I’d like to investigate a Christian claim that’s both trivial and profound and that delivers an important takeaway for all of us.
The claim is the mid-second century conversation between Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and the Roman proconsul (governor) of Asia, the Roman province in what is now western Turkey. Polycarp was apparently charged with refusing to honor Caesar as a god. Though he was treated with respect and encouraged that stating a simple oath to Caesar would avoid death as punishment, Polycarp refused and famously said, “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?”
This is trivial in that nothing of significance changes whether Polycarp said this or not. A Christian saint expresses great loyalty to Jesus—where’s the problem? Can’t we let the Christians have their heroes?
Why this is interesting
I recently listened to a lecture that included this story, and the Christian presenters commented how powerful this story was to them. That got me thinking: how do we know that the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom is accurate? More importantly, how can we trust hundreds of claims made about the early church?
I’ve recently explored the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts on which our modern copies rely (here, here). We’re now turning to the question of the reliability of stories documented outside the New Testament. Checking the weaknesses in the Polycarp martyrdom story is the goal of this post, but we would go through a similar process with any other story from the early church.
I hope that this post will do two things. First, I want to suggest by example some approaches with which you might test other church claims as you come across them. Second, I want to encourage you to be skeptical when claims about the early church are made. These claims are often part of apologetic arguments for Christianity, but those arguments are no stronger than their claims. Taking the supporting claims on faith won’t do.
Does the story hold up?
The story comes from The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a letter written by an unknown author from the church in Smyrna. Our first concern with the reliability of the story comes from the miracle claims in the story itself. When Polycarp was thrown on the fire, “he was within it not as burning flesh, but as bread that is being baked, or as gold and silver being refined in a furnace. And we perceived such a fragrant smell as the scent of incense or other costly spices.” Since he wouldn’t die, the executioner stabbed him, which released his spirit as a dove and enough blood to put out the fire, and still his body wasn’t burned.
The faithful statement of loyalty, “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong,” is by itself easy to believe, but it’s part of a story containing miracles. The challenge to show that the entire story is history (or that a non-supernatural, historical core was corrupted by miracle claims) just got much tougher.
Problem 2Next, the story parallels Jesus’s Passion narrative. Polycarp was betrayed, and the author wished that “they who betrayed him should undergo the same punishment as Judas.” Like Jesus and Pilate, Polycarp was publicly tried by the local Roman high official. In both cases, that official looked for a way to avoid the punishment of death. The Jews in the crowd were opponents to both Jesus (Matthew 27:25) and Polycarp. Polycarp was affixed to a wooden apparatus, to which the victim was typically nailed. With so many parallels, plus many direct quotations, one wonders how much is history and how much fan fiction.
We don’t know the time gap from the death until the letter was written (Polycarp is variously said to have been martyred in 155 or 156 CE or in 166 or 167). Oral history is no friend of accuracy, and the letter has clues that it was written decades after the event. It makes a clear statement against voluntary martyrdom, though this wasn’t a problem in the church until the late second century. The letter also cautions against venerating human remains as relics (not a problem until the third century) and worshipping martyrs over Christ (not a problem until the fourth century). People don’t usually warn against something that’s not a problem, so the date of authorship is arguably during a period when those issues were problems. (Sources here, here.)
We’ll finish up in part 2 with two more problems with the Polycarp claim. As we move through these issues, imagine applying these questions more broadly. Imagine applying them to other claims about the early church. These might be the claim about Pliny the Younger’s correspondence with the Emperor Trajan about the Christians in his province, for example. Or the popular claim that all disciples except for John died martyr’s deaths.
A skeptical approach and a few good questions can expose the weak foundation in many such claims.
Concluded in part 2.
among the most serious problems of this age.
— “Joy and Hope,”
one of the four constitutions
from the Second Vatican Council, 1965
Image from Wikimedia, public domain