The Church of Smyrna

History and Theology of a Primitive Christian Community

by Mauricio Saavedra (Author)
©2015 Thesis XV, 402 Pages


This book deals with the theology of the Church of Smyrna from its foundation up to the Council of Nicaea in 325. The author provides a critical historical evaluation of the documentary sources and certain aspects particularly deserving of discussion. He makes a meticulous study of the history of the city, its gods and institutions, the set-up of the Jewish and Christian communities and the response of the latter to the imperial cult. Finally, he undertakes a detailed analysis both of the reception of the Hebrew Scriptures and the apostolic traditions, as well as examining the gradual historical process of the shaping of orthodoxy and the identity of the community in the light of the organisation of its ecclesial ministries, its sacramental life and the cult of its martyrs.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • General Index
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Presentation of the Sources
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: Analysis of the direct sources
  • 1. Epistula ad ecclesiam Smyrnaeam (Rv 2, 8–11)
  • 2. Ignatius Antiochenus, Epistula ad Smyrnaeos
  • 3. Ignatius Antiochenus, Epistula ad Polycarpum
  • 4. Polycarpus Smyrnensis, Epistula ad Philippenses
  • 5. Ecclesia Smyrnensis, Epistula de martyrio s. Polycarpi
  • 6. Irenaeus Lugdunensis, Ad Florinum de monarchia
  • 7. Irenaeus Lugdunensis, Epistula ad Victorem papam Romanum de festo paschali
  • 8. Polycrates Ephesinus, Epistula ad Victorem papam Romanum
  • 9. Hippolytus, Adversus Noetum
  • 10. Fragments on Polycarp
  • 11. Martyrium Pionii
  • 12. Vita Polycarpi
  • 13. Index Patrum Nicaenorum
  • Chapter II: Brief study of the indirect sources
  • 1. Ignatius Antiochenus, Epistulae genuinae ad Ephesinos, ad Magnesios, ad Trallianos, ad Romanos
  • 2. Acta Ioannis
  • 3. Acta Pauli
  • 4. Irenaeus Lugdunensis, Adversus Haereses 3, 3, 4
  • 5. Tertullianus, De praescriptione haereticorum 32, 2
  • 6. Eusebius Caesariensis, Historia Ecclesiastica
  • 7. Hieronymus presbyter, De Viris Illustribus 17
  • 8. Aelius Aristides, Sacrorum Sermonum: Ἱερῶν λόγων
  • 9. Aelius Aristides, Oratio de concordia ad civitates Asiaticas: Περὶ ὁµονοίας ταῖς πόλεσιν
  • 10. Aelius Aristides, In smyrnam oratio: Σµυρναϊκὸς πολιτικὸς
  • 11. Aelius Aristides, Monodia de Smyrna: Ἐπὶ Σµύρνῃ µονῳδία
  • 12. Aelius Aristides, Oratio de Smyrna ad Reges Romanorum: Ἐπιστολὴ περὶ Σµύρνης πρὸς τοὺς βασιλέας
  • 13. Aelius Aristides, Palinodia de Smyrna instaurata: Παλινῳδία ἐπὶ Σµύρνῃ καὶ τῷ ταύτης ἀνοικισµῷ
  • 14. Aelius Aristides, Gratulatio Smyrnaea (ad Commodum): Σµυρναϊκὸς προσφωνητικός
  • 15. Constitutiones apostolorum 7, 46, 8
  • 16. Pseudo-Dionysius, Epistula ad Polycarpum
  • 17. Gregorius episcopus Turonensis, Historiarum libri decem
  • 18. Chronicon Paschale
  • 19. Metrophanes, Panegyricum Polycarpi Smyrnensis
  • Chapter III: Historical and literary appraisal of certain sources and particular problems
  • 1. The teaching of the presbyter
  • 2. The ancestors of the Valentinians
  • 3. Epistula ad Diognetum
  • 4. Epistulae ad Timotheum I et II, Epistula ad Titum
  • 5. Corpus Polycarpianum
  • a. The beginning of a hypothesis
  • b. Criticism during the twentieth century
  • c. The thesis of A. Stewart-Sykes
  • d. Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Part Two: Historical and Social Situation of the Community of Smyrna
  • Introduction
  • Chapter IV: Pagan Smyrna, city of Asia Minor
  • 1. Geographical location
  • 2. Legendary origin of the city
  • 3. Smyrna in the pre-Hellenic age
  • 4. Hellenic Smyrna
  • 5. Hellenistic Smyrna
  • 6. Roman Smyrna
  • 7. Life and institutions in the city of Smyrna
  • 8. Divinities in Asia and in particular in Smyrna
  • 9. Conclusion
  • Chapter V: Jews and Christians in Smyrna
  • 1. Characteristics of Judaism of the diaspora
  • 2. Judaism in Asia Minor
  • 3. The Christian faith face to face with Judaism in the New Testament
  • 4. The Christians of Asia faced with Judaism
  • 5. Judaism in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch
  • 6. The role of the Jews in the Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • 7. Jewish proselytism and the Christian response in the Martyrdom of Pionius
  • 8. Jews and Christians before the civil authority in the Life of Polycarp
  • 9. Conclusion
  • Chapter VI: The community of Christians in Smyrna
  • 1. The foundation of the community
  • 2. Development of the community and configuration of its first leaders
  • 3. The author of the Revelation and the “angel” of the Church of Smyrna
  • 4. The bishop Polycarp
  • 5. The successsors of Polycarp
  • 6. Missionary Smyrna in the middle of the second century
  • 7. Crisis in the Church of Smyrna at the end of the second century
  • 8. Leaders of the community in the third century
  • 9. Smyrna towards the Council of Nicaea of 325
  • 10. Conclusion
  • Chapter VII: The Christians of Smyrna in the face of the imperial cult
  • 1. The Revelation and the persecution of Domitian
  • 2. The persecutions under Trajan and Hadrian
  • 3. The persecutions under Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus
  • 4. The persecutions under Septimius Severus and Maximinus
  • 5. The persecution of Decius
  • 6. The persecutions under Valerian, Diocletian and Maximinus Daia
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Part Three: Theological and Ecclesial Aspects of the Community of Smyrna
  • Introduction
  • Chapter VIII: The Old Testament in the Church of Smyrna
  • 1. The Old Testament in the early Christian community
  • 2. The Old Testament in the letters of Ignatius
  • 3. The Old Testament in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians
  • 4. The Old Testament in the Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • 5. Conclusion
  • Chapter IX: The Pauline tradition in the Church of Smyrna
  • 1. Formation of the Pauline tradition in Asia
  • 2. The Pauline tradition in the letters of Ignatius
  • 3. The Pauline tradition in Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians
  • 4. The Pauline tradition in the Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • 5. The silences of the Pauline tradition in Asia
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Chapter X: The Synoptic Gospels in the Church of Smyrna
  • 1. The Synoptic Gospels in Asia
  • 2. The Synoptic Gospels in the letters of Ignatius
  • 3. The Synoptic Gospels in Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians
  • 4. The Synoptic Gospels in the Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • 5. Conclusion
  • Chapter XI: The Johannine tradition in the Church of Smyrna
  • 1. Formation of the Johannine tradition in Asia
  • 2. Letter to the Church of Smyrna, Rv 2, 8–11
  • 3. The Johannine tradition in the letters of Ignatius
  • 4. The Johannine tradition in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians
  • 5. The Johannine tradition in the Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Chapter XII: The deposit of faith in the Church of Smyrna
  • 1. Confessions of faith in the New Testament
  • 2. The lex orandi in the Church of Smyrna of the second century
  • 3. The profession of faith of the presbyters of Smyrna
  • 4. The lex credendi in the Church of Smyrna
  • 5. Conclusion
  • Chapter XIII: Sacramental and spiritual life of the Church of Smryna
  • 1. The conception of Church and the ministries in the community
  • 2. Baptism and penance in the community
  • 3. Easter, Eucharist and cult of the martyrs in the community
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • General Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Editions and translations from the ancient sources
  • Studies
  • Index of References
  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Christian Writers
  • Other ancient literature
  • Modern authors
  • Other Terms and Names

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The in-depth study of a local historical reality has proven to be extremely useful for a better understanding of a broader and more complex universe, such as the spread of Christianity in the early centuries of its history. A revealing particular of this conviction has been the recent study of the Christian community of Ephesus carried out by Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (2004), who, undertaking an analysis of the sources reporting on the Christian presence in Ephesus from the times of Paul up to Ignatius of Antioch, has succeeded, not only in highlighting the weaknesses and strengths of many of the earlier theories on the spread of Christianity1, but above all offered scholars, a detailed description of the Christian community in the Roman capital of Asia Minor.

So that, on noting the importance of a study of this kind and clearly showing that on the city of Smyrna, the second city in importance of the Roman province of Asia in the early centuries of Christianity, and in many ways an evident rival of Ephesus both at civil and ecclesiastical level, no publication exists similar to that undertaken by P. Trebilco for the city of Ephesus, it is my intention to make a historical and theological study of the community of Smyrna from its foundation up to the Council of Nicaea.

Moreover, a study of historical nature only, omitting the theological aspect of the city of Smyrna, from its foundation in an age dating back to before the Hittites until the beginning of the fourth century, was carried out as far back as 1938 by P. Cadoux in Ancient Smyrna. The study by this author, although conscientious with regards to the historical aspects, concentrated on the history of the city prior to the Christian era, and of course without considering all the discoveries and debates, which during the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first have enriched the history and theology of early Christianity. For the rest, of course many studies exist, both ancient and more recent, on the sub-apostolic age in general and on certain sources related to the Church of Smyrna in particular. Nevertheless, there is no detailed monographic study which makes direct and in-depth reference to the community of Smyrna in the first centuries of Christianity. So that this is the investigative contribution which we wish to make to the academic community dealing with the history and theology of very early Christianity. ← 1 | 2 →

On the basis of a preliminary study of the sources, it is clear that the Christian community of Smyrna is an important community of early Christianity. In fact, it is to Smyrna that one of the letters in the Revelation is addressed insofar as it boasts an apostolic origin connected with the figure of John, counts on the great figure of her martyred bishop Polycarp, the significant stay of Ignatius of Antioch on his way to Rome, being the native city of Irenaeus’ mother, its important relations with other communities of the Christian world in Asia, Greece, Gaul and Rome, and its defence of the Quartodecimanist Easter, the interesting copyist and textual production effected by the community, with its important role in the controversy with Docetism, Marcionism, the New Prophesy, and the Patripasian doctrine of Noetus, among many other particulars.

The historical delimitation of this study on Smyrna, from the foundation of the Christian community up to the Council of Nicaea, in addition to being taken as a usual limit in patristic studies, in the case of Smyrna, also becomes a documentary limit since subsequent to the Council in the year 325 no further information is forthcoming on this community.

For this study on the community of Smyrna we have identified a considerable number of direct and indirect sources which will be presented and analysed in the first part, together with the presentation of a number of sources and themes deserving of particular discussion. In this study we do not claim to deal exhaustively with the discussion of the authenticity, transmission and textual criticism of each one of the sources themselves, since, as mentioned earlier, abundant commentaries are available on most of them, and accordingly we will point out in due course critical editions and particular studies. Our aim here will be to indicate only the broader consensus about the era, the author, the occasion and the content of these, with a view to their further use for the reconstruction of the history and theology of the Christian community.

In the second part of our research, it is our intention to study the history of the community in the framework of the city which at the beginnings of the Christian era, was a part of the all-important province of Asia, known for being the most populous and richest of the Roman provinces and which enjoyed a vibrant literary and cultural experience famous for the Second Sophistic. Together with the formation of the pagan roots of the city and the important role in the social life of the Jewish community, we will especially study the way in which the Christians of Smyrna relate to these two realities and the configuration of the leaders of the Christian community. Then, lastly, we will study the history of the latter in the face of the imperial cult and the persecutions.

In the third part of our study, we propose to analyse the presence and appraisal of Scripture in the sources presented in the first part, especially those ← 2 | 3 → concerning the period prior to the fixing of the canon and to full acceptance of the Hebrew Scriptures as heritage of the church, that is to say, up to the end of the second century. So that, we will study the reception of the Hebrew Scriptures and of the apostolic tradition, in particular the Pauline, the synoptic and the Johannine, by Ignatius, Polycarp and the author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

Lastly, in the context of the formation of orthodoxy in the face of various groups and trends, we will analyse the gradual process whereby the content of the faith of the Church of Smyrna is precisely formulated and made binding starting from the development of the lex orandi and the lex credendi. Finally, we will study the sacramental and spiritual life of the community, concerning ourselves more particularly with the gradual development of the conception that the community of Smyrna forms of itself as a particular Church and in relation to the other church communities, the configuration of its hierarchical and ministerial structure, the development of reflection on penance, the sacrament of the Eucharist, the celebration of Easter and the cult of its martyrs.

One limit of our research has to do with the relative scarcity of sources, as in part is usual in studies of early Christianity. With regard to the sources, it is necessary to point out that, although we possess a fair number of documents providing information on the history and Christian theology on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor in the first half of the second century, this documentation diminishes considerably in the second half of that century, and is truly scarce for a large part of the third century. Nevertheless, in the midst of this generalised documentary penumbra in Asia Minor in the third century, we possess some sources of great value on Smyrna in this century, which enable us to at least make certain considerations, clearly taking care not to make erroneous generalisations. Even so, the absence of Asian literature for almost the whole of the third century does not signify that in those communities, including Smyrna, discussion on doctrinal, exegetic, ecclesial and other matters did not continue, although certainly this absence may in part signify an important decrease in the cultural propensity of the region prior to the Council of Nicaea.

We hope that the study of all these different historical, theological and ecclesial aspects will permit us to perceive in some way the particular appearance of the Christian community of Smyrna in the first few centuries of its existence and its importance in the history of early Christianity.

1 More especially P. Trebilco revised the thesis of W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Philadelphia 1971.

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Part One

Presentation of the Sources

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For the study of the community of Smyrna in the early centuries of the Christian era, we have identified a sufficient number of direct and indirect sources deserving to be presented and analysed in this first part. We make no attempt to undertake an exhaustive discussion of these with regard to their authenticity, transmission and textual criticism, for which we refer the reader directly to the critical editions cited in the footnotes. Our aim is merely to situate the period, the author, the occasion and the content of the latter with a view to their further use for the reconstruction of the history and theology of the Christian community of Smyrna. We will also make an appraisal of individual texts which have been related recently to the Church of Smyrna, and finally we will analyse the possibility of the existence of one or more literary undertakings in the early centuries which attempted to gather together the writings of the community, especially those connected with the figure of Polycarp2.

2 The enunciation of the authors and Christian sources will be presented in this first part adopting the Latin terminology of the Clavis Patrum. Whereas the abbreviations have been taken from G. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford 1961, for the Greek Christian authors; from H. Liddell – R. Scott – H. Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford 1996, for the classic Greek authors; and from the Thesaurus linguae Latinae, Leipzig 1990, for the Latin authors. The biblical quotations are given using the Latin abbreviations.

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Chapter I: Analysis of the direct sources

We have singled out 13 sources which we consider direct in the sense that they are privileged first-hand testimonies which inform us on the situation of the community of Smyrna in the early centuries of the Christian era.

1. Epistula ad ecclesiam Smyrnaeam (Rv 2, 8–11)

This letter is the second and shortest of the seven messages which the revealer communicates to John the Seer in his epiphany3. It is improbable that these messages at some time existed in an independent form as authentic letters, since they do not assume the literary form of ancient letters. Rather, they are in the nature of prophetic discourses describing the reality of each church, included within the general plan of the Revelation, in the midst of a liturgical context.

Like all of the seven messages, the letter to the Church of Smyrna begins with a formula of prophetic commission and a knowledge of the situation of the community by the revealer. It appears clear in the message that the recipients were in danger of being imprisoned by the Roman authorities. The letter makes reference to the poverty of the community in contrast with its spiritual wealth. The reference to the local Jewish community as “synagogue of Satan” probably indicates the hostility and local conflict existing between Jews and Christians4. Verse ten suggests that the Jews had accused John’s followers before the Roman authorities5. At the end the letter affirms that those who persevere despite persecution will not suffer the “second death”6. ← 9 | 10 →

This text is undoubtedly the first direct source we possess of the history of the Christian community in Smyrna at the end of the first century or beginning of the second century7.

2. Ignatius Antiochenus, Epistula ad Smyrnaeos8

It is not our intention in this part of the study to deal with the problem of the transmission of the corpus Ignatianum9. We will be developing the question of Ignatius when speaking of the indirect sources in the second chapter of this part. Here we will merely deal with the circumstance of the composition of this letter To the Smyrnaeans. This may be found in the middle review10, considered to be ← 10 | 11 → that which offers us the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and which is testified to by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Historia Ecclesiastica11.

This letter may be found among the seven letters written by Ignatius, bishop of the Christian community of Antioch in Syria, a community which already as from the Acts of the Apostles, already appears as an important centre of irradiation of Christianity in the first century12. Ignatius was already considered famous in Antiquity not only for his Antiochean episcopate, his letters, and his martyrdom in Rome, but also for his relationship with the apostles13.

According to the testimony of Eusebius14 and of Ignatius himself,15 this letter was written from Troas,16 having recourse to the deacon Burrhus17 as his secretary. ← 11 | 12 → Bearing in mind the date of the martyrdom of Ignatius in Rome18, this letter, like the other six, must have been written more or less in the second decade of the second century19.

The relationship of Ignatius with the community of Smyrna would appear to have been very close. In fact, in his long journey from Antioch to Rome, Smyrna was the city in Asia Minor in which Ignatius spent the longest time. If we accept the authenticity of the middle review, the periplus of the martyrial journey of Ignatius could be as follows: First, he took a boat from Antioch in Syria to a port on the south-east coast of Asia Minor, undoubtedly as was usual in this route to Rome, the stop would have been at Ephesus, capital of the Roman province, and from there he would have embarked for the capital of the Empire20. But the group21 crossed towards the north, skirting the crests of the mountains of Tmolus, passing by the community of Philadelphia22 and probably arriving in Smyrna towards the month of August23. Once in Smyrna, Ignatius received the solidarity and support of the community and of its bishop Polycarp. There he received the visit of Christians coming from Ephesus, Magnesia and Tralles, who undoubtedly had hoped ← 12 | 13 → to offer him hospitality on his way through those communities, accordingly from Smyrna he sent letters with them for the three communities. At this same time, he wrote to the church of Rome. After leaving the city, his next stop was at Troas, a seaside town to the north of Smyrna, where he apparently stayed only a short time24. In Troas, he heard that the church of Antioch had achieved peace so that later he wrote from there To the Philadelphians, To the Smyrnaeans and To Polycarp to thank them for the welcome he had received on passing through those lands and to ask them to send out a messenger to the Church of Antioch25. After that the group of prisoners continued by sea, stopping off at Neapolis, a Macedonian port not far from Philippi. From then on we know nothing more about the itinerary of Ignatius26. He probably died a martyr in the capital of the Empire, as he himself hoped; however, we do not have any certain knowledge of this event27.

So that, as we may observe from the itinerary described, the community of Smyrna finds itself at the centre of his journey, for the time he spends in it, for the profound friendships he establishes with its members, and for the opportunity he has from there of coming into personal and written contact with Christians of other communities.

In the text addressed to this community we find fundamentally two motivations for writing this letter: the first has to do with the instruction of Ignatius to the community to not receive or to enter into contact with a certain group of Docetists28. The second reason, as referred to earlier, is to ask the community to ← 13 | 14 → send out an ambassador of God (θεοπρεσβύτην)29 with a letter congratulating the brothers and sisters of Antioch for having achieved peace30.

The structure of the letter may be the following:

 Confession of the orthodox faith: 1, 1–3, 3.

 Putting on guard against Docetism: 4, 1–7,

 Authority of the bishop: 8, 1–9, 1.

 Thanks for hospitality: 9, 2–10, 2.

 Request and greetings: 11, 1–13, 2.

Now is not the time to consider in detail all the abundant elements we can recover from this text. Suffice it to point out that this letter, on account of everything referred earlier from the point of view of the context in which it was written and the themes glimpsed in this structure is a source of first order for establishing the characteristics of the community of Smyrna at the beginning of the second century.

3. Ignatius Antiochenus, Epistula ad Polycarpum

The letter To Polycarp, which is also found in the middle review, is the only one addressed to one person in particular31. This letter addressed to the bishop of the community of Smyrna, was written by Ignatius shortly after having written To the Smyrnaeans. Clearly, Ignatius desired to address the whole community once more, this time through its bishop. This clearly emerges in paragraph six, when Ignatius does not address only Polycarp but the whole community once more. Undoubtedly Ignatius hoped that this “personal” letter to the bishop of the city ← 14 | 15 → would be read out in public32. The reason why Ignatius should address a second communication to the Church of Smyrna was probably in order to avoid any falling off in the support for his request made earlier to send out an ambassador of God to the Church of Antioch. This time, he asks not only to send a delegate from Smyrna to Antioch, but in addition, to write to the Churches which are before Smyrna33 so that they too do the same. Those that can, should send messengers, those that cannot, should at least write a letter and send it with the messenger from Smyrna34.

Another motivation for writing this letter, in addition to that already reported in connection with the mission to Antioch, is without doubt the personal and communitarian exhortation that Ignatius wishes to make to the bishop of the community. This heartfelt exhortation35 in which the profound personal ties between the two bishops cannot be denied36, has counsel regarding the various ← 15 | 16 → responsibilities that the bishop should have as its aim, such as above all the salvation of the members of the community and its unity37 by means of care of the “pestilent”38, of widows39, of slaves,40 and of married couples41: in addition, the warning made previously to the whole community42 to be wary of false masters43.

The letter is shorter44 and the style more abrupt than usual45, perhaps due to the short time Ignatius had at his disposal46. Nevertheless, the heartfelt farewells in which he repeats greetings to individuals and families47 indicate the affection and closeness of Ignatius, not only to the bishop, but also to members of the community.

The structure of the letter may be the following48:

 Praise of Polycarp: 1, 1.

 Exhortation to Polycarp.

 His responsibilities: 1, 2–3, 2.

 His dealings with the weakest members of the community.

 His resistance to false masters. ← 16 | 17 →

 The different situations: 4, 1–5, 2.

 Care of widows.

 Dealings with slaves.

 Advice to married couples.

 Exhortation to the community: 6.

 Mission to Antioch: 7, 1–8,1.

 Greetings: 8, 2.


XV, 402
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Konzil von Nicäa hebräisches Schrifttum Kaiserkult apostolische Tradition
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XV, 402 pp.

Biographical notes

Mauricio Saavedra (Author)

Mauricio Saavedra Monroy is an Augustinian priest. He holds a doctoral degree in Theology and Patristic Studies. He teaches Patristics in the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum of Rome and Saint Augustine Cervantina University of Bogota.


Title: The Church of Smyrna
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