Put quite simply, this is a stunning document, and all Christians should read it. It is the first account of a martyrdom after the writing of the New Testament, and is still generally considered to be either the best or one of the best. It is quite moving. The letter itself is from the church at Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop, and is addressed firstly to the church at Philomelium, but secondarily to the entire church. The dating of the actual marytrdom is a matter of dispute, but most scholars seem to be coming down on a date of approximately 155-156 A.D. Polycarp knew the apostle John, and was even appointed by John to the church at Smyrna, according to Irenaeus.
We have some very rich resources for studying this letter, which you can find here. This includes no less than four English translations. I found a new website (new to me, that is!) that has the Greek text with the Perseus project morphology built in! Talk about convenient! The Patrologia volume (number 5) can be found here. The text starts at column 1029.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the text that struck me forcibly with their pathos: “And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, ‘I must be burnt alive'” (chapter 5). After he was arrested, but before they took him away to be burned, he offered them hospitality (!): “Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them” (the “them” are those who came to arrest him). As a result of this kindness, some repented of doing harm to this kind old man (chapter 7). The following must be quoted at length:
And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” (The atheists were the Christians in such statements, LK). But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists” (meaning non-Christians, LK). Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “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?” (Chapter 9)
Two chapters later, the proconsul threatens him with various tortures, but Polycarp answers as a man:
The proconsul then said to him, “Ii have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answeed, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.” But again the proconsul said to him, ” I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.” (chapter 11)
A beautiful account, and very inspiring. Take and read.