Polycrates of Ephesus

By COGwriter

Who was Polycrates? Why did he stand up to the Roman Church? What are the ramification of his positions?

There is not a whole lot known about Polycrates, and most of what is known has been preserved by Greco-Roman Catholic writers such as Eusebius. What little information that we have, however, suggests that he was a faithful Christian leaders in the late 2nd century.

Polycrates and the Date of Passover

The Greco-Roman Catholic historian Eusebius tells of a problem that the Roman Church had concerns about,

A QUESTION of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour's passover...But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world...But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them. He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him (Eusebius. Church History. Book V, Chapters 23,25).

Here is what Eusebius records that Polycrates wrote,

We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord's coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus. And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna. Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead ? All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ' We ought to obey God rather than man'...I could mention the bishops who were present, whom I summoned at your desire; whose names, should I write them, would constitute a great multitude. And they, beholding my littleness, gave their consent to the letter, knowing that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus (Eusebius. The History of the Church, Book V, Chapter XXIV, Verses 2-7 . Translated by A. Cushman McGiffert. Digireads.com Publishing, Stilwell (KS), 2005, p. 114).

Note that Polycrates:

1) Claimed to be a follower of the teachings passed on from the Apostle John
2) Claimed that he was being faithful to the teachings of the Gospel
3) Relied on the position that teachings from the Bible were above those of Roman-accepted tradition
4) Claimed that he was being faithful to the teachings passed down to him
5) Was then the spokesperson for many in Asia Minor
6) Claimed he and his predecessors observed the time of unleavened bread
7) Refused to accept the authority of Roman tradition over the Bible
8) Refused to accept the authority of the Bishop of Rome--he preferred to be separate (cf. Revelation 18:4)
9) Claimed that his life was to be governed by Jesus and not opinions of men

So what happened next?

Eusebius immediately continues with,

Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate (Ibid).

This, however, did not set well with other leaders as they were aware that this subject had come up before and that Polycrates' testimony was true.

So, Eusebius then wrote,

But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor (Ibid).

Eusebius also quoted Irenaeus. Irenaeus apparently wrote Victor in order to change his mind on this disfellowship. One of the things that Irenaeus did was to remind him what happened earlier on the issue of the date of Passover,

And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him. But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect (Ibid).

Anicetus was the Bishop of Rome when Polycarp visited Rome. Note that Irenaeus only claims that Anicetus was following tradition and not the teachings of the Bible or the Apostles for making the change of Passover. The change that Anicetus had accepted was that Passover would not be observed on Nisan 14, but on Sunday. And that this practice began with the Roman Bishops may have began with Telesphorus after 132 A.D. (see article on the Passover and the Early Church).

It is important to realize that Polycarp was recognized a leader, that he kept the what he was taught, and that he refused to accept Roman tradition to change the date of Passover. It is important to realize, that even though they refused to accept Roman tradition on the date of Passover, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and others still consider that Polycarp, Thraseas, Sagaris, and Melito were all faithful saints. Please note that Polycrates simply faithfully followed them as they claimed to follow scripture.

Ramifications of Polycrates' Letter to Bishop Victor

But their are even more ramifications than the nine listed above of what Polycrates wrote. Even the Protestant scholars Roberts and Donaldson noted:


[A.D. 130-196.] This author comes in as an appendix to the stories of Polycarp and Irenaeus and good Anicetus, and his writings also bear upon the contrast presented by the less creditable history of Victor. If, as I suppose, the appearance of our Lord to St. John on "the Lord's day" was on the Paschal Sunday, it may at first seem surprising that this Apostle can be claimed by Polycrates in behalf of the Eastern custom to keep Easter {actually they kept Passover, not Easter-COGwriter}, with the Jews, on the fourteenth day of the moon. But to the Jews the Apostles became "as Jews" in all things tolerable, so long as the Temple stood, and while the bishops of Jerusalem were labouring to identify the Paschal Lamb with their Passover. The long survival of St. John among Jewish Christians led them to prolong this usage, no doubt, as sanctioned by his example. He foreknew it would quietly pass away. The wise and truly Christian spirit of Irenaeus prepared the way for the ultimate unanimity of the Church in a matter which lies at the base of "the Christian Sabbath," and of our own observance of the first day of the week as a weekly Easter. Those who in our own times have revived the observance of the Jewish Sabbath, show us how much may be said on their side, and elucidate the tenacity of the Easterns in resisting the abolition of the Mosaic ordinance as to the Paschal, although they agreed to keep it "not with the old leaven." Our author belonged to a family in which he was the eighth Christian bishop; and he presided over the church of Ephesus, in which the traditions of St. John were yet fresh in men's minds at the date of his birth. He had doubtless known Polycarp, and Irenaeus also. He seems to have presided over a synod of Asiatic bishops (A.D. 196) which came together to consider this matter of the Paschal feast. It is surely noteworthy that nobody doubted that it was kept by a Christian and Apostolic ordinance. So St. Paul argues from its Christian observance, in his rebuke of the Corinthians. They were keeping it "unleavened" ceremonially, and he urges a spiritual unleavening as more important. The Christian hallowing of Pentecost connects with the Paschal argument. The Christian Sabbath hinges on these points" (Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Excerpted from The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors); American Edition copyright © 1885. Copyright © 2001 Peter Kirby).

This is utterly astounding! Roberts and Donaldson seem to be admitting that it took Irenaeus, who wrote about 140+ years after Jesus died, to "prepared the way" for what became the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant acceptance of Sunday (which also was accepted by the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses), but never by the true Church of God (it has always been Sabbatarian).

Roberts and Donaldson essentially seem to be saying that unless John somehow foreknew that Irenaeus would pave the way to keep Sunday, that Polycrates letter could be considered as further evidence that the Sabbath, not Sunday should be observed. The simple fact is that John did keep the Passover on the 14th of Nisan (and John obviously knew when Christ kept it as he wrote about it in John 13:1).

Since John never wrote anything about Sunday (including the statement in Revelation 1:10 that Roberts and Donaldson allude to), he obviously was not advocating it. Actually the the first early document that uses the expression "Lord's day" and specifically ties it to the first day of the week is the apocryphal Gospel of Peter which neither Catholics, Protestants, etc. accept as inspired (there are some mistranslations, however, such as in The Didache and Ignatius). The first one to profess Christianity and mention Sun-day was Justin Martyr, and his use of that term shows that Lord's Day was not the generally understood expression for Sunday around 150 A.D.

However, if Roberts and Donaldson are correct that the Christian Sabbath hinges on the points about when Passover should be observed, then it is clear that there was never any biblical justification for changing the time of Christian worship from God's seventh day Sabbath to the Roman instituted Sunday, as both the Bible and the testimony of the early leaders show that Passover was always to be kept on the 14th of Nisan.

The following report about Bishop/Pope Victor (189-199) from the Catholic saint and doctor Jerome should be considered:

Victor believed that the many bishops of Asia and the East, who with the Jews celebrated the passover, on the fourteenth day of the new moon, were to be condemned. But even those who differed from them did not support Victor in his opinion. (Jerome. De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Chapter 35)

This report confirms that the Bishop of Rome simply was not seen as having primacy over Christendom at this time.

Jerome also wrote:

Polycrates bishop of the Ephesians with other bishops of Asia who in accordance with some ancient custom celebrated the passover with the Jews on the fourteenth of the month, wrote a synodical letter against Victor bishop of Rome in which he says that he follows the authority of the apostle John and of the ancients. From this we make the following brief quotations, We therefore celebrate the day according to usage, inviolably, neither adding anything to nor taking anything from it, for in Asia lie the remains of the greatest saints of those who shall rise again on the day of the Lord, when he shall come in majesty from heaven and shall quicken all the saints, I mean Philip one of the twelve apostles who sleeps at Hierapolis and his two daughters who were virgins until their death and another daughter of his who died at Ephesus full of the Holy Spirit. And John too, who lay on Our Lord's breast and was his high priest carrying the golden frontlet on his forehead, both martyr and doctor, fell asleep at Ephesus and Polycarp bishop and martyr died at Smyrna. Thraseas of Eumenia also, bishop and martyr, rests in the same Smyrna. What need is there of mentioning Sagaris, bishop and martyr, who sleeps in Laodicea and the blessed Papyrus and Melito, eunuch in the Holy Spirit, who, ever serving the Lord, was laid to rest in Sardis and there awaits his resurrection at Christ's advent. These all observed the day of the passover on the fourteenth of the month, in nowise departing from the evangelical tradition and following the ecclesiastical canon. I also, Polycrates, the least of all your servants, according to the doctrine of my relatives which I also have followed (for there were seven of my relatives bishops indeed and I the eighth) have always celebrated the passover when the Jewish people celebrated the putting away of the leaven. And so brethren being sixty-five years old in the Lord and instructed by many brethren from all parts of the world, and having searched all the Scriptures, I will not fear those who threaten us, for my predecessors said "It is fitting to obey God rather than men."

I quote this to show through a small example the genius and authority of the man. He flourished in the reign of the emperor Severus in the same period as Narcissus of Jerusalem. (Jerome.  De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Chapter 45)

This confirms that Jerome respected the fact that Polycrates would not accept the authority of a bishop of Rome over the Bible. Polycrates did not accept non-biblical tradition.

In the 20th century, the old Radio and Worldwide Church of God taught (bolding mine):

History has recorded for us the words of one church leader from Asia Minor. His name was Polycrates, living around the end of the second century. (Marx GO. WHY CELEBRATE EASTER? Plain Truth. March 1967)

Polycrates had been … part of "the catholic church of God." (Lesson 50 - I Will Build My Church, Part 2. 58 Lesson: Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, 1965)

Polycrates came from that area in which Paul spent most of his tin1e -in Asia Minor, near Ephesus. This is also where John spent his last days. Here we have Christiam still remaining true to the faith! (Hoeh H. A True History of the True Church. Radio Church of God, 1959, p. 16)

During Polycarp's ministry he had trained a minister in Asia Minor. His name was Polycrates. As a very young boy he may have known the Apostle John. Polycrates continued to faithfully observe the Passover on the fourteenth of Nisan. (THE HISTORY OF GOD'S CHURCH PART 2. Youth Bible Lessons, Level 9, Lesson 10. 1986, p. 3)

The "catholic church of God" was NOT the Roman Catholic church. For more information, check out the free online book: Beliefs of the Original Catholic Church.

Apollinaris and Polycrates

Roberts and Donaldson, in another writing, also mentioned Apollinaris who was probably aware of Polycrates, "Apollinaris was bishop of Hierapolis on the Maeander, and, Lightfoot thinks, was probably with Melito and Polycrates, known to Polycarp, and influenced by his example and doctrine."

The following is claimed to have been written by Apollinaris, who The Catholic Encyclopedia says is a saint:

There are, then, some who through ignorance raise disputes about these things (though their conduct is pardonable: for ignorance is no subject for blame -- it rather needs further instruction), and say that on the fourteenth day the Lord ate the lamb with the disciples, and that on the great day of the feast of unleavened bread He Himself suffered; and they quote Matthew as speaking in accordance with their view. Wherefore their opinion is contrary to the law, and the Gospels seem to be at variance with them...The fourteenth day, the true Passover of the Lord; the great sacrifice, the Son of God instead of the lamb, who was bound, who bound the strong, and who was judged, though Judge of living and dead, and who was delivered into the hands of sinners to be crucified, who was lifted up on the horns of the unicorn, and who was pierced in His holy side, who poured forth from His side the two purifying elements, water and blood, word and spirit, and who was buried on the day of the passover, the stone being placed upon the tomb (Apollinaris. From the Book Concerning Passover. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Excerpted from Volume I of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors); American Edition copyright © 1885. Copyright © 2001 Peter Kirby).

Thus it remains clear that both Polycrates and Apollinaris (as well as the others that Polycrates listed) all kept the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, at the season of unleavened bread.

It is important to note that the Christian Passover ceremony, which includes the bread and wine, proclaims the Lord's death, not specifically his resurrection. Paul confirmed this when he wrote, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Thus, a Sunday Easter resurrection holiday should never be considered to be an appropriate replacement for truly believing Christians. Nor was it accepted by certain 2nd Century leaders in Asia Minor (which was the faithful Location of the Early Church). This is more than simply an issue of which date that Passover should be observed on.

Polycrates and Timothy

The Catholic Encyclopedia states:

The Bollandists (24 Jan.) give two lives of St. Timothy, one ascribed to Polycrates (an early Bishop of Ephesus, and a contemporary of St. Irenæus) and the other by Metaphrastes, which is merely an expansion of the former. The first states that during the Neronian persecution St. John arrived at Ephesus, where he lived with St. Timothy until he was exiled to Patmos under Domitian (Aherne C. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Epistles to Timothy and Titus.The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Copyright © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

If the Bollandists are accurate (I have not found the writing, but will presume they are correct as there is a fragment that perhaps was written by Polycrates--the primary version does NOT ascribe itself to Polycrates), then apparently Polycrates knew about Timothy, who would have been in Ephesus, a century or more before Polycrates was the bishop/pastor there.

There is another old writing that provides just the sketchiest of details and may or may not be based upon a true and original document. What is known is that Lucius Flavus Dexter was a friend of Jerome (late 4th early 5th century). Here is some information:

Dexter further records that ... Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, relates that Timothy, Bishop of Ephesus, to whom the works of Dionysius were originally dedicated, was martyred during the reign of Nerva, A.D. 96-97 (Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897) pp.ix-xvi. Preface to the Divine Names. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_02_preface.htm 08/13/08).

Here is some other information:

From a fragment of a treatise by Polycrates Bishop of Ephesus, towards the close of the second century. "Timothy", says he, "was ordained Bishop of Ephesus by the great Paul." (The Trial of Episcopacy By John Reed, William Smith, Missoula Community Rehabilitation Center. 1817, p. 173)

The connection between Timothy and Polycrates is difficult to prove. What we do know was the Timothy was an evangelist (2 Peter 4:5) in Ephesus in the mid-late first century and that Polycrates was the bishop/pastor/overseer in Ephesus in the late second century.

Some believe that Timothy died much earlier than A.D. 96/97 (see also The Ephesus Church Era), but it is logical that the Apostle Paul may have been one involved in his ordination.

Concluding Comments on Polycrates

Polycrates, as well as many of the other early church leaders in Asia Minor, demonstrates that those in Asia Minor did not accept Roman authority, Roman tradition, nor the pronouncements or practices of Roman bishops, but instead relied on the teachings from the Gospels and the original apostles.

Contrary to the positions held by bishops in Rome, the practices of the faithful John, Philip, Melito, Polycarp, Thraseas, Sagaris, and Apollinaris, (all considered true saints by the Catholics) clearly show that the true Church did not waver on the point of the date of Passover.

All those leaders, as well as Polycrates himself, clearly demonstrate that in the 2nd Century, many in Asia Minor refused to accept the authority of any bishop of Rome, especially when it was in conflict with biblical teachings. Since essentially ALL non-Roman Catholics who consider themselves to be Christian have followed, to a degree, Polycrates example, perhaps they should consider following Polycrates other example and observe Passover on the 14th of Nisan as well.

And if they will not, they need to ask themselves if they base their practices on the Bible or Tradition?

Some items of possible interest may include:

Where is the True Christian Church Today? This free online pdf booklet answers that question and includes 18 proofs, clues, and signs to identify the true vs. false Christian church. Plus 7 proofs, clues, and signs to help identify Laodicean churches. A related sermon is also available: Where is the True Christian Church? Here is a link to the booklet in the Spanish language: ¿Dónde está la verdadera Iglesia cristiana de hoy? Here is a link in the German language: WO IST DIE WAHRE CHRISTLICHE KIRCHE HEUTE? Here is a link in the French language: Où est la vraie Église Chrétienne aujourd’hui?

Continuing History of the Church of God This pdf booklet is a historical overview of the true Church of God and some of its main opponents from Acts 2 to the 21st century. Related sermon links include Continuing History of the Church of God: c. 31 to c. 300 A.D. and Continuing History of the Church of God: 4th-16th Centuries. The booklet is available in Spanish: Continuación de la Historia de la Iglesia de Dios, German: Kontinuierliche Geschichte der Kirche Gottes, and Ekegusii Omogano Bw’ekanisa Ya Nyasae Egendererete.

Beliefs of the Original Catholic Church Did the original “catholic church” have doctrines held by the Continuing Church of God? Did Church of God leaders uses the term “catholic church” to ever describe the church they were part of? Here are links to related sermons: Original Catholic Church of God? and What Type of Catholic was Polycarp of Smyrna?

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