THE document which gives an account of Polycarp's martyrdom is in the form of a letter addressed by the Church of Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium. It was however intended for much wider circulation, and at the close (§ 20) directions are given to secure its being so circulated. The letter seems to have been written shortly after the martyrdom itself, which happened A.D. 155 or 156. It consists of two parts, (1) the main body of the letter ending with the twentieth chapter, and (2) a number of supplementary paragraphs, comprising the twenty-first and twenty-second chapters. In point of form these supplementary paragraphs are separable from the rest of the letter. Indeed, as Eusebius, our chief witness to the genuineness of the documents, ends his quotations and paraphrases before he reaches the close of the main body of the letter, we cannot say confidently whether he had or had not the supplementary paragraphs. The genuineness of the two parts therefore must be considered separately.
For the genuineness of the main document there is abundant evidence. A quarter of a century after the occurrence Irenaeus and a little later Polycrates bear testimony to the fact of Polycarp's martyrdom. Further the Letter of the Gallican Churches (c. A.D. 177) presents striking coincidences with the language of the Letter of the Smyrnaeans, and unless several points of resemblance are accidental, Lucian in his account of Peregrinus Proteus (c. A.D. 165) must have been acquainted with the document. At the beginning of the fourth century Eusebius directly refers to it in his Chronicon, and again in his Ecclesiastical History (iv. 15), where he quotes and paraphrases nearly the whole of it, intimating that it was the earliest written record of a martyrdom with which he was acquainted. At the close of the same century the author of the Pionian Life of Polycarp inserts the letter in his work. The internal evidence likewise is clearly in favour of the genuineness; and the adverse argument based upon the miraculous element in the story falls to the ground when the incident of the dove (§ 16) is proved to be a later interpolation.
The supplementary paragraphs present a more difficult problem. They fall into three parts, separate in form the one from the other, and not improbably written by different hands; (i) The Chronological Appendix (§ 21); (ii) The Commendatory Postscript (§ 22. i); (iii) The History of the Transmission (§ 22. 2, 3).
The first of these closes with a paragraph which is copied from the close of the Epistle of S. Clement, just as the opening of the Smyrnaean Letter is modelled on the opening of S. Clement's Epistle. The obligation being the same in kind at the beginning and at the end of the letter, the obvious inference is that they were penned by the same hand. And when the historical references contained in this appendix are found upon examination not only not to contradict history, but, as in the case of Philip the Trallian, to be confirmed by fresh accessions to our knowledge of the archaeology and chronology of the age, the conclusion becomes irresistible that § 21 formed part of the original document.
The Commendatory Postscript is omitted in the Moscow MS and in the Latin version, but it may well have been a postscript added by the Philomelian Church, when they forwarded copies of the letter, as they were charged to do (§ 20), to churches more distant from Smyrna than themselves.
The History of the Transmission occurs in an expanded form in the Moscow ms, but in each edition it ends with a note purporting to be written by one Pionius. He tells us that he copied it from the transcript of the last-mentioned transcriber, and that Polycarp revealed its locality to him in a vision of which he promises to give an account in the sequel. Now the Acts are extant of a Pionius who was martyred under Decius (A.D. 250) while celebrating the birthday of Polycarp. There is also a Life of Polycarp extant (incorporating this very Letter of the Smyrnaeans), which purports to have been written by this Pionius, but is manifestly the work of a forger of the fifth century. This life is incomplete, otherwise doubtless it would have contained the account of the vision of Pionius promised in the sequel. The writer of the Pionian Life is therefore the author of the History of the Transmission. One further fact remains to be recorded. Not only do the Pionian Life and the History of the Transmission appeal without scruple to ancient documents which have no existence. They abound largely in the supernatural. Now our extant mss of the Smyrnaean Epistle have the Pionian postscript and therefore represent the Pionian edition of that Letter. Eusebius alone of all extant authorities is prior to the false Pionius and gives an independent text. Now our spurious Pionius was before all things a miracle-monger. Among other miracles he relates that on the eve of Polycarp's appointment to the episcopate a dove hovered round his head. So also in the Letter of the Smyrnaeans a dove is found leaving his body when his spirit is wafted to heaven (§ 16). But this miracle appears only in the Pionian copies, not in Eusebius. Moreover, by the abruptness of its appearance an interpolation is suggested. Is it not the same dove which appears on the two occasions, and was it not uncaged and let fly by the same hand ? We cannot resist the suspicion that our spurious Pionius was responsible for both these appearances.
The authorities for the text are threefold.
1. The GREEK MANUSCRIPTS [G], five in number, viz. (1) Mosquensis 160 (now 159) [m] which omits the first paragraph § 22 and amplifies the remaining part of this same chapter. This, though of the thirteenth century, is the most important of the Greek manuscripts. (2) Barroccianus 238 [b] in the Bodleian Library, an eleventh century ms from which Ussher derived his text. (3) Paris. Bibl. Nat. Graec. 1452 [p] of the tenth century, called by Halloix Mediceus. (4) Vindob. Hist. Graec. Eccl. iii. [v] an eleventh or early twelfth century ms betraying marks of an arbitrary literary revision; and (5) S, Sep. Hierosol. 1 fol. 136 [s] a tenth century ms of the same group as bpv, discovered quite recently in the Library of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem by Professor Rendel Harris.
2. EUSEBIUS [E]. The extracts found in Hist. Eccl. iv. 15; not only the earliest, but also the most valuable authority.
3. The LATIN VERSION [L] in three forms; (a) as given in Rufinus' translation of Eusebius, which is probably the version of the martyrdom read, as we learn from Gregory of Tours that it was read, in the Churches of Gaul; (b) an independent Latin Version very loose and paraphrastic; (c) a combination of the two preceding forms. The mss of the Latin Version are numerous.
There are also a Syriac Version and a Coptic Version in the Mem-phitic dialect; but both of these, like the Rufinian form, are made not from the document itself, but from the account in Eusebius. They do not therefore constitute fresh authorities.