The Citation And Reference To Sources Within The Epistle Of Polycarp To The Philippians

As we have previously noted, Polycarp was not particularly known as an original writer.  He did, of course, write a fateful letter to the Bishop of Rome [1] and he is well known for his martyrdom in Smyrna as well as for his collection of the works of Ignatius [2], but aside from this he is also recognized as someone whose dense references to the writings of others makes him a particularly suitable textual witness to the antiquity of various writings.  After all, given that Polycarp wrote at the beginning of the second century AD, the texts that were quoted by Polycarp had to have been older than that, considerably older than that, which means that the writings Polycarp mentions cannot have been late forgeries as some have been accused of being.  Let us therefore look at the works that are referred to or cited in the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians so that we may better understand the extent of Christian writings that an early writer like Polycarp was comfortable referring to.

Here are the citations and references that we can find from Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians by book:

Matthew 7:1, 3, 6:13, 26:41
1 Timothy 6:7
Galatians 6:7, 17
1 Corinthians 6:9, 2
1 John 4:2-3
1 Peter 4:7, 2:22, 24
Tobit 12:9
2 Corinthians 3:2
Ephesians 4:26

This result is, for the most part, not particularly surprising.  Given the respect and regard that Polycarp had for the biblical festivals (like Passover), it is unsurprising that he should quote Matthew the most of any work.  It is also unsurprising that Polycarp, writing in Asia Minor, should heavily quote from the Pauline epistles.  Of note here is the fact that 1 Timothy is widely held to be a very late book by textual critics, but Polycarp is able to refer to it without any concern, demonstrating that it can be no second century forgery as it is assumed to be by those who attack the credibility of scripture.  Likewise, 1 John is also a very late letter, and so Polycarp cites it about 30-40 years after it was written, which is fairly close, signifying that this letter rapidly made itself known among believers, likely to a far greater extent than 2 and 3 John.  We see also that 1 Peter was also well known to Polycarp, being cited three times by him.  The only unusual text in this collection is that of Tobit, which was likely known as part of the Greek writings.  One gets the sense sometimes that writers used texts that they and their readers were familiar with (see, for example, the reference to the Book of Enoch and the Assumption of Moses in Jude), regardless of whether those sources were considered to be biblical.

What do we see from the tone of Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians here?  Interestingly, Polycarp does not cite at all from Paul’s letter to this same congregation written some fifty or sixty years previously, but one can see the same tone.  Polycarp’s letter is certainly pastoral, written with a degree of tender concern for the spiritual well-being of his audience, but there is nothing in this epistle that strikes the reader as particularly harsh.  When Polycarp says to his readers:  “I appeal now to every one of you to hear and obey the call of holiness (122)” and to “stand firm, then, in these ways, taking the Lord for your example (122),” we do not see any of the harsh correction that Paul gave to the congregations of Galatia and Corinth.  Even though three letters to these two congregations are cited, what are cited are not specific corrections to the brethren receiving the letter, but rather more general calls to godly conduct.  This would suggest that Polycarp was not aware of any particular serious problems within the congregation but wanted to make more general statements of encouragement that they would continue to believe and behave properly as they were instructed by their elders.

Even when Polycarp cites more corrective sections of 1 Corinthians 6, for example, he is quickly to note that he is not saying that he has heard or seen of anything of the sort of behavior that occurred in Corinth among them (123).  We may see in this example a proper way of handling some of the more fiercely corrective passages of Paul (and other biblical writers) in our own citation of these sources.  If we do not know of any specific situations that would require a fiercer citation of sources with application to the lives of those reading our letters or hearing us speak to them, it is best to behave with a light touch.  Those who speak harshly in the absence of knowledge about specific conditions simply because something is likely to go on do their audiences a disservice, because where evil is assumed and acted upon in absence of knowledge, it will not be absent from those who figure that if they are punished for a sin they may as well enjoy the pleasure of it as well.  This is not the attitude that we should be commending through our harshness to those whom we do not know to be guilty.  Polycarp is both wise and gentle in his citations in not assuming guilt where it is not known.

Are there any other lessons that we can learn from Polycarp’s citations?  For one, our citations can be used for purposes other than that which we intend and the significance of our citations can be neglected by those for whom it is not convenient.  Those who want to consider 1 Timothy to be a late first or second century forgery, for example, do not take notice of the fact that Polycarp is a witness that it was known to be a letter of high and ancient (?) regard in the early Second Century, not leaving a great deal of time after the life of Paul for this to be the case.  Polycarp’s citation of this text is very good evidence that Paul was indeed the author of the pastoral epistles late in life and that they suggested conditions as he was aware his death was approaching and sought to give a great deal of attention to matters of authority after he was gone, a matter that Polycarp shows attention to in this letter as well.  It is also worthy of note that Polycarp’s citation of the apocryphal book of Tobit can be mischievously used to support a broader canon of the kind used by the Roman Catholic Church, reminding those of us who write that whatever we cite may be seen by others as authoritative even if we do not wish to convey that impression in our citation.  This is something that contemporary writers and speakers would do well to pay attention to in our own references.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to The Citation And Reference To Sources Within The Epistle Of Polycarp To The Philippians

  1. Pingback: On (Not) Writing To Bishops In The Letters Of Ignatius Of Antioch | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Ignatius Of Antioch: The Concerns Of A Dying Man | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Rethinking Polycarp As A Friend Of The Sabbath | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Facing The Lions | Edge Induced Cohesion

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