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Epistle of Polycarp

POLYCARP, EPISTLE OF pŏl’ ĭ kärp (Πολύκαρπος). A letter of the Early Church.

The author of this letter is Polycarp, who was bishop of Smyrna in the middle of the 2nd cent. He was the teacher of Irenaeus and of others. He welcomed Ignatius and encouraged him when he was a temporary visitor in Smyrna as a prisoner being escorted to Rome. He described himself once as having been a servant of Christ for “eighty and six years” (Martyrdom of Polycarp IX, 3). Probably, therefore, he was born in a Christian family. He was put to death by the civil authorities because he refused to recant his Christian views. The date of his death has been variously calculated. If the data of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (q.v.) are accepted, it was 23 February 155 or 22 February 156. Eusebius, on the other hand, who knew the Martyrdom, placed the date in the reign of Marcus Aurelius when there were persecutions in Asia c. 167 (Euseb. Hist. IV. xv. 1).

According to Eusebius, Irenaeus said that Polycarp wrote several epistles (Euseb. Hist. V. xx. 8), but this one to the Philippians is the only one extant. In 1936, P. N. Harrison proposed the thesis that this was not a single epistle, but rather two that had been joined together. The earlier was made up of ch. 13 and perhaps 14. It was simply a brief covering letter to accompany the dispatch to Philippi of the copies of the letters of Ignatius that they had requested. The date would be early September of the year that Ignatius died, perhaps 110. The first twelve chs., on the other hand, were written perhaps twenty years later in the 130s. Although this is a possible thesis and has been accepted by Kleist and favored by Quasten, it does not seem at all likely that it is correct. The fact that in ch. 9 it is assumed that Ignatius was dead and that in ch. 13 Polycarp asked for “anything definite which you have learned” about him does not require the assumption of two epistles. It is quite normal to seek information about the circumstances of the death of a friend. There were docetists before Marcion, whom Harrison would consider referred to in ch. 7. In fact, the reference to Ignatius in ch. 9 seems a bit odd after twenty or more years, unless he was elevated to the rank of Paul and the other apostles, which he was not. Eusebius considered the epistle a unit as he quoted from both parts (Euseb. Hist. III, xxxvi, 13-15) as from one continuous letter. It should prob. be dated, then, c. 115.

The content of the letter is notable for its very extensive quotations from the books that make up the NT. The amount of quotation and reflection is extraordinary. The Pauline corpus was constantly called upon. R. M. Grant finds all the Pauline epistles except Philemon reflected, “including thirteen allusions to the Pastorals” (Apostolic Fathers, I, 67). Ephesians 4:26 is quoted as “Scripture” (12, 1). Matthew, Luke-Acts, Hebrews and 1 Peter are other favorite sources. Presbyters and deacons, not bishops, are the church officers mentioned. There is a strong emphasis on the life of righteousness and good works. Jesus came truly in the flesh, died, and was raised again. Emperors, rulers, and persecutors were to be prayed for.

The original language was Gr., but all of the Gr. MSS descend from a defective original that ends with IX, 2 and goes on into the text of Barnabas. The Lat. VS supplies the text for the remaining chs. except for most of 13, which is quoted by Eusebius. There are some quotations available in Syriac.


J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Part II, S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp, vols. 1-3 (2nd ed. 1889); P. N. Harrison, Polycarp’s Two Epistles to the Philippians (1936); J. A. Kleist (The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, etc.), Ancient Christian Writers 6, (1948); R. M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers, I (1964). See also Apostolic Fathers, esp. for texts and translations.