Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians with New Testament Scriptural Annotations

By Bob Thiel, Ph.D (AKA COGwriter)

The Apostle John, appointed as one of the original apostles by Jesus of Nazareth, appears to be the last one to die. He also was the last one to write of any of the books included in the New Testament canon. The literature places his death about CE 96.

According to Tertullian, Polycarp of Smyrna was a disciple of the Apostle John (Tertullian, Liber de praescriptione haereticorum) and Irenaeus (Irenaeus, Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus). Irenaeus reports that the apostles appointed Polycarp as the overseer of the Church in Smyrna (Ibid).

Polycarp was a major leader, if not the most important one, of the Christian church in the 2nd century. Although based in Asia Minor, he was the first known Christian leader to go to Rome for the express purpose of denouncing various heretics/heresies and to turn people back to the true Christian church (Ibid and Irenaeus, Adversus Haeres, Bk. III). Polycarp, according to Irenaeus, denounced the heretics Marcion and Valentinus as well as pointing out errors of the Bishop of Rome (Ibid).

Despite his influence, only one document written by Polycarp remains. Commonly known as Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians, or The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, it dates to ca. CE 110-135). One of the letters more remarkable aspects is its clear demonstration of Polycarp’s heavy reliance on the New Testament.

While different theologians have varying views on the number of New Testament books that Polycarp either quotes or alludes to, it seems that in his small letter he alludes to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2,&3 John, Jude, and Revelation—which is to say, all of the 27 books of the New Testament.

Changes and Annotations

This paper contains an annotated version of Polycarp’s letter. The annotations are the New Testament scriptural references that I have added. References to Hebrew writings, such as those in the Old Testament, have not been added.

The translation into English was originally from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1 as edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (American Edition, 1885; Reprint Hendrickson Publishers, 1999, pp. 33-36). Although I tried to keep the punctuation provided by Roberts and Donaldson, a couple of minor quotation mark issues were also corrected/changed by me. For readability I also substituted the word “you” for “ye.”

Additionally, I made a change in chapter XII to correct one important omission in translation. Roberts and Donaldson, in chapter XII, omitted the term “God” before Jesus Christ. However, the term “deum” is in the Latin version of this epistle (the original Greek versions did not survive pass chapter X). My translation (which agrees with Dr. Lightfoot’s earlier translation) of “our Lord and God Jesus Christ” is a literal translation of the Latin “dominum nostrum et deum Iesum Christum” (the Latin can be found in The Apostolic Fathers, by M. Holmes, p.218).

The term “deum” is the masculine accusatory form of the word “dues” and means “God.” Thus, the term God does belong in that portion of this document, even though Roberts and Donaldson somehow seemed to missed it—and is in the version below:

Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians: An Annotated Version – Bob Thiel

Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi: Mercy to you, and peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, be multiplied.

CHAP I — PRAISE OF THE PHILIPPIANS.

I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because you have followed the example of true love [as displayed by God], and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God (Colossians 3:12) and our Lord; and because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by (cf. Philemon 5), endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. John 15:8), who for our sins suffered even unto death (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3), [but] “whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave” (Acts 2:24). “In whom, though now you see Him not, you believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8); into which joy many desire to enter (Matthew 13:17; cf. 1 Peter 4:13), knowing that “by grace you are saved, not of works,” (Ephesians 2:8-9) but by the will of God through Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10).

CHAP. II — AN EXHORTATION TO VIRTUE.

“Wherefore, girding up your loins” (cf. Ephesians 6:14;1 Peter 1:13), “serve the Lord in fear” (cf. Hebrews 12:28) and truth, as those who have forsaken the vain, empty talk and error of the multitude, and “believed in Him who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory” (1 Peter 1:21) and a throne at His right hand. To Him all things in heaven and on earth are subject (1 Peter 3:22; cf. Philippians 2:10). Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5). His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him (cf. Luke 11:50). But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also (1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Romans 8:11), if we do His will, and walk in His commandments (2 John 6;cf. Revelation 22:14-15), and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness (cf. John 7:18), covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing” (1 Peter 3:9), or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching : “Judge not, that you be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again; and once more” (Matthew 7:1-2, cf. Matthew 6:12,14; Luke 6:36-38), “Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20; Matthew 5:3,10).

CHAP. III — EXPRESSIONS OR PERSONAL UNWORTHINESS.

These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom (cf. 2 Peter 3:15) of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and stedfastly taught the word of truth (Ephesians 1:13) in the presence of those who were then alive (cf. Acts 16:13). And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter (Philippians), which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, “is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26). For if any one be inwardly possessed of these graces, he hath fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that hath love is far from all sin (cf. James 2:8-9).

CHAP. IV — VARIOUS EXHORTATIONS.

“But the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). Knowing, therefore, that “as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7), let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness (2 Corinthians 6:7; Ephesians 6:11); and let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord (John 14:15). Next, [teach] your wives [to walk] in the faith given to them, and in love and purity tenderly loving their own husbands in all truth, and loving all [others] equally in all chastity (Titus 2:4,5); and to train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God. Teach the widows to be discreet as respects the faith of the Lord, praying continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17) for all (cf. 1 Timothy 5:5), being far from all slandering, evil-speaking, false-witnessing, love of money, and every kind of evil; knowing that they are the altar is of God, that He clearly perceives all things, and that nothing is hid from Him, neither reasonings, nor reflections, nor any one of the secret things of the heart (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:25).

CHAP. V — THE DUTIES OF DEACONS, YOUTHS, AND VIRGINS.

Knowing, then, that “God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7), we ought to walk worthy of His commandment (2 John 6) and glory (cf. 2 Peter 1:3). In like manner should the deacons be blameless before the face of His righteousness, as being the servants of God and Christ, and not of men (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2-10). They must not be slanderers, double-tongued (1 Timothy 3:8), or lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:8), but temperate in all things (1 Timothy 3:8), compassionate, industrious, walking according to the truth of the Lord (cf. 3 John 4), who was the servant of all (cf. Matthew 20:28; Mark 9:35; John 13:14-16). If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him (cf. Philippians 1:27), “we shall also reign together with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12), provided only we believe. In like manner, let the young men also be blameless in all things, being especially careful to preserve purity, and keeping themselves in, as with a bridle, from every kind of evil (Titus 2:6-8). For it is well that they should be cut off from the lusts that are in the world, since “every lust warreth against the spirit” (1 Peter 2:11); and “neither fornicators, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 6:9,10; cf. Revelation 22:15), nor those who do things inconsistent and unbecoming (cf. Ephesians 5:4). Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:11-12). The virgins also must walk in a blameless and pure conscience (cf. Titus 2:4-8).

CHAP. VI — THE DUTIES OF PRESBYTERS AND OTHERS.

And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those that wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always “providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man” (2 Corinthians 8:21; cf. Romans 12:17); abstaining from all wrath (cf. Galatians 5:19-20; 1 Peter 2:11), respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against any one, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin. If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive (Matthew 6:14-15); for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and “we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself” (Romans 14:10,12). Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence (Hebrews 12:28), even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us]. Let us be zealous in the pursuit of that which is good (Galatians 4:18), keeping ourselves from causes of offence (cf. Matthew 17:27), from false brethren (2 Timothy 3:5), and from those who in hypocrisy bear the name of the Lord (1 Timothy 4:1-2), and draw away vain men into error.

CHAP. VII — AVOID THE DOCETAE, AND PERSEVERE IN FASTING AND PRAYER.

“For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist”(1 John 4:3), and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning (cf. Jude 3); “watching unto prayer” (1 Peter 4:7), and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God “not to lead us into temptation” (Matthew 6:13) as the Lord has said: “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38).

CHAP. VIII — PERSEVERE IN HOPE AND PATIENCE.

Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, “who bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24), “who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22), but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him (cf. 1 John 4:9). Let us then be imitators of His patience (James 5:10); and if we suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him (Acts 5:41; Romans 8:17; cf. 1 Peter 4:16). For He has set us this example in Himself, and we have believed that such is the case (1 Peter 2:21).

CHAP. IX — PATIENCE INCULCATED.

I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain (Philippians 2:16; Galatians 2:2), but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world (1 John 2:15; cf. 2 Timothy 4:10), but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead.

CHAP. X — EXHORTATION TO THE PRACTICE OF VIRTUE.

Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith (1 Corinthians 10:1; Jude 3), loving the brotherhood (1 Peter 2:17), and being attached to one another (cf. 1 Peter 3:8), joined together in the truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:1), and despising no one. When you can do good, defer it not (Galatians 6:10), because alms delivers from death. Be all of you subject one to another (1 Peter 5:5) “having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles,” (1 Peter 2:12) that you may both receive praise for your good works, and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But woe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed (cf. 2 Peter 2:1-2)! Teach, therefore, sobriety to all, and manifest it also in your own conduct.

CHAP. XI — EXPRESSION OF GRIEF ON ACCOUNT OF VALENS.

I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him [in the Church]. I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness (cf. Hebrews 13:5; Titus 2:12), and that you be chaste (Titus 2:5) and truthful. “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others? If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen (cf. Colossians 3:5-6). But who of us are ignorant of the judgment of the Lord? “Do we not know that the saints shall judge the world?” as Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 6:2). But I have neither seen nor heard of any such thing among you, in the midst of whom the blessed Paul laboured, and who are commended in the beginning of his Epistle (cf. Philippians 1:1-6). For he boasts of you in all those Churches which alone then knew the Lord; but we [of Smyrna] had not yet known Him. I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; to whom may the Lord grant true repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-25)! And be you then moderate in regard to this matter, and “do not count such as enemies” (2 Thessalonians 3:15), but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body. For by so acting you shall edify yourselves.

CHAP. XII — EXHORTATION TO VARIOUS GRACES.

For I trust that you are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures, and that nothing is hid from you; but to me this privilege is not yet granted. It is declared then in these Scriptures, “Be you angry, and sin not,” and, “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26). Happy is he who remembers this, which I believe to be the case with you. But may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God (Mark 1:1), and our everlasting High Priest (Hebrews 3:1), build you up in faith and truth, and in all meekness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, forbearance, and purity; and may He bestow on you a lot and portion among His saints (cf. Revelation 14:12), and on us with you, and on all that are under heaven, who shall believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ, and in His Father, who “raised Him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). Pray for all the saints (Ephesians 6:18,23). Pray also for kings, and potentates, and princes (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2), and for those that persecute and hate you (Matthew 5:44), and for the enemies of the cross (Philippians 3:18), that your fruit may be manifest to all, and that you may be perfect in Him.

CHAP. XIII — CONCERNING THE TRANSMISSION OF EPISTLES.

Both you and Ignatius wrote to me, that if any one went [from this] into Syria, he should carry your letter with him; which request I will attend to if I find a fitting opportunity, either personally, or through some other acting for me, that your desire may be fulfilled. The Epistles of Ignatius written by him to us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] which we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are subjoined to this Epistle, and by them you may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord. Any more certain information you may have obtained respecting both Ignatius himself, and those that were with him, have the goodness to make known to us.

CHAP. XIV — CONCLUSION.

These things I have written to you by Crescens, whom up to the present time I have recommended unto you, and do now recommend. For he has acted blamelessly among us, and I believe also among you. Moreover, you will hold his sister in esteem when she comes to you. Be you safe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with you all (Philemon 3). Amen.

Conclusion

The above shows quotes and/or allusions to statements in all 27 books of the New Testament in this single letter from Polycarp. And, like Peter (2 Peter 3:16), Polycarp refers to a writing of the Apostle Paul as scripture.

Some may have come up with a different total of books, and thus possibly question some of the annotations, while others may wish to add to what is annotated above. Even if some the specifics are subject to interpretation (and Revelation probably is the least solid—though it seems to be alluded to), the reality is that looking at scriptural allusions in Polycarp’s letter is valuable.

Polycarp’s letter shows that he and those Christians in contact with him were aware of the entire New Testament in the early the 2nd century (and most likely, as before).

Perhaps because of Polycarp being John’s disciple (John is believed to have died in Ephesus, a city in Asia Minor reasonably close to Smyrna), the late James Moffat wrote:

Was not the Apostolic Canon of scripture first formed…in Asia Minor? Was not Asia Minor ahead of Rome in the formation of the Apostolic, Episcopal, ministry?…The real thinking upon vital Christianity for centuries was done outside the Roman Church (Excerpt of James Moffatt’s review. In: Bauer, W. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity, Sigler Press edition, 1996, p.292).

The foregoing evidence demonstrates that Polycarp knew of all the books of the New Testament. His letter shows that the original canon of the New Testament, including the book of Revelation, was not only known in Asia Minor but passed on to the Christians in that region.

Moreover, Polycarp’s letter helps confirm a prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah wrote:

Bind up the testimony, Seal the law among my disciples (Isaiah 8:16, NKJ.)

Here Isaiah’s writing shows that the apostles would be the ones who would finalize the writings of the New Testament Church. Most of those who take the Bible literally do not believe that God intended that the true Christians would need to wait until councils of men centuries later to bind and seal the canon of the New Testament. They argue that the duty to bind up the testimony did not rest with Christians of later generations but with the apostles themselves.

When the Apostle John finalized the twenty-seven writings of the New Testament they constituted, together with the Hebrew Scriptures, the complete set of scriptures for the Church. These writings provided the people of God a means of knowing or recalling the teachings of Jesus and the apostles for all time.

I submit that the internal evidence of this single serving letter from Polycarp demonstrates that the successors to the apostles possessed the entire New Testament.

Thiel B. Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians with New Testament Scriptural Annotations.  T. Journal of Apologetics and Theology, June 2008

Note: The word improperly translated as "cross" in Chapter VII comes from the Greek word 'staros' which means wooden pole or stake.

More information on Polycarp is to be found in the article Polycarp of Smyrna: The Heretic Fighter.

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