ANF – The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna

This post is one of a series of reviews of the early Church Fathers, who are technically referred to as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (before the Council of Nicaea).  To find other reviews of these ancient writings, use the search bar on my blog and search for ANF.

An encyclical describes a letter that was sent from one Church to the next within a given area.  It was a means by which the words of one person (often a Bishop) could be shared with multiple congregations without the need for the Bishop to send multiple letters himself.  Over time the term has come to mean any official correspondence sent by a Bishop, and now refers specifically to official letters from the Roman Catholic Pope.  The word derives from the Latin encyclios, which means circle or round, and is the same root word for our English word encyclopedia.

Thus, The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna.  Sent from the Church at Smyrna (one of the seven churches addressed in the Revelation of St. John) to the Church at Philomelium.  Some versions of this document say Philadelphia instead of Philolium, perhaps in deference to the book of Revelation, but the textual evidence supports Philolium better.  The letter was then copied and sent to other congregations nearby.  The bulk of the letter is a detailed account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna.  He was the twelfth Christian to be martyred in Smyrna, and undoubtedly the one of highest rank in the Church, thus occasioning the letter.

These Christians were referred to as Atheists – those who refused to accept a multiplicity  of gods and instead insisted on there being only one God.  The letter recounts the details of several other martyrs, including a Germanicus who, when sentenced to death by wild animals with other Christians fought against the animals and had them kill him first.  Mention is also made of Quintus, who apparently thought that the right thing to do was to surrender voluntarily to Roman authorities and accept martyrdom.  Yet when he was faced with martyrdom by wild beasts, Quintus grew afraid and agreed to offer sacrifices to other gods and denounce Christ.  The letter asserts the policy, based on this situation, that people should not actively offer themselves up for martyrdom because this is not directed by Scripture.

The letter describes Polycarp’s prophetic dream whereby he knows how he will be martyred – by fire.  But then when his martyrdom arrives, the fire is unable to touch him, and he has to be killed by a sword instead.  I love Polycarp’s response when asked/commanded to denounce Christ and offer sacrifices to pagan gods – Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury:  how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?

Polycarp’s martyrdom is attended to with miracles.  He tells them not to nail him in place because God the Holy Spirit will ensure he doesn’t attempt to escape the flames.  When the fire is kindled it does not touch or harm him in any way.  When the sword pierces his left side, in addition to a flow of blood (likely because his heart is pierced) a dove also emerges.  There is controversy over this latter detail though, and some early copies (Eusebius) omit it all together as incorrect.  The Greek for dove looks similar to the Greek word for “on the left side” and could possibly be an error in copying.

This is likely the first of the martyrologies – works recounting the deaths of Christians on account of their faith.  It serves as both a warning to what awaits those who persist in the faith, as well as an encouragement that, even in the hour of death, God does not abandon his children, and will give them the necessary courage to endure whatever is put upon them.

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