Letter to Polycrates, by Horane Smith
Letter to Polycrates
Controversy was brewing again, not a bit unusual in the Second Century, since the departure of the highly respected and last living apostle ‘Saint’ John.
It was near the close of the Second Century in Ephesus, Asia Minor, an area where great men of God such as the apostles Paul and John, had trod the dusty and sometimes muddy roads to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and His coming Kingdom.
In the First Century, Paul had written a letter to the church at Ephesus, admonishing the brethren there: “Stand therefore having your loins girth about with truth…” (Ephesians 6:14). But now, those stalwarts of the faith were sleeping in their graves, and that very truth was about to be tested.
As these Pillars of the Church passed on, more followed suit, striving to adhere to the “faith once delivered to the saints.” One such faithful adherent in the Second Century was Polycrates, who presided over the Church of God at Ephesus. He came from a family of eight Christian Bishops, all firm believers in the truths taught by the apostles. They were passed down from the apostle John to another great student and Christian martyr Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who had died a martyr in Ephesus, for resisting the change from Passover to Easter.
In Rome, the controversy was far from settled. Bishop Victor wanted a consensus on a proper date to celebrate Easter, rather than the Paschal Feast known as Passover. All the parishes of Asia remained faithful to the older tradition, heralding that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s Passover (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, Chapter 23). Victor of Rome was pressuring them to abandon this observance.
However, to their credit, the bishops of Asia led by Polycrates, stood their ground and were not about to compromise on this truth. Polycrates was adamant that “we ought to obey God rather than man.” It was time to write a letter to Pope Victor.
“We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away,” was the first line of the letter, a reminder to the Pope that he had no doubts about the time of Passover. Polycrates went on:
“For in Asia also, the great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven and shall seek out all the saints,” the letter continued.
Without a doubt, these great men were not in heaven, but sleeping in their graves, Polycrates went on to name some of them.
…Philip, one of the twelve apostles who fell asleep at Hierapolis…John, who was both a witness and a teacher and who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord…fell asleep at Ephesus. Polycarp, in Smyrna, who was a bishop and a martyr, and Thraseas, a bishop and martyr from Eumenia. Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris, who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch, who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and whom lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven when he shall rise from the dead?”
Polycrates bolstered his position about retaining the Passover by naming these martyrs, knowing personally at least one of them, Polycarp, who had “endeavoured to keep the unity of the Spirit.”
All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the gospel, deviating in no way respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops: I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when people put away the leaven. I therefore, brethren, who have lived 65 years in the Lord, and have met with brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘we ought to obey God rather than man. I could mention the bishops whom I summoned at your desire, whose names, should I write them, could constitute a great multitude. And they, beholding my littleness, gave their consent to the letter, knowing that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus” (Early Christian Writings).
Despite his arguments, Polycrates and the bishops who supported him were ex-communicated from the church by Roman Bishop Victor. However, Victor reversed his decision later on, after several bishops, including Irenaeus, intervened.
It’s uncertain what happened after Polycrates’ reinstatement. Sadly, despite his bold attempts to remain faithful to God, the date for Passover was changed and replaced with a man-made holy day, known as Easter, instituted shortly thereafter.
Today, the majority of the traditional Christian world observes Easter, but there are still small groups of people who celebrate the Passover or Lord’s Supper, on the same date that the apostles of God, as well as Polycrates and Polycarp fought so bravely to keep. They all held on to their beliefs and for each of them, when facing death, martyrdom was the worthy option. To God’s glory, Polycrates’ letter to Bishop Victor was not written in vain.