23 February 2019 is Defender of the Fatherland Day in various countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. The saint of the day is Polycarp of Smyrna, who was probably burned to death on this date in 166 or so. The Martyrdom of Polycarp would have him executed a decade earlier, and also reports that the fire would not burn him and it was thus necessary to stab him. After that there was no difficulty in burning the body, it seems, and his followers collected his bones from the ashes.
Polycarp was one of the first Christian writers (outside of the New Testament) that I read in the original Greek—insofar as the original Greek is preserved. Thanks to a peculiarity of the manuscript tradition the extant copies of his letter abruptly turn into Barnabas 5.7 at 9.2. Presumably the ancestral copy of the present text was missing the pages containing the end of Polycarp’s letter and the beginning of Barnabas and the copyist never noticed but continued blithely on, indifferent to the change of author. There is a Latin translation of the whole extant, and some of the missing Greek is preserved by Eusebius, but the situation is unsatisfactory, to say the least. A further complication is the letter’s viewpoint on Ignatius’ martyrdom. Has it already happened? Or is it something Polycarp expects and wants to find out about? One possible solution to that puzzle is that two letters—one written while Ignatius’ fate was still hanging and the other when his martyrdom was safely in the past—have been jammed together, just as the entire letter got somehow attached to the Epistle of Barnabas. Other explanations are possible, but the lines of transmission are murky, and darkness lies in every direction.
But at any rate today is the anniversary of his martyrdom for atheism—for the crime of not believing in the right gods. When called upon to say “Away with the atheists” he did so—but made it clear that the atheists he was referring to were the members of the crowd come to see him murdered—the ones who didn’t believe in his god—rather than the ones like him, who didn’t believe in theirs. Rather like Columbus arguing with the native American over who discovered whom in the Freberg sketch, it’s all how you look at it.