Posted by: mattcolvin | July 15, 2013

Polycarp’s Wordplay


Above: Icons of Polycarp always show him looking stern.

Probably the two most famous stories about Polycarp are of his meeting with Marcion, and of his trial and martyrdom. The first comes from Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus 17. I give the Latin and Greek with translations below. First Jerome:

Hic propter quasdam super die Paschae quaestiones, sub imperatore Antonino Pio, Ecclesiam in Urbe regente Aniceto, Romam venit, ubi plurimos credentium, Marcionis et Valentini persuasione deceptos, reduxit ad fidem. Cumque ei fortuito obviam fuis et Marcion, et diceret: Cognosce nos: Respondit: Cognosco primogenitum diaboli. De Viris Illustribus 17

He came to Rome about certain disputes over the date of Easter (sc. The Quartodeciman controversy, later settled at Nicaea) when Antoninus Pius was emperor and Anicetus was ruling the church in the city (sc. was pope). There he led back to the faith a great number of people who had been deceived by the persuasion of Marcion and Valentinus. And when by chance Marcion happened across him in the street and said, “Recognize me!”, Polycarp replied, “I recognize you as the firstborn son of the Devil.”

The second story comes from a separate Greek work called the Martyrdom of Polycarp, written by the Smyrnaeans to encourage other churches to follow in their martyr’s faithful steps:

IX. 1. τοῦ δὲ ὁμολογοῦντος, ἔπειθεν ἀρνεῖσθαι λέγων· … Ὄμοσον τὴν Καίσαρος τύχην, μετανόησον, εἶπον· Αἶρε τοὺς ἀθέους. ὁ δὲ Πολύκαρπος ἐμβριθεῖ τῷ προσώπῳ εἰς πάντα τὸν ὄχλον τὸν ἐν τῷ σταδίῳ ἀνόμων ἐθνῶν ἐμβλέψας καὶ ἐπισείσας αὐτοῖς τὴν χεῖρα, στενάξας τε καὶ ἀναβλέψας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἶπεν· Αἶρε τοὺς ἀθέους.

When he confessed, the governor then urged him to deny the faith, saying, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, say, ‘Away with the ungodly.” But Polycarp, with dignified face, looked in the direction of the whole crowd of lawless pagans in the stadium and waving his hand at them, groaned and looked up to heaven, saying, “Away with the ungodly.”

The story about Marcion shows Polycarp putting Marcion down with a quick-witted use of zeugma, using “cognosco” in two different senses. Polycarp wants Marcion to recognize or acknowledge him as a legitimate bishop in the church. Polycarp, presumably squinting in pretended concentration, replies that he recognizes him all right — as a son of Satan!

In the second passage, Polycarp makes a pointed correction of the governor’s use of ἀθέους. Many translations render this word as “atheists”, but that is not at all accurate, given the meaning that “atheist” has in the modern day. The governor means, “those who do not worship”, – sc. who do not worship the gods of the Roman state. Polycarp accepts this meaning but corrects the reference: for him, it means “those who do not worship the one true God.”

Both passages show Polycarp’s nimble wit even under duress and in times of high emotion. And while it is true that ever since Herodotus, historians and biographers have delighted in such “anecdotes of the quick wit,” nonetheless it seems credible that these two disparate sources probably do reflect a real habit of speech from the man himself.


Above: Polycarp uses a crucifix Van Helsing-style to ward off Marcion, who is accompanied by his prancing father.



  1. […] Polycarp’s Wordplay. […]

  2. Nice post and observations. But speaking of wordplay, your last two Marcions in the post should be Polycarps.

    • Whoops! Thank you for the correction.

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