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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world

The Greek Life of *Polykarpos (bishop and martyr of Smyrna, S00004) recounts the life and miracles of Polykarpos/Polycarp, describing him as a holy man and miracle worker, without referring to his martyrdom. Written in Smyrna (western Asia Minor), in the 3rd/4th c.

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint

Life of Polycarp (BHG 1561)


§§ 1-2 Paul the Apostle's presence in Smyrna, and his teaching on the celebration of Easter

(1) The author states that he returns to an earlier point of his narrative, in which he will recount events starting from the presence of Paul the Apostle in Smyrna, which he knows from ancient documents, and will then proceed with the story of Polycarp.

(2) Paul comes from Galatia to Asia during the feast of the unleavened bread, and visits Smyrna, before travelling to Jerusalem. He visits Strataias, a follower of his from Pamphylia, son of a certain Euneikē and grandson of Lōis, two women mentioned by Paul in 2 Timothy 1:5. At Strataias’ house, Paul talks to the people about the celebration of the Pascha and the Fiftieth Day (Pentecost); and about the ritual of bread and wine which must be celebrated during the days of the unleavened bread, and not outside that period, as the heretics do, especially the Montanists. Paul never instructed that Pascha should necessarily fall on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan.

§§ 3-5 Polycarp’s life as a servant in the household of the pious lady Kallistō

(3) After the departure of the apostle, Strataias succeeds him and others after him, whose names will be given by the author later on. During the episcopate of a certain Boukolos, a pious lady called Kallistō has a dream vision of an angel instructing her to go to the Ephesus gate of Smyrna, where she will meet two men, with a boy from the East called Polycarp. She must ask them if the boy is for sale, buy him for any price and keep him in her household. She does as instructed and raises Polycarp, educating him in the faith and loving him like a son. As he grows up, she assigns to him the administration of her household, entrusting him with the keys of her storerooms.

(4) At some point, Kallistō travels away from home and leaves Polycarp as the guardian of her household. Polycarp distributes wheat, wine and oil to any widow, orphan or poor neighbour who asks for it.

(5) Kallistō returns and one of her servants reports that Polycarp has given away everything; deeply angered, she calls for him, and inspects the storerooms. Polycarp prays for everything to be found replenished, and indeed Kallistō finds the stores full of goods. Suspecting that the servant lied to her, she is enraged and orders him to be beaten. But Polycarp prevents her, saying that the man told the truth, and is indeed praiseworthy for his devotion to his mistress. He explains what happened, which amazes Kallistō and strengthens her in faith and good deeds. When she dies, she bequeaths all her possessions to Polycarp.

§§ 6-10 Polycarp’s character and charitable habits in early life

(6) After the death of Kallistō, Polycarp progresses in faith and virtue. As a man of eastern origins, he is industrious and fond of learning. Yet he also learns the manners of the locals, since, like a true servant of God, he recognises the whole world as his dwelling, and the heavenly Jerusalem as his home. He trains in the scriptures, in prayer and in all good deeds. His food and clothes are simple, and never beyond necessary.

(7) Polycarp avoids public and frequented places, mostly staying at home or in the countryside. Already as a youth, he has the gait of an older man, and a manly outlook. He blushes when someone looks into his face, which is the sign of a wise spirit. He avoids gossip and idle chat, and only talks with people who can help him by their words and example.

(8) Returning from the countryside he helps wood-carriers, especially the elderly, and often buys their unsold loads, in order to give them to widows living by the gate.

(9) As an adult, he realises that freedom is the result of discipline, but very few can have it. He decides not to marry, in order to keep himself free from the distractions of living with a wife and raising children.

(10) Polycarp’s predecessor as bishop, Boukolos, loves him and hopes to be succeeded by him. Polycarp, in turn, loves his bishop like a father. Boukolos follows Polycarp’s eagerness to help the destitute, the sick and the elderly, hearing about him from the recipients of his charity. He is also aware of cures of diseases and exorcisms performed by Polycarp, and receives visions about him.

§§ 11-19 Polycarp’s ministry and teaching as a deacon and presbyter

(11) Boukolos ordains Polycarp a deacon. (12) As a deacon, he demonstrates particular eloquence in refuting Jews and pagans, and is persuaded by Boukolos to start preaching in the church as well. He is thus trained in the teachings of the canon of the orthodox and catholic faith, and shows remarkable ability in explaining difficult passages of the scriptures. He writes several treatises, homilies and letters, which, however, were lost during the persecution, after his martyrdom. Yet his extant works still demonstrate the character of his writings, especially the
Letter to the Philippians, which the author promises to include in the present book.

(13-16) Polycarp teaches the doctrine of the Trinity: eternal omnipotent God, Son incarnate, and Holy Spirit. He also teaches the exclusive presence of divine gifts in the Catholic Church, and their absence outside its fellowship. He also encourages chastity in the forms of freely chosen celibacy and virginity, monogamy, and widowhood.

(17) As Polycarp grows older, grey hair appears on his head, reflecting the growth of his perfection and wisdom. After a vision, Boukolos ordains him a presbyter, to the joy of the whole church, and in spite of Polycarp’s own reservations.

(18) The presbyter Polycarp excels in teaching and explaining the scriptures. Both his appearance and voice make him an imposing preacher.

(19) Polycarp trains in intensively reading the scriptures throughout his life, and recommends others to do the same.

§§ 20-23 Polycarp's election as bishop and the miracles accompanying it

(20) Knowing that he will be succeeded by a man of such virtue, Boukolos reaches happily the end of his life. On his deathbed, he takes the hand of Polycarp and places it on his chest and face, symbolising the passing on of his grace to him. The elderly bishop dies and the Christians bury him at the cemetery outside the Ephesus gate of Smyrna, at the place where a myrtle sprouted after the burial of the martyr Thraseas. Having accomplished everything, the Christians ‘offer bread for Boukolos and the rest’ (probably a memorial meal or Eucharist), and ask Polycarp to preside over the ceremony, although he insists that more senior clerics should be given this privilege.

(21) Without delay, they invite the bishops of the neighbouring towns in order to elect a new bishop for Smyrna. With them, several others come to attend the ordination, some knowing Polycarp already, others wishing to meet him. And, as they gather at the church (
kyriakon), a glory of heavenly light shines on everyone, and some start having visions. Someone sees a white dove in a circle of light near the head of Polycarp. Another person sees Polycarp seated on the episcopal throne, before he has actually taken his place there. Another sees him dressed like a soldier, with a girdle of fire. Someone sees him surrounded by a purple cloth and a light shining on his face. A virgin sees him twice as tall as he actually is, with a scarlet robe on his shoulder, his neck glistening like snow, and having a seal on it.

(22) On the Sabbath, long prayers are offered, and Polycarp stands to read from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, where the qualities of a bishop are described. While listening, people tell each other that this man lacks none of these qualities. After the reading and sermons are finished, deacons are sent to enquire of the people whom they wish to be their bishop. They unanimously ask for Polycarp, and the clergy also approve. They appoint him, although he attempts to resist and give up his election.

(23) The deacons lead him up to be ordained by the laying of hands by the bishops. When placed on his throne, he sheds tears of piety and humility, and has a vision of the feet of Christ standing by. He then offers a long prayer. Prayers continue on both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, and everyone returns home.

(24) On the following Sabbath, Polycarp gives a sermon exhorting his flock to abide with discipline by the ways of God, and to avoid disorderliness.

§§ 25-32 Polycarp’s miracles

(25) Polycarp visits bishop Daphnos in the neighbouring city of Teos, who complains about the bad harvest of the year and his poverty. Polycarp blesses his empty jars, and a mass of grain fills them, so that Daphnos can sow his land, nourish his family and supply others as well.

(26) Later Polycarp visits Daphnos again, who brings a jar with wine, and asks his servants to fill it with more. Polycarp asks Daphnos to leave it as it is, because it will not run out. He is about to perform the miracle of replenishing the jar, but, a servant laughs at Polycarp’s words that the jar will not run out, thus causing the angel assigned to perform the miracle to leave, and even the pre-existing wine to vanish.

(27) Polycarp ordains several deacons, among them Kamerios, who later becomes bishop of Smyrna. One day, as Polycarp is returning with Kamerios from the countryside, a widow meets them and offers them a bird. In the evening they reach an inn and lodge there. During the night, Polycarp is woken up by an angel who warns him to leave the building, because it is about to collapse. He tries to wake up the deacon, but he refuses to go out. The same is repeated twice, before both of them rush out of the inn, but realise that they have forgotten the bird of the widow. They return to rescue it, and just escape before the inn collapses, killing everyone in it.

(28) One night, a conflagration breaks out in Smyrna, caused by sparks from a bakery. The strategos (magistrate) orders fire engines to be prepared, and the Jews gather, pretending that they are experts in extinguishing fires. Due to the wind, however, it is impossible to extinguish it, so the magistrate proposes to invite Polycarp, the leader of the Christians, who healed one of his servants possessed by a demon. Here starts an extensive lacuna which included an account of Polycarp’s miraculous extinguishing of the fire.

(29) The lacuna continues. It includes the beginning of a new miracle story set during a period of drought and famine in Smyrna. The text resumes at the point where the council of the city convenes to decide about the situation of dearth. An elderly councillor proposes inviting Polycarp, the Christian leader who miraculously extinguished the fire only by his words. The councillor expresses his opinion that this man may indeed be a god
(30) A general assembly of the city is called, and Polycarp is summoned. They ask him to pray to his God to allow rain to fall, since he is a fellow citizen, even though he does not share their customs. Polycarp addresses the people, presenting himself as a stranger to all earthly cities, due to his citizenship of the heavenly city, and yet as a citizen of the whole world which God created. He promises to offer his prayers, together with his fellow clergymen, and encourages the people to have hope in the mercy of God. The
strategos (magistrate) explains to the people that Polycarp and the Christians, unlike the common custom, worship their God in private meetings, and not through public ceremonies and sacrifices. The assembly is dismissed.

(31) Without delay, Polycarp goes to the church and instructs the deacons to prepare the people for common prayer.

(32) He leads the prayer first, offering a long supplication, and rain falls. All offer praise to God.

Text: Rebillard 2017. Summary: Efthymios Rizos.

Non Liturgical Activity

Composing and translating saint-related texts
Oral transmission of saint-related stories


Miracle during lifetime
Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather)
Healing diseases and disabilities
Material support (supply of food, water, drink, money)
Miraculous protection - of communities, towns, armies
Miraculous protection - of people and their property
Miraculous appointment to office
Saint denying or suspending miracles
Apparition, vision, dream, revelation


The 3rd century Life of Polycarp survives in a single manuscript, the codex Parisinus Graecus 1452, an 11th century collection of hagiographical texts, concerning the feasts of February. In the manuscript, it precedes the Martyrdom of Polycarp. The extant text contains a substantial lacuna between paragraphs 28 and 29, and it seems to be missing its last parts, ending abruptly in paragraph 32.

Most recent editions and translations: Stewart-Sykes 2002; Rebillard 2017 (with earlier bibliography)


The Life of Polycarp is the earliest example of Christian biography, and, as such, a text of great importance for the history of hagiography. The dating of the text is uncertain, but is usually placed to the late third or fourth centuries. It seems that it was known to Macarius of Magnesia, writing c. AD 400 (Apocriticus 3.24.11-12), but it is not mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea, who was relatively well informed about the saints of Smyrna. This favours a date in the fourth century.

The polemical introduction on the date of Easter defends the practice prevailing in the Catholic Churches of Asia and Syria, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, against the practices followed by the Montanists, and by the Churches of Alexandria and Rome. The debate on the date of Easter (the so-called Quartodeciman Dispute) seems to have spanned the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and it was one of the main issues discussed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 (on which see Gerlach 1998; Stewart Sykes 2000; idem 2002, 13-18). One should also notice the reference to the burial of the martyred bishop of Eumenia, *Thraseas (
§ 20). Thraseas is mentioned as a martyr by Polykrates of Ephesos in c. 195, suggesting that he was martyred after Polycarp and certainly before AD 200 (see E00487, E00488).

The text follows the rules of classicising biography, being organised in sections following the various age stages (childhood and youth, early adulthood [diaconate], maturity [priesthood and episcopate]), and outlining the physical and spiritual development of Polycarp. It also contains extensive references to his teaching, which may be based on original texts ascribed to him (especially his first sermon as bishop,
§ 24), and culminates in a sequence of miracle stories.

The opening phrase implies that the
Life of Polycarp was written as part of a collection of texts which included a catalogue of the bishops of Smyrna, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians and, almost certainly, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is uncertain if §§ 1-2 and the first part of § 3 belong to the original text, or if they were added later (see Stewart Sykes 2002; cf. Hoover 2013). It also remains a matter of dispute whether the author of these paragraphs, and of the Life as a whole, is to be identified as Pionios, the author of the colophon of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (see E00054; Hoover 2013).

The interest of the
Life of Polycarp in the episcopate as a form of divine charisma reflects the spirit of early catholic Christianity. Since the 2nd century, the monarchical episcopate (a single ruling bishop with absolute authority over each local Christian community) seems to have been established as the standard polity of catholic Christian communities, and as one of the main features differentiating them from many of their rival Christian groupings. The belief that the bishops possess a special grace inherited through their unbroken succession from the Apostles and Christ was central in early catholic thought from Ignatius of Antioch onwards, and is very pronounced in Eusebius of Caesarea and his sources. The fundamental tenets of Catholic episcopal ideology are readily recognisable in the Life of Polycarp, as it primarily seeks to demonstrate the supernatural basis of episcopal power, portraying its hero as a man chosen by God to lead the church. Polycarp is a living holy man from childhood, a miracle worker, and God’s election of him is miraculously expressed during his ordination to the episcopate. He embodies the Catholic argument that, although institutionalised through a process of election and ordination, episcopal power is charismatic and divinely instituted.

Life of Polycarp provides a very early example of episcopal biography in the Greek East. Unlike the Life of Antony, which was copiously copied and translated, the Life of Polycarp has survived in only one manuscript in Greek, and seems to have had a limited impact.


Text editions, translations and commentaries:
Lightfoot, J.B., The Apostolic Fathers II: S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp. Vol. 3 (London: Macmillan, 1889), 423-506.

Rebillard, E.,
Greek and Latin Narratives About the Ancient Martyrs (Oxford Early Christian Texts; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 108-147.

Stewart-Sykes, A.,
The Life of Polycarp. An Anonymous Vita from Third-Century Smyrna (Early Christian Studies; Sydney: St Pauls Publications, 2002).

Further reading:
Delehaye, H., Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires (2nd ed.; Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes, 1966), 15-46.

Gerlach, K.,
The Ante-Nicene Pascha: A Rhetorical History (Leuven: Peeters, 1998).

Hoover, J., “False Lives, False Martyrs: "Pseudo-Pionius" and the Redating of the Martyrdom of Polycarp,”
Vigiliae Christianae 67 (2013), 471-498.

Stewart-Sykes, A., "Vita Polycarpi: A Third-Century Vita,"
Augustinianum 40 (2000), 21-33.

Record Created By

Efthymios Rizos

Date of Entry


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00004Polykarpos/Polycarp, bishop and martyr of Smyrna, and his companion martyrsΠολύκαρποςCertain
S00314Boukolos, bishop of Smyrna, 2nd c.ΒουκόλοςCertain

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