John Or Paul? Who Was Polycarp’s Mentor? -- By: Kenneth Berding

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 59:1 (NA 2008)
Article: John Or Paul? Who Was Polycarp’s Mentor?
Author: Kenneth Berding

John Or Paul? Who Was Polycarp’s Mentor?

Kenneth Berding


In some of the patristic writings, Polycarp of Smyrna is explicitly linked with the Apostle John. These writings also include the implication that he was taught by John or installed in his office by John. In contrast (or seemingly), there is a substantial literary (and to a lesser degree, theological) connection to the Apostle Paul in the only surviving letter written by Polycarp himself. The question that concerns us in this study is as follows: Should Polycarp be viewed as standing in the tradition of the Apostle John, as he has been viewed throughout church history, or should he be viewed as standing in the tradition of the Apostle Paul, as one might suppose simply by reading the letter Polycarp himself wrote?

1. Introduction

One of the most important figures in the history of Christianity in Asia Minor is Polycarp. In the heart of modern-day Izmir (formerly Smyrna) sits a church bearing the name of this famous Christian who was martyred as an elderly man in the stadium of Smyrna shortly after the middle of the second century AD. His importance in early Christian history is widely recognised. Koester says that Polycarp is ‘doubtlessly the most significant ecclesiastical leader of the first half of II CE.’.1 Torrance refers to Polycarp as ‘the most venerable of the Apostolic Fathers, and perhaps the chief depository of the primitive Gospel

tradition’.2 R. Grant comments, ‘The importance of Polycarp of Smyrna for the study of early Christian life in [sic] second century cannot easily be overestimated.’3

2. Sources

Despite Polycarp’s importance, there is still relatively little that we know about him.4 There are only a few sources that contain accurate historical reflections on Polycarp’s life. One of these is the document of his mid-second century martyrdom, The Martyrdom of Polycarp (Mart. Pol.).5 We learn the most about Polycarp from a letter (letters?) that he wrote from Smyrna to the church in Philadelphia early in the second century (Pol. Phil.).6 There also exists a letter written to him by Ignatius of Antioch while Ignatius was en route to Rome to face almost certain martyrdom (Ign. Pol.) some time before the writing of Polycarp’s own ...

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