Day Four: Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (full text)

Who: Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a direct disciple of the apostle John. We also have some information about Polycarp via Irenaeus (who knew Polycarp) in his book, Adv. Haer., III.3.4: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna”.

What: Lots of exhortations are contained in this letter, and is also referenced by Irenaeus as being for “those who wish to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his (Polycarp's) faith, and the preaching of the truth.”

Why: Much like the New Testament letter to the Philippians, it it written to encourage the church on its faith and perseverance of salvation.

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When: Estimated 110-140 AD

One of the first things that will strike you about this letter is that if you didn't know any better, you’d think it was a Pauline epistle you were reading!

It has all the trappings of a classic New Testament pastoral letter to a local church, from the way out opens with the typical greetings and salutations, to the way it closes with praise and recommendations of other believers.

This letter is all about encouraging and urging the church in Philippi to continue to stay strong in the faith delivered to them “because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by” — which is a direct reference to Paul's letter and encouragement, found in Philippians 1:3-6.

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There's so many references to other New Testament letters in here, that you can find at least one reference to nearly all of the canonised books, plus a couple of Old Testament quotes, including one from Tobit! This in itself gives a small insight to what books were being considered as authoritative Scripture within the Church communities during this early period.

If you're curious, you can read a version of this epistle with all the New Testament quotes highlighted for easy reference here: newadvent.org.

Polycarp does mention the “blessed and glorified Paul” in his letter, and gives him his dues so as not to appear to be stepping on toes, with a short summary of Paul's original letter to this church and it's purpose:

He (Paul), when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you

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I just like seeing things like this in these other texts, where the apostles get a little shoutout, as I think it just draws home the reality of the New Testament narratives and that these were real people in real communities who were being impacted by the power of the Gospel.

There's also some warnings and harsh words against those who teach Docetism (the belief that Jesus's humanity was an illusion), quoting 1 John 4 and calling them the “firstborn of Satan”, plus some grieving for one of the church leaders who fell into sin. Polycarp also included some letters from Ignatius with this one, which were highly commended to be read and passed on amongst the churches.

Overall, this letter feels very familiar and is just as encouraging as the Pauline letters we read in the New Testament, well worth at least one read through in full.

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