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Martyria and Heresy in Saint Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians-A Theological Note


St. Polycarp (69-156 AD) is an Apostolic Father of the Church. He served Smyrna as its bishop appointed by the Apostles, according to St. Irenaeus. (Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp. He refers to Polycarp in his work “Against Heresies”, III.3.4).

Polycarp wrote several epistles. However, his only surviving epistle is the one to the Phillipians. This epistle is actually the combination of two epistles, as Harrison (1936) has implied and the academic community has generally accepted. The first epistle (chapter 13) is a brief note written before the death of St. Ignatius of Antioch, while the second (the rest of the text) was written after the death of St. Ignatius. Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians refers to two important theological themes: Martyria, and Heresy.


Christian martyria has a double meaning. It can either refer to the witness for Christ, offered by a faithful person or the martyrdom suffered because of a person’s belief in Christ. Polycarp, in his epistle to the Philippians makes several remarks on the holy martyrs who are: “the diadems of those who have been truly chosen by God and our Lord”. Philippians ought to follow the example of the martyrs and endure the tribulations of this world. The martyrs of course suffered with the Lord in faith and righteousness. Furthermore, they became witnesses of “him who died on our behalf, and was raised by God for our sakes”. In other words, the martyrs teach the faithful how to live “in this present world” and also about “the word of righteousness”. Polycarp mentions in his letter the names of Zosimus and Rufus but also the names of great Christian teachers like St. Ignatius, St. Paul and the other Apostles. The teachings of these saints are equally important to their heroic actions.

Christian martyria has ethical implications as well. St. Polycarp’s letter emphasizes the virtues of perseverance, mildness, goodness, forgiveness, almsgiving, blamelessness, purity and chastity. He also advises the Philippians against the love of money; the beginning of all evils. The cultivation of these virtues makes a person an imitator of the Lord’s example and an appreciator of Christian doctrines. Polycarp presents wonderfully how faith and praxis co-exist in Christian martyria. He writes:

“Wherefore gird up your loins and serve God in fear and truth, forsaking the vain and empty talking and the error of the many, for that ye have believed on Him that raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and gave unto him glory and a throne on His right hand; unto whom all things were made subject that are in heaven and that are on the earth; to whom every creature that hath breath doeth service; who cometh as judge of quick and dead; whose blood God will require of them that are disobedient unto Him. Now He that raised Him from the dead will raise us also; if we do His will and walk in His commandments and love the things which He loved, abstaining from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; not rendering evil for evil or railing for railing or blow for blow or cursing for cursing; but remembering the words which the Lord spake, as He taught; Judge not that ye be not judged. Forgive, and it shall be forgiven to you. Have mercy that ye may receive mercy. With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again; and again Blessed are the poor and they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

Polycarp believes that a faithful martyria guarantees that “the eternal priest himself, Jesus Christ, the Son of God” will offer to the believers “lot and parts with his saints”. Faithful martyria of course requires also avoidance of heretical teachings and disassociation from “false brothers”.

Heresy for Polycarp is the greatest evil. He describes heresy as following:

“For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is antichrist: and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross, is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore let us forsake the vain doing of the many and their false teachings, and turn unto the word which was delivered unto us from the beginning, being sober unto prayer and constant in fasting, entreating the all-seeing God with supplications that He bring us not into temptation, according as the Lord said, The Spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Among the heretics described above were the Marcionites. A group of believers in a docetic Christology. Irenaeus in “Against Heresies” (III.3.4) refers to the anti-marcionite actions of Polycarp and how he was able to convert many from the heresies of Marcion and Valentinus to orthodoxy. Irenaeus also describes a meeting that Polycarp had with Marcion himself in Rome. When Marcion asked Polycarp if he recognizes him, Polycarp replied: “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan”. Heresy for Polycarp is a danger for the Church worse than persecution.


Polycarp’s understanding of “martyria” and “heresy” reflects his knowledge and appreciation of St. John’s theology. The theme of martyria is presented extensively in St. John’s book of Revelation. The first martyr is Christ himself (1,5). Christians must follow Christ, offering martyria as well, because “the time is near” (1,3 and 1,9). Christian martyrs suffer in order to be prepared for the “lamb’s wedding” (19,9). The souls of the martyrs are present in the heavenly altar (6,9). They stand next to Christ wearing white clothes, washed by the “lamb’s blood” (7, 14). St. John condemns as antichrists those who do not accept the real humanity of Christ. In his first epistle, he writes: “every spirit which says that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God; and every spirit which does not say this is not from God: this is the spirit of antichrist” (4, 2-3).

The Johanitte teaching, regarding martyria’s value and heresy’s nature, exists also in Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians. Although, the Johannite literature is not cited in the epistle (except 1John, 4:2-3) the essence of Johannite theology is present. Fitzgerald’s (2006:14) remark that “St. Polycarp stands more in the Pauline than in the Johannine tradition” is not exactly accurate. Polycarp uses a lot of St. Paul’s sayings because his epistle has an ethical character, and the Pauline epistles offer many important ethical advises. On the other hand, as a disciple of John, Polycarp reflects in his writings the Johannite theology.

Polycarp validated his theological positions by remaining faithful to the orthodox apostolic tradition until the end, and by having himself the death of a martyr. The Orthodox Church celebrates his memory on February 23.

Bibliographic notes:

Bauer, W. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity. Philadelphia, 1971; Clarke, CP. St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp. London, 1930; Fitzgerald, B.E. St. Polycarp: Bishop, Martyr, and Teacher of Apostolic Tradition. Souderton PA, 2006; Harrison, P. Polycarp’s Two Epistles to the Philippians. Cambridge, 1936; Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies; Papadopoulos S. Patrologia vol. 1. Athens, 1982; Polycarp of Smyrna. The Epistle to the Philippians.


About the Author:

Rev.Fr.Dr.Vassilios Bebis is the Presiding Priest at Saint Nektarios Orthodox Church in Rosindale,Boston