Was Polycarp a friend to genuine Christianity? If there is one Apostolic Father that is recognized by a large proportion of members of the Church of God, it is Polycarp , and he is recognized primarily for his opposition to Anicetus in what has become known as the Quartodeciman dispute. Namely, Polycarp in Smyrna and Anicetus in Rome were at odds over when it was proper to celebrate the annual festival of Passover. Polycarp, following the example of the Apostles, celebrated it on the fourteenth day of the first month, while Anicetus, foreshadowing the Catholic position, celebrated Easter on the first day of the week and made sure that it did not correspond with Passover. It should be noted that Anicetus could have defended a celebration of the biblical wave sheaf festival in addition to the celebration of the Passover based on reading Leviticus 23 but was not inclined to follow the Bible’s example when it came to celebrations. In the end, while both of them wrote letters to the other trying to convince the other, neither of them changed their opinion and the death of Polycarp in martyrdom made the argument rather moot.
This defense of the NT Passover has earned Polycarp a great deal of goodwill among those who seek to follow apostolic Christianity, especially given the fact that Polycarp was defending the apostolic practice and opposing an early leader of Hellenistic Christianity in Rome. It is important, though, to ask ourselves whether this reputation is wholly deserved. To be sure, regardless of what we think of Polycarp with a more complete understanding of his role with regards to apostolic practices, we are sure to consider Polycarp as more of a friend than the heathen Anicetus. Yet it is worth asking whether Polycarp is genuinely a friend of the Sabbath as we have long been lead to believe. I believe the proper place to look for Polycarp’s standing with regards to apostolic practice as a whole lies in the apostolic fathers, and that just as Polycarp benefits from his association with apostolic practice, so too he suffers when he is looked at in association with the lesser known figure, at least to Church of God audiences, of Ignatius of Antioch.
It should be noted that Polycarp’s own writing contains nothing about the Sabbath itself regarding its practice. There is one reference in the martyrdom of Polycarp to his martyrdom occurring on a “greater Sabbath” of the Jews (127), and the martyrdom account in general has a strongly negative view towards the Jews as a whole. In the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians there are no references to the Sabbath that can be found, but there is one rather revealing reference to the writings of Ignatius, where Polycarp says: “I am sending you Ignatius’ letters, as you requested; the ones he wrote to us, and some others that we had in our possession. They are enclosed herewith; you will be able to derive a great deal of benefit from them, for they tell you all about faith, and perseverance, and all the ways of self-improvement that involve our Lord (124).” If we were speaking in the language of a contemporary reviewer of books, we would say that Polycarp’s review of Ignatius’ letters is glowing and positive. He says that his readers will be able to derive a great deal of benefit from them and that they are full of discussion about faith and self-improvement. The question we have to ask ourselves with regards to Polycarp’s own friendship towards the Sabbath is whether this glowing account of Ignatius’ letters is in line with a biblical view of the Sabbath.
Plainly, it is not. Let us call to mind what Ignatius wrote to the Magnesians: “We have now seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s day instead (73).” Now, we must admit that as Polycarp had shown himself in his writings to be in support of apostolic habits, we would naturally consider him a friend to that which was ancient and established and, dare we say, traditional. It is also equally obvious that Ignatius was quite hostile to that which was ancient and interested in all kinds of novelty. Yet Polycarp highly praised the letters that he passed on to the Philippians, although he does not specifically cite which of those letters he passed along. That suggests that either Polycarp is not as much of a friend of the apostolic practices of honoring the Sabbath as we have thought, or that the letter to the Magnesians, or at least that passage which incorrectly references the first day of the week as the Lord’s day when the Bible consistently views the Lord’s day as the Sabbath, is not genuine.
Which of these views is accurate I do not know how to say for certain. For while it should be noted that Polycarp, at least later in his ministry, was troubled with problems from the heretic Marcion, whose hostility to anything Hebrew in Christianity is well-known and influential among many of the semi-Marcionites who profess Christianity to this day, it is unclear what Polycarp’s own views were about the Sabbath. We know that he enthusiastically passed on the writings of Ignatius on the one side and that he also enthusiastically supported the practice of following the New Testament Passover on the 14th day of the first month on the other side. Whether this suggests some sort of mediating position between those who were becoming increasingly more hostile to biblical practices in a desire to separate themselves from being confused with the Jews or whether Ignatius’ writings have been tampered with in order to make them anti-Sabbitarian, given that we know they suffered all kinds of tampering and forgery in the course of the Middle Ages, is hard to say. Even so, we must be guarded in viewing Polycarp as a friend of New Testament Christianity when one takes into account both his own written praise of Ignatius’ epistles which he passed along to the congregation at Philippi as well as the hostility we read in one of those epistles to God’s Sabbath day. In the end, perhaps only God can judge whether or not Polycarp was a true disciple of His, or merely one of many false leaders who led the Church away from apostolic purity to its compromising and adoption of heathen practices in opposition to biblical religion.
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