Feast of St. Polycarp

February 23, 2008

Letter to the Philippians (c.130-155)
St. Polycarp (Harvard University Press, 1952; trans. Lake)
24 p. First reading.

St. Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna in the first half of the second century. According to contemporary sources, he had in his youth known St. John the Beloved, and, as I learned a few months ago, he was a correspondent of St. Ignatius of Antioch. As a follow-up to my reading of the letters of St. Ignatius, and aware that today is the feast of St. Polycarp, I turned to this short epistle.

The letter was written in response to a request from the church at Philippi. They were compiling a collection of the letters of St. Ignatius, and wanted the church at Smyrna to send any pertinent material in its possession. Polycarp granted their request, and wrote this letter to accompany the documents he was sending.

The surviving correspondence between the early Christian churches is important not only because of the insight it gives us into doctrinal development. The letters also, by their mere existence, make clear that the early churches, though they were scattered geographically, regarded themselves as a unity, sharing common teachings and traditions, and concerned for one another’s well being.

Thus the greater part of St. Polycarp’s letter to the church at Philippi simply intends to encourage them to live virtuously, especially the deacons and presbyters, who should lead by example. He warns them against false teachers, “the first-born of Satan”, who would tempt them from fidelity to God’s revelation (consisting, says Polycarp, in the doctrines of Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Judgment). The text is bursting with references to and quotations from Scripture, especially from the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul.

St. Polycarp was martyred in the year 155, at the age of 86. An account of his death is preserved for us in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

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