“I know your affliction and poverty, but you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will experience affliction for ten days. Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. — Revelation 2:9-10
The ancient city of Smyrna is divided between two locations. The original, now known as “Old Smyrna,” was founded in the eleventh century B.C.E., though a settlement preceded it for more than two millennia prior to that date. Following a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed the city, “New Smyrna” relocated a couple of kilometers southwest after Alexander the Great commissioned its construction in the fourth century B.C.E. The fortress he built can still be seen today. Smyrna had great notoriety in the ancient world; for instance, many believed Smyrna to be the birthplace of Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Although six other cities lay claim to the ancient poet, many scholars believe Smyrna is his hometown. Separated by only 60 kilometers, an hour’s drive by car, one can easily imagine the rivalry between Smyrna and Ephesus for prestige in Asia Minor. Though power switched hands over many years, Smyrna, along with its neighbors, came under the rule of the Roman Empire in 195 B.C.E. Marcus Aurelius rebuilt the city a final time in 178 A.D. after another earthquake destroyed it. In the modern-day city of Izmir, the covered marketplace stands on the same grounds where Marcus Aurelius rebuilt the agora (marketplace), quite possibly making it one of the oldest continuously used markets in the world.
Smyrna in Christian History
A significant Jewish population set the cultural and religious groundwork for the Apostle Paul to spread the Christian gospel. Like much of the Aegean, we can assume Paul’s ministry, which started in Ephesus, evangelized Smyrna. But the city rose in importance after the time of the apostles. John’s Revelation is the only place in scripture that mentions it. Writing his apocalyptic letter to Christians in Smyrna during a time of persecution, he reminds them of the promise of resurrection and escape from the second death. Believers in Smyrna most likely suffered persecution for decades.
Polycarp (A.D. 69-155) was the Bishop of Smyrna until he was burned at the stake and then stabbed to death when fire did not finish the job. Multiple church fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Jerome) all refer to Polycarp as a disciple of John, even being ordained by the apostle. From Smyrna, Ignatius summoned church leaders throughout Asia Minor to come and visit with him as he was being taken to Rome for execution. Ignatius wrote many of his letters to the churches of Asia Minor from Smyrna, also addressing Polycarp and the city’s Christian community.
“Lord God, Father of our blessed Savior, I thank you that I have been counted worthy to receive the crown of martyrdom, and that I may die for you and for your cause.” — The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Throughout his life, Polycarp seems to have taken to heart the letters from John and Ignatius. We see his willingness to remain “faithful unto death” in his remarks to those responsible for burning him at the stake (see quote below). Because of the bishop’s close relationship with the Apostle John, the Christian church at large highly regarded his understanding and teaching of scripture and doctrine. He helped the church on a path of orthodoxy when heretics like Marcion and the Gnostic Valentinus were running rampant. While serving as bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp wrote his “Letter to the Philippians,” a document of utmost importance, not only for its sound doctrine and encouragement, but also because Polycarp makes many references to New Testament books, furthering the field of textual criticism and an understanding of how the New Testament canon was formed. According to tradition, the church father Irenaeus heard Polycarp speak when he was a young man. Irenaeus probably grew up in a Christian home in Smyrna, perhaps the first church father to have come to faith as a child.
“For eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me? You threaten with the fire that burns for a hour and then is quenched; for you do not know of the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of the eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why are you delaying? Bring what you will!” — The Martyrdom of Polycarp