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WATCH: The Martyrdom of Polycarp, an animated film in Koine Greek (with subtitles)




(This blog post is admittedly several weeks late, since the film first premiered toward the end of March. Nevertheless, I thought it was important to finally include a blog post to give a bit of background on the film and text.)


As far as I know, this is the first animated film in Koine Greek of significant length that has been made (please correct me if I'm wrong, I would love to find others!). It traces the story of the last days of Polycarp (69–155 CE), bishop of Smyrna. The narration and dialogue of the film is taken directly from the Greek text of The Martyrdom of Polycarp (μαρτύριον Πολυκάρπου) as recorded in the Apostolic Fathers. I have recorded the narration and dialogue in a restored "Living Koine" pronunciation. The film is equipped with Greek subtitles so you can easily follow along if you are not used to hearing Greek spoken. Because of the nature of film-making, I have omitted some parts of the first three chapters (introductio and background) as well as some parts of the closing chapters (the aftermath after Polycarp's martyrdom). Aside from these omissions, every bit of text narration and dialogue in the film is taken verbatim from the text.


According to tradition (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Jerome), Polycarp had been a disciple of the John the Apostle. This is not unlikely, since John was living in Ephesus toward the end of his life. From Smyrna, Ephesus would only have been a journey of two or three days in the ancient world. According to Jerome, it was John who ordained him as bishop of Smyrna.


The text of the martyrdom begins in the midst of a wave of persecution in Smyrna of Asia Minor (the west coast of modern day Turkey). It is not entirely clear what led to this wave of persecution, since Polycarp had presumably lived all 86 years of his life in Smyrna as a Christian before he was finally arrested. The text of the martyrdom itself may offer us a clue. It begins by recounting the valiant martyrdom of Germanicus before Statius Quadratus just days before. Following the bravery shown by Germanicus in his death, the crowd immediately demands the arrest of Polycarp. There may have been some other event that caused further anger to boil up against the Christians. However this particular wave of persecution began, we do know that by this time the imperial rescripta (imperial responses to questions about criminal judgments) had declared the Christian confession as a capital crime.


It is thus in the winter of the year 155 CE, in late February to be exact, that Statius Quadratus the proconsul (ἀνθύπατος) demanded Polycarp's arrest. When Polycarp heard about the warrant for his arrest, he neither fled nor turned himself in. After his fellow Christians pleaded with him to leave the city, however, he finally made his way out of town to a nearby house. Statius Quadratus's men were sent after him and eventually arrested him.


After being brought back to the city (Smyrna), he knew the fate that awaited him. He was either to recant his allegiance to Christ by swearing by the τύχη (like a spirit) of the emperor or to be executed at the Roman blood games in the stadium (στάδιον) in the city.


The Roman blood games were highly significant events which both the common people and the elite of the city attended. It was one of the few occasions where rulers and dignitaries were gathered together with the common people. Such games, which included animal hunts, gladiator fights, and the execution of criminals, were meant to display the glory of the Roman empire. The Roman blood games were, in a sense, a festival to celebrate and display Roman identity and empire.


On the day of the Roman games, the city would have felt totally different. Some parts of the city would have felt empty, since people would have taken the day off from work. The streets leading to the stadium, on the other hand, would have been filled with throngs of people slowly making their way and pouring into the stadium.


When Polycarp is finally brought through the gates of the stadium, we can only imagine the scene... An old man is slowly led by several Roman soldiers in front of thousands of screaming onlookers to answer face-to-face with the proconsul (ἀνθύπατος) with wild beasts lurking in the background. The whole city would have been watching intently as the proconsul attempted to extract loyalty to Caesar of the old man while Polycarp maintained his allegiance to Christ alone as his King. The proconsul would demand that Polycarp swear allegiance to the emperor, by declaring, κύριος καῖσαρ 'Caesar is lord' and offering incense on the altar. Polycarp, of course, repeatedly refused. Some of the most famous quotes of church history were uttered by the old bishop of Smyrna in this meeting of giants, one spiritual and one political. After being commanded to renounce the Christians as atheists (αἶρε τοὺς ἀθέος 'away with the atheists!'), Polycarp pointed up at the crowd and shouted, αἶρε τοὺς ἀθέους! After being commanded to renounce Christ, letting his heart pour out Polycarp affirmed, Ὀγδοήκοντα καὶ ἓξ ἔτη ⸂ἔχω δουλεύων ⸂αὐτῷ, καὶ ⸂οὐδέν με ἠδίκησεν⸃· καὶ πῶς δύναμαι βλασφημῆσαι τὸν βασιλέα μου τὸν σώσαντά με; 'Eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. So how can I now blaspheme my King who has saved me?'


There are few scenes in the history of the church as powerful as this one. It is all the more gripping when you can watch and hear it in the original language in which it was spoken. In fact, you can almost imagine hearing Polycarp's voice echo through the stadium, αἶρε τοὺς ἀθέους!



Bibliography:


Thompson, Leonard L. "The Martyrdom of Polycarp: Death in the Roman Games," The Journal of Religion 82, no. 1 (Jan., 2002): 27-52.


Wolterstorff, Nicholas. The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012. Pages 11-18.








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