You’ve heard the old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Well, more often than not, truth makes a better story than fiction. And in Hannula’s own introduction to Trial and Triumph (click here to see my intro into the blog series), he said the stories were
not fiction but historically accurate, biographical sketches. The background events and actions of the subjects were drawn from the most reliable sources, and all quotations were taken directly from the subject’s own speeches and writings. (pg. 11-12)
I went into the text with fairly high expectations, as when I open up my texts of primary sources. Having been a student of the writings of and about Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp, I think I had some unreasonably lofty hopes for what Hannula had to put together for children. If Hannula had not written those words into his introduction, I think I would have been comfortable viewing these stories much like movies depicting historical personalities and events. For the most part they are true, and they can summarize a life story while moving the narrative forward and not lose people along the way. We give them some wiggle room for the sake of telling the story.
But, alas, Hannula said the stories are “historically accurate” and “drawn from reliable sources.” So I have to start there.
The opening to the story of Polycarp (pgs. 17-20) were done quite well, giving the background to the early church, persecutions, and setting the stage for the mid-second century. On page 18, the tale of Polycarp opened with a story of a young Christian of Smyrna in the arena with a lion. After rejecting the call from the Roman governor to renounce Christianity, to swear the oath to Caesar, and live, the lion attacked.
In an instant the two were intertwined, with the animal tearing at the man with powerful swipes. The lion closed his massive jaws, and the young man went limp. The crowd cheered. “Death to the godless!” some shouted.
One of the Roman leaders spoke up. “He was just a follower.” Another shouted, “We want Polycarp, their leader! Death to the godless! Death to Polycarp!”
While the scene of a Christian in an arena being killed by a lion was nothing fictional, the story was very much far from reality. This is the real story:
But thanks be to God, for the devil did not prevail against any of [a group of prior Christian martyrs]. For the most noble Germanicus encouraged them, fearful though they were, by his own patient endurance; he also fought with the wild beasts in an outstanding way. For when the proconsul wished to persuade him and asked him to consider his youthfulness, he forcibly dragged the wild beast toward himself, desiring to be released as quickly as possible from their unrighteous and lawless life. For after this the whole multitude, marveling at the bravery of the God-loving and God-fearing race of Christians, began shouting, “Away with the atheists! Find Polycarp!” 1
Germanicus, far from just standing there and letting the lion attack, brought the lion to himself. And that is not the only time I’ve read of that sort of zeal from the martyrs. Compare the two stories—from Hannula and from the primary source, the Martyrdom of Polycarp—and you see the differences. You see the embellishments, you see the movie making, and you see where Hannula is trying to fill in what he thinks will keep the attention and spur the imaginations of the children. While as with historically based movies I am willing to recognize the story and goal through the theatrics and the not-so-accuracies, I have a difficult time going there with this story of Germanicus mainly because of the unnecessary misrepresentation.
The story of Germanicus itself is profound, especially in light of the historical context. The persecutions on going in the area were intense, and the authors of Mart. of Polycarp included it because of it’s special place in the Christian community. Granted, there was no need to list the details of what a lion killing a Christian looked like back then; they were living it almost daily. Children in our day, here in the US at least, would find it hard to understand. But that is no reason to change the story. Moving on.
The narrative moved on to the arrest of Polycarp and his being in the arena. Now, the story of what happened in the arena is well done. I do not really have a complaint. But if there is anything to dislike it would be what was skipped over. Hannula did not talk about what happened during the search for Polycarp leading to his arrest. That span can give you a very good picture of the kind of man and more importantly the kind of Christian Polycarp was. I recommend taking a look at what Polycarp did and talking about that with your children. Especially to American children not exposed to what persecution looks and feels like, being killed for Jesus can be quite foreign. But if they could see the life of a martyr, they might understand the significance a little better.
The search for Polycarp is found in Mart. of Polycarp vi-vii. Knowing he was being hunted, Polycarp left his house and hid in another. Members of his household betrayed him. So the soldiers later found him and were ready to arrest him. Instead of running again, he declared, “May God’s will be done.” Polycarp ordered that a table be prepared for the soldiers and they ate while he went and prayed. After that, he went with the soldiers.
It’s a powerful testimony, the life of a martyr inseparable from his death. It’s a testimony that I would love to have seen included, and that I believe could have done a lot of good for Christian children today. The story of Polycarp is very important, and it’s no mystery why Hannula included it in his summary history. But I do wish he would have given just a little bit more. He had the space, but otherwise it’s a good chapter.
1 Martyrdom of Polycarp, iii