There are few churches named after Polycarp (compared to other saints), and, although a celebrated martyr, he was not a subject of medieval art in the same way as Agnes or Laurence. However, Polycarp (a name meaning “much fruit” in Greek), may be one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity.
Born in 69 AD, as a young man he was a disciple of the Apostle John. Jerome tells us, John, before his death around the year 98 AD, ordained Polycarp as Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp’s relationship with John makes him a valuable link to one of the last eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
He wrote one letter that still exists—to the church in Philippi. In it, he urges his readers to keep the true faith, citing other writings that are now in the New Testament. He also warns against heresy, saying that “Everyone who does not believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is of the antichrist,” a direct reference to Gnosticism, which appeared in the church during his lifetime.
We know Polycarp was a man of great faith. When commanded to burn incense to the Roman Emperor (and renounce his Christianity), he said, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. I will not deny my King now.” He willingly offered himself to be burned at the stake, letting the Roman officials know there was no need to strap him down, as he would submit to the fire. The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom was widely circulated among the early Christians and referred to by both Jerome and Ignatius.
Recently, the Biblical scholar David Trobisch has suggested that Polycarp was responsible for compiling the New Testament as it is today, as a response to the heresies in the church in the 2nd century. (This is much earlier than has been generally thought). The theory is still new, but it makes sense that a man of faith with access to the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and the Book of Revelation (as a disciple of John), would want to ensure the true faith, by compiling them into a “New Testament” for future generations.