The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians

By now, you should know the drill. Introduction (including online resources), outline, then highlights.

Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna, and lived from 65-155 AD. He was martyred at an old age, the most moving account of which we will examine in the next post. This letter is usually dated between 120-140 AD (Roberts-Donaldson are non-committal). It is extant in some deficient Greek manuscripts, and chapters 9-14 are only available to us in Latin translation (the most important chapters of which are preserved in long citations from Eusebius). The character of this letter is not original, or particularly eloquent in and of itself. The Roberts-Donaldson introduction says “The Epistle of Polycarp is usually made a sort of preface to those of Ignatius, for reasons which will be obvious to the reader” (p. 31). In chapter 13, we learn that the church of Phillipi had requested the letters of Ignatius to be sent to them, which Polycarp agreed to do. They are even said to be “subjoined to this Epistle” (chapter 13). The same introduction also casts some doubt on the genuineness of chapter 13: “There seems considerable force in the arguments by which many others have sought to prove chap. xiii to be an interpolation.” Be that as it may, this post will assume the chapter is genuine. There is certainly no reason to believe that the letter as a whole is spurious. For English translations, we have easy access to three online: Lightfoot, Roberts-Donaldson, and Lake. The Greek can be found here in Migne. The letter itself starts on column 1005. The link to the beautiful Greek font version on the Early Christian Writings website is unfortunately unavailable at this time.

An outline of the letter is as follows: I. Encouragement of the Philippians (chapter 1); II. Exhortations (chapter 2-12); III. The Epistles of Ignatius (chapter 13); Conclusion (chapter 14). I realize that Roman numeral II in this outline is quite a bit bigger. However, all those chapters are really exhortations, ranging from virtue as a whole (chapter 2) to the duties of deacons, the young, the unmarried (chapter 5), and elders (chapter 6). There are exhortations to avoid heresy (chapter 7), especially the Docetists, it seems. Hope, patience, and the graces of the Christian life take up chapters 8-12.

The one thing that struck my notice was his humility, most evident in chapter 3: “These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because ye have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul.” The indications are that he either knew John the apostle, or was only one generation removed from John. So his humility is all the more remarkable. Read and be edified. For this epistle also is Scripture-saturated.

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3 Comments

  1. andrew said,

    May 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Lane, if it is not too personal where did you get the series from, and how much was it? Have long coveted it, but it is a bit pricey in one go.

    I think Schaff’s is the only fullish set of church fathers – is that correct? Would anyone recommend a book introducing them?

  2. greenbaggins said,

    May 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Andrew, Christian Book Distributors is selling the set that our church purchased. It’s a great price (38 volumes for only $250). I’ve never seen it that cheap for nigh on twenty years since I’ve been eyeing it. Of course, most of these are available on books.google.com. But if you’re like me, you have to have a pencil whenever you’re reading theology. So, this is your best bet. As to introductory books, I’d firmly recommend J.N.D. Kelly’s book Early Christian Doctrines. Fantastic. Also, the first volume of Pelikan’s five-volume history of church doctrine covers the ECF quite well, as well. A great book on heresy is Harold Brown’s book entitled Heresies.

  3. andrew said,

    May 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks v. much – will check this out.

    Yes, your online links are very helpful for looking something up, but I like the real thing for longer reading!


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