Who were these men? From what we can see in history, both were followers of the truth of God, and they carried out the work of the early Church.
Jesus Christ said that He would build His Church and that the gates of Hades (the grave) would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).
In a previous article, titled “Church History: The Ancient Nazarenes,” we looked at how the Church continued to thrive during the days of the apostle Paul and beyond. After the book of Revelation was completed (in the A.D. 94 or 95), we have only secular records to rely on for further church history. The information is sparse, but we can be confident that the Church existed because Jesus said it would.
Thankfully, there are some historical accounts that give evidence that there were people who were loyal to the truth of God and that the Church of God was alive. That is why the stories surrounding Polycarp and Polycrates are very important to the topic of church history.
Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John
Irenaeus, a bishop and historian who lived during the second century, wrote in Against Heresies (Book 3, chap. 3, paragraph 4):
“Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.”
A footnote was added stating, “Polycarp suffered about the year 167, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. His great age of eighty-six years implies that he was contemporary with St. John for nearly twenty years.”
We are also told that Polycarp was quite vocal when it came to exposing heretics. “And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion [a radical at the time who promoted Gnostic ideas], who met him on one occasion, and said, ‘Dost thou know me?’ ‘I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.’ Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth.”
Irenaeus also wrote, “To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time. … He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church.”
Polycarp and the Passover
In Ecclesiastical History (Book 4, chap. 14), the historian Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 260-340) corroborated the comments by Irenaeus and also added another fascinating experience that Polycarp had while he was in Rome:
“At this time, while Anicetus was at the head of the church of Rome, Irenaeus relates that Polycarp, who was still alive, was at Rome, and that he had a conference with Anicetus on a question concerning the day of the paschal feast [Passover]” (paragraph 1).
In history, this was called the Quartodeciman Controversy.
The Bible clearly states that the Passover was to be held on the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (Leviticus 23:5), and Polycarp believed Christians should continue to observe the Passover on that date. He did not accept what would later become the Good Friday-Easter Sunday tradition. (Read more about this in our article “The Days They Changed but Couldn’t Kill.”)
Eusebius further wrote that Polycarp held to his beliefs (Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, chap. 24):
“And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him” (paragraph 16).
The story of Polycrates
Not only did Polycarp hold onto the truth, but also another church leader, by the name of Polycrates, also held firmly to these same teachings.Not only did Polycarp hold onto the truth, but also another church leader, by the name of Polycrates, also held firmly to these same teachings. Polycrates “presided over the church of Ephesus, in which the traditions of St. John were yet fresh in men’s minds at the date of his birth. He had doubtless known Polycarp, and Irenaeus also. He seems to have presided over a synod of Asiatic bishops (A.D. 196) which came together to consider this matter of the Paschal feast” (EarlyChristianWritings.com).
In this same section of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (Book 5, chap. 24), we read that Polycrates also held to the belief that the Passover should be kept on the 14th: “The bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them. He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him:
“We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis … and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord … and Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr. …
“All these [the saints and bishops who were listed in his account] observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven.
“I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’ Acts 5:29” (paragraphs 1-7).
Very strong and convicting words! Polycrates was not about to give up the truth about the Passover observance. He stood firm, as did Polycarp. The members of the Church under their leadership continued to keep the Passover on the 14th day.
Eusebius continued his quote of Polycrates’ letter: “And they [the other bishops in his region], beholding my littleness, gave their consent to the letter, knowing that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus” (paragraph 8).
The bishop of Rome (Victor, who died in A.D. 199) was overseeing the discussion at that time, and he reacted strongly in opposition to Polycrates’ letter. Eusebius continued his narration:
“Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox [not conforming with accepted standards or beliefs]; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate” (paragraph 9).
Victor later relented, but we see a division here. What was believed by those in Rome was totally opposite to what had been taught by the apostles.
Lessons for today
These two historical figures, two loyal men of God, left a legacy for us to consider.
First, we see that the Church Jesus started didn’t die out in the second century. There were congregations in Smyrna, overseen by Polycarp, and in Ephesus, overseen by Polycrates.
Second, both men stood firm in their beliefs as they had been taught. They followed in the footsteps of the early apostles, and they didn’t mince any words regarding their beliefs. Polycarp eventually was martyred for what he believed. Polycrates was not heard from again.
Third, what will we do? Are we willing to compromise our beliefs because of what the majority of society or other religious groups think? How firm will we stand? Polycarp and Polycrates set an example for us to follow. For further consideration, read “Beware of Deception.”