Mike Aquilina

Digging Polycarp

Friday August 31st 2007, 3:07 am

Archeologists are excavating the agora of the ancient city of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). The Church of Smyrna plays a leading role in the biblical Book of Revelation; and, of course, it was the see of St. Polycarp, disciple of St. John and master of St. Irenaeus.

Author Carl Sommer spent time in Smyrna while researching his book We Look for a Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians. I asked him what these new digs might mean for patristics nerds. He said…

I’ve been to Smyrna (modern day Izmir), and it is a fascinating place. It’s almost certain that Polycarp spent time in the very agora mentioned in the article, and may even have preached and taught there. The agora was one of the great cultural institutions of the Greco-Roman world. Typically, it would be a rectangular market, with an open area in the middle. The outer perimeter would be lined with a double row of columns, with a roof on top. The area between the columns, under the roof, was called the stoa, or porch. There were two types of agoras, commercial or political (in some cities, like Ephesus, there were two separate agoras, in others, one agora would fill both functions). In the commercial agora, one would find small shops, where you could buy anything from fruits and vegetables, spices, clothing, etc. Sort of like a modern day mall. In the political agora, one would find the public business of the city being conducted. In this type of agora, one would be more likely to encounter philosophers teaching their students in the stoas. St. Paul utilized the agoras to great effect in his public ministry, because everyone visited them, and everyone expected a free flow of ideas to occur there. (See Acts 17:17-18.)

Polycarp was not as free as Paul, since in his day Christianity was proscribed by the Empire, but it seems likely that he at least spent some time in the agora, and, during those periods when the authorities were not particularly interested in persecuting Christians, he may have done some discreet evangelizing there.

Carl’s book is chock-full of that kind of stuff. Highly recommended.