, “his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers. Irenaeus states (iii. 3) that on Polycarp’s visit to Rome his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus. 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.
His martyrdom is of particular importance in understanding the position of the church in the pagan era of the Roman Empire. While the persecution is supported by the local proconsul, the author of the account noted the bloodthirstiness of the crowd in their calls for the death of Polycarp (Ch. 3). Additionally, the account also demonstrates the complexity of the Roman government’s position toward Christianity, since the Christians are given the opportunity to recant and are not punished immediately as confessed criminals. This rather odd judicial system toward the crime of Christianity would later be derided by Tertullian in his Apology.
Polycarp was a great transmitter and authenticator of Christian Revelation in a period when the gospels and epistles were just beginning to achieve acceptance. Although his visit to Rome to meet Anicetus has in the past been used by some in the Roman Catholic Church to buttress papal claims, the documented truth according to Catholic sources is that Polycarp did not accept the authority of the Roman Bishops to change Passover (rather, they agreed to disagree, both believing their practice to be Apostolic) — nor did some of those who have been suggested to be his spiritual successors, such as Melito of Sardis and Polycrates of Ephesus.
The chief sources of information concerning Polycarp are four: the authentic epistles of Ignatius, which include one to Polycarp; Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians; passages in Irenaeus’ Adversus Haeresis; and the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp.