The martyrdom of Polycarp bishop of Smyrna, celebrated yesterday in both eastern and western churches, is remarkable in many respects. It is not often that old men got martyred for religious beliefs in antiquity, let alone 86 year old men, and the account itself is among the earliest surviving martyr accounts in early Christian literature recording a martyrdom in the 150s or 160s AD.
The story also is interesting and shows certain parallels with the death of Jesus: the bishop is pursued by the police into the country where he is arrested, allowed to pray for everyone he ever knew for two hours, brought into the city via donkey, and tried by the proconsul. Ordered to revile Christ he responds “I’m 86 years old and still I am serving him, and he has never wronged me.” Threatened with death in the amphitheater, he invites both beast and fire. Ordered to shout “away with the atheists” to the other Christians, he directs the accusation instead to the roaring crowds. And he is protected from death: the flames intended to consume him actually refine him (like precious metal) and give off a sweet smell of perfume. Eventually the executioner thrusts a sword into his side, which releases a dove and so much blood that the fire is extinguished. These are extraordinary events.
It is the subsequent history of the martyrdom that takes us to Corinth. The account itself assumes the form of a letter from the church in Smyrna to the church in Philomelium and all sojourners everywhere. A man named Marcion seems to the be the source of information (20) which was written down by a scribe named Evaristus. The church of Smyrna encourages the letter to be circulated to Christians elsewhere.
The account comes to an end in 20 or 21, but then an epilogue (22) is tacked on noting the history of the transcription and copies. The letter evidently finds its way to Irenaeus, the famous bishop in Gaul who was (as Eusebius later notes) a student of Polycarp. A man named Gaius, who lived in the same city as Irenaeus copied out the document from his version. And then (shifting to the first person), “I Socrates in Corinth wrote it out from the copies of Gaius. Grace be with all. And I, Pionius, again wrote out a copy seeking these things from the aforementioned one.” Pionius notes that he gathered the papers which were worn from old age and made a copy so that the Lord Jesus Christ would remember him with his elect in the kingdom.
There is nothing surprising about these sorts of connections in the movement of texts in the Mediterranean but not often do we have the recorded path of transcription, in this case between Smyrna — the west (Gaul? Rome?) — Corinth — ?? Interesting that Corinth, situated between east and west, would be a critical link here and that the text discovered by Pionius was the old Corinthian copy (did Pionius find it in Corinth or elsewhere?). This Socrates is an otherwise anonymous Christian living in the city of Corinth in the later 2nd or 3rd century who gained access to a copy of the account transcribed by Gaius. It is at least curious that a Christian named after a philosopher sentenced to die in old age (and with charges of atheism) would be interested in preserving the story of an old bishop sentenced to die in old age (and with charges of atheism). Not only does he write himself into the margins: “I Socrates in Corinth” but he also adds his own little salutation: “Grace be with all.” Here in a postscript of one of the most significant martyr accounts of the early church we find an educated but anonymous Corinthian Christian, or individual residing in Corinth, who has inserted himself into the story and greeted the reader.