THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - VOLUME 1 : by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


| HOME | |< | << | Map 6: The journey of Ignatius | The journey of Ignatius, A.D. 110-15 | Ignatius in Phrygia | Ignatius at Smyrna | The Epistles from Smyrna | Syrian Catholicism | The gnosis of Ignatius | The Epistle to the Romans | Ignatius at Troas | Ignatius at Philippi | The Epistle to Polycarp | The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians | The case of Valens | The conclusion of Polycarp's Epistle | >> |

|446 Map 6: The Journey of Ignatius

Map 6: Journey of Ignatius


The account of the trial of St Ignatius before the Emperor Trajan in Antioch, and the Acts of his martyrdom in Rome, were composed at the end of the fourth century and are classified as pious fiction. We can infer from his own Epistles that he was the last of a number of martyrs; for he calls himself the last of all, and refers to other Syrians who have gone to Rome before him, who may have been martyrs too. Polycarp mentions two other martyrs, Zosimus and Rufus; but they were not travelling with him, and must have passed through a little earlier. It would seem that he caught up with them at Philippi.

Forty years later there was a severe persecution at Smyrna, in which Polycarp evaded capture for some time, so that his death came as the last of a number. Ignatius seems to have done something of this sort.

The sentence was to be carried out in Rome. A special example was to be made of this notable Christian, and in consequence the whole catholic church was stirred by his dramatic progress from east to west. It was incumbent upon him to preserve his spiritual morale; for the eyes of the world were upon him. He knew exactly what would be done with him. We have his own word for it; 'I am beginning to be a disciple; come fire, come cross; grapplings with wild beasts, cuttings and manglings, wrenching of bones, hacking of limbs, crushing of the whole body; let cruel torments of the devil come upon me; if only I may attain unto Jesus Christ.'

He travelled in the custody of ten soldiers; ten leopards, he called them; and remarked that the more kindly they were treated the worse |447 they behaved. No doubt the effects of a bribe soon wore off. There may have been other prisoners, though not apparently Christian ones. On his way Ignatius wrote seven Epistles; or seven have come down to us; he may have written more. Towards the end of the fourth century more were written in his name, and combined with the fictitious story of his trial and martyrdom to create a problem which baffled the learned world for some centuries. The seven genuine letters are now established beyond question. They are the most important Christian documents of the period.

One of our first surprises is to find that a prisoner of this sort, who had good friends to help him, was able to command a number of privileges. The soldiers were not inaccessible to bribes, and were willing to show off their prisoner locally if it was made worth their while; for we cannot suppose that they did it for nothing. Bishops and deacons could have access to him, and bring him comforts and facilities for correspondence. In later documents we even read of services conducted in the prison. Money must have been paid out for these privileges, and the church seems to have been able to find the money. It was a well-organized body with influential connexions.


While it was possible to take the first part of the journey from Antioch by sea, it seems more likely that the party followed the Pauline trail overland, by taking the road which ran northward through Cilicia; for a Cilician deacon, named Philo, was moved to make an offer to accompany Ignatius to Rome and minister to him in the word. Even so early as this the bishop appears with a deacon by his side. Philo could not come immediately, but he followed later, bringing with him another deacon, from Antioch, whose name was Rhaius Agathopous. It is possible that Ignatius had sent Agathopous back to Antioch on business; perhaps with letters, though they do not actually survive. In Antioch the persecution had come to an end. A council had been held to which the neighbouring towns had sent bishops, and some of them elders and deacons as well.

Ignatius went on, without his deacon, along the road which Paul had first taken about sixty-five years before; unfortunately we have no information about his experiences in Galatia, where a few old men and |448 women could still retail their memories of those early days. He gives no information, either, about the west Phrygian cities of Colossae, or Laodicea, or Hierapolis, where Papias may have heard him speak; but a halt was made at Philadelphia, and he was allowed to address the local church. It must have been a strange sight. We know that he was loaded with chains, his spiritual pearls, as he called them; and probably he was coupled to one of his 'leopards'. Twenty years earlier, as we learn from the Revelation, this church had been vexed by a 'synagogue of Satan', who claimed to be Jews but were not so in truth. The Jewish question was not yet settled. Christians of Jewish race or sympathies advocated the observance of the Sabbath, and championed the claims of the priesthood. More than that, they objected strongly to their bishop, whose name Ignatius does not give; they even made unpleasant charges about the way in which he had obtained his office.

The welcome which was extended to Ignatius was of a mixed character therefore. The minority was vocal, and the argument was heated. 'It is written,' Ignatius had asserted, as if settling a point. 'That is the very question', they retorted. The divine prophets were being discussed and the archives, whatever they were, and the written gospel; but there was some organized party at the back of it all, and he recognized the signs; some schism-maker, a would-be bishop perhaps. His prophetic soul was stirred, and he spoke in a loud voice, a voice of God. He commanded the situation.

Adhere to the bishop and the council of elders! ...
Guard your flesh as the temple of God!
Love the unity: flee from divisions.
Be imitators of Jesus Christ even as he imitates the Father.
(Ignatius, Philad. vii, 1.)

It was the old catechetical material in the Ignatian idiom; or the Antiochene idiom possibly. It somehow hit the mark. The words were so apt to the situation that the malcontents thought that some hint had been given to Ignatius beforehand, and he had been told what to say; but he swears that this was not so; he knew nothing 'according to the flesh'; it was the Spirit that proclaimed. This utterance appears to be quoted in the so-called Second Epistle of Clement, ix. 3.

The scene is vividly impressed upon us, but we do not see clearly |449 what gave rise to the altercation. Throughout the stormy assembly the local bishop sat still and said nothing; Ignatius praises his immovable unwrathful demeanour.


Ignatius never reached the apostolic city of Ephesus. After leaving Philadelphia the road forked, and his party took the northern highway, which led to Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop. Ignatius spent several days there, and enjoyed the society of Polycarp, who had been a pupil of John; it is disappointing that he does not mention the name of John in his Epistles, though he shows knowledge of the Johannine teaching. He does not mention the name of Matthew either. His mind was set on the idea of martyrdom, and on the two martyr-apostles, Peter and Paul, who had taken the road from Antioch to Rome before him.

His intercourse with Polycarp during these few days was a most important point in church history, for the two men dominate the story of the church in the first half of the new century. He made other friends in Smyrna as well, among whom he mentions the family of Gaouia, and Alke, 'beloved name', and Daphnus the sincere, and Eutecnus. Alke was still living when Polycarp was martyred in 155 or 156.

The churches along the southern road, which could not receive the martyr in person, sent representatives to pay their homage to him at Smyrna. The old Pauline church of Ephesus sent its bishop, Onesimus, who assigned his deacon Burrhus to Ignatius as his secretary, in place of the absent Agathopous, thus making possible the production of the letters which we are now using; for Burrhus wrote at the dictation of the martyr. Other members of the Ephesian delegation were Crocus, Euplous, and Pronto. Crocus appears to have had some connexion with the Roman church and he was sufficiently influential to obtain considerable improvements in the treatment of Ignatius.

It is possible that the family of Alke had some influence in the official world, too, for her nephew Herod appears as the chief of police at a later date. He did not, unfortunately, turn out to be friendly to the Christians, for it was he who arrested Polycarp forty years later. His name suggests that this divided family was Jewish.

The first letter which Ignatius wrote was one of gratitude to the |450 Ephesian church, in which he recalls their connexion with St Paul and desires their prayers; he warns them against the Docetic heresy. There were two churches on the southern road whose names are new to us, Magnesia and Tralles. Magnesia sent its young bishop, Damas, with two elders, Bassus and Apollonius, and the deacon Zotion; Ignatius gave them a letter in which he warned them against what he calls Judaism, contrasting it with' Christianism', or as we would say, Christianity. Polybius, the bishop of Tralles, came without an escort and took back with him a letter in which the views of the Docetics were attacked; the sect which could not bring itself to believe that the Christ had really taken a human body.


The thought of Ignatius can be traced back at one time to Paul (whom he names), at another to Matthew (whom he quotes without naming), and yet again to John (whom he also quotes without naming); 'the Spirit is not deceived, since it is from God; it knows whence it cometh and whither it goeth' (Ignatius, Philad. vii. 1, and John iii. 8). But the tradition which he represents is an independent one with a character of its own.

His presentation of Christianity is coloured by his own spiritual experience of God, which was developed in the intimate fellowship of the apostolic Syrian church. It was fixed unalterably on the figure of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, whose true birth and sufferings and death and resurrection formed the sum total of his faith. Jesus was his God who had died for him, and his Master who was now teaching him how to die. This evangelical faith was expressed in credal formulas.

God was also made known to him as Spirit; the wind that blows about as it will; the breath that is infused into human hearts through faith and love; God himself coming as power and life, and taking possession of his 'flesh', and enabling him to overcome the ruler of this aeon. He had found him in the message of the gospel and in the worship of the Church; he would encounter him finally in martyrdom, when he would 'arrive at God'.

The language of Ignatius is not only the language of evangelism; it is the language of hymn and song and eucharistic worship. He has much to say about the church assembled in unity with its bishop and |451 presbytery and deacons; for he is now a prisoner, and his memory dwells upon the familiar scene, and draws strength from it; but he does not write like a canonist or the author of a church order. He speaks of the one altar and the one sanctuary, but they are mystical names for the church at prayer. He speaks of it as a spiritual symphony with every instrument in harmony, like an orchestra; the elders tuned to the bishop, like the strings to the harp; the congregation like the chorus; every man taking his note; every man playing his part; all breaking one bread in the one eucharist in union with the one bishop who represents the one God. He must be thinking of the actual church music, which played its part in creating the unity and grounding it in the heart through the senses.

Ignatius does describe himself as the minstrel of the churches; and there must have been a Christian tradition of hymns and spiritual songs, which contributed something to the language in which he wrote. But of course he had other resources. There was the reading of the Law and the Prophets; there was the written Gospel according to Matthew; there were the ' ordinances' of the apostles, by which he seems to mean their epistles; there were the creed-forms to which he resorts for homiletic summaries of the faith.

Like any good preacher, he loved the parable from common life, in which the spiritual realities are made available to the imagination. He talks of the light, the bread, the cup, the leaven, the water, the salt and the herbs, which are the components of the daily meal. The members of the church are stones for the temple, swung up into their high place by the mechanism of the cross, the Holy Spirit being the rope; they are 'God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, Holy-Spirit-bearers'. The teachers of evil doctrines come sowing devil's weeds; they mix deadly poison with their honey-wine. He speaks of living water, living and speaking water. He does not say much about the sacrament of baptism, though he often mentions the eucharist, calling it the elixir of immortality and the antidote against death.


We have here some of the elements of a Syrian Catholicism, based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but singularly free from purely Judaistic language. The traditions of Peter and Paul have passed into it, but |452 the spirituality of Ignatius is really closer to that of John. The Spirit fills the ecclesia; it infuses itself into the corporate and sacramental life; it imparts itself to the faithful, uniting itself with their 'flesh'. The Spirit is life, and to have life is to have Christ; for Christ is our true life; but this union with Christ in the Spirit can only be realized in the unity of the ecclesia. A native Syrianism appears in this flesh-and-spirit theology.

Antioch was a Semitic or oriental city despite its use of the Greek language. It had much to bestow upon the church as a whole, and there is no sign that its influence was at an end. It had sent forth the first apostolic missions. The word Christian (christianos) had been first used there; and the epistles of Ignatius contain more new words of profound spiritual importance; Christianity (christianismos); the Gospel (to euangelion), used now of a written book; and the Catholic Church, meaning the universal church. The episcopate in its autonomous and apostolic form appears very clearly, and so do the eucharistic worship as the fullest expression of the Christian unity and fellowship; the creed-forms as characteristic declarations of the faith; the apostolic literature as a holy library; and particularly the Matthaean Gospel which the western churches soon accepted as the premier Gospel of the four. Sunday is mentioned as the resurrection day, taking the place of the Jewish Sabbath.

Antioch had been a starting-point for the apostolic missions; Ephesus had been a port of call on the road; 'You have been a haven for those who have been slain for the sake of God', Ignatius says. Rome had been their final goal. This picture was in his mind as he made his own progress from the church in Syria to the church in Rome; from the land of sunrise to the land of sunset. He protests, of course, that he cannot be compared with Peter or Paul; he is not issuing 'ordinances' to the churches as they had done; he is only writing as a disciple to his fellow-disciples. Nevertheless the comparison does underlie these statements, which are an eloquent witness to the prestige of the Antiochene bishop; and the claims which he repudiates may have been made for him by others. He addresses the churches en apostoliko charakteri – after the apostolic pattern. Relatively to Rome, Antioch was an originating centre of the Christian faith; the land of sunrise.

The word 'apostolic' is another new word.


In theology, if we may use that word of his flights of imagination, it was his aim to oppose a human historical gospel 'in flesh' to the fantastic myths and dreams which the gnostic mind was evolving out of the apostolic tradition; such dreams as we have studied in the myth of the 'Descent of the Christus'; but Ignatius had his own dreams about the unseen world and his own poetic fancies. In his Epistle to the Trallians he speaks of his meditations on the heavenly realms, which included the places allotted to the angels and the stations of the rulers; and these phrases undoubtedly suggest the background of the gnostic myth. It would not be fair to credit Ignatius with a mythological system of the gnostic sort, but he loves its language, as Paul himself had done. In writing to the Ephesians he says that our God was Jesus Christ. He was brought to birth of the Virgin Mary by a dispensation of God, from the seed of David and from the Holy Spirit; and the virginity of Mary deceived the ruler of this world. How was it made manifest to the aeons? He turns from creed-form to poetry at this point, and gives us what is virtually the first Christmas carol

A star in the heavens
Shone brighter than any star;
Its light was beyond description
Its newness created wonder.

And all the other stars
Along with the sun and moon,
Became a chorus to this star,
Whose light excelled them all.

So every charm and chain was broken,
The ignorance born of evil vanished away;
The ancient throne was cast down,
When God appeared as Man
Unto newness of life eternal.



While Ignatius was in Smyrna a communication arrived from Rome which mentioned the arrival there of an earlier party of Syrian Christians and also informed him of some plan which was proposed by the |454 Roman church to save him from martyrdom, though we have no idea how this could have been done. Someone was leaving for Rome by a faster route than he was taking, and this made it possible for him to send an appeal to the Roman church.

It was written in a different tone altogether from the other Epistles, since it was not a message of spiritual counsel and advice, composed in answer to a request. It was an entreaty with regard to his own case. His heart was set on martyrdom, and he prayed his Roman friends not to do him so unreasonable a favour as to save him from it. He was beginning to be a disciple now, and longed to complete his course and to give his life for God.

You have taught others [he says], and all I ask is that you should implement the commands which you give [them] when you make [them] disciples.
(Ignatius, Romans, iii, 1.)

This is the famous passage which is so often twisted out of all recognition in the service of controversy, and is sometimes misquoted by scholars who ought to know better, in the form 'You taught other churches'. Ignatius has many complimentary things to say about the Roman church; but he does not say that it taught other churches. He is referring to the regular baptismal instruction.
The words are based on Matthew xxviii. 19 – 20: 'Make disciples ... baptizing ... teaching ... whatsoever I have commanded.'

'Do not torment me', he goes on; 'and even if I implore you when I arrive among you, do not believe what I say then, but believe what I am writing now.' Just for a moment he seems to doubt his own resolution, and fears any possible efforts to weaken it. Hermas had said that the Christian who inwardly questioned his ability to stand firm was already lost. He must be sublimely certain of himself in the spirit. Ignatius was destined to become a pattern of such resolution and this Epistle of his to the Romans, which was circulated separately from the others, was destined to become an inspiration to others who were in his position.
He recovers himself, and in his exaltation of spirit, his words take lyrical form.

Him do I seek, the one who died for me:
Him do I seek, the one who rose for me:
Birth lies before me! |455
Hinder me not to live!
Refuse me not to die!
Suffer me now to take pure Light,
And, there arriving, I shall be a Man –
Suffer me now
To imitate the passion of my God.
(Ignatius, Romans, vii, 2.)

Living I write: falling in love with dying.
My Love is crucified in me, and now
There is no fire in me that loves dead matter,
But water, living and talking in my soul,
Saying, Come hither: To the Father: Come!

This is the language of the mystic, of the Syrian mystery cults perhaps; but entirely sublimated, and devoted to the person of the crucified.

The letter is dated August 24, a week before the Greco-Syrian New Year. It is the first Christian document to be dated by the Roman calendar; the second such date is found in another Smyrnaean document, the martyrdom of Polycarp. Unfortunately Ignatius does not mention the year.


The party now went on to Troas, where Paul had received his original call to evangelize Macedonia. Five years later he had waited there impatiently to hear from Titus the outcome of the Corinthian conflict. In his last year of evangelizing, he had left his cloak and his books and his parchments there with Carpus; and the house of Carpus may still have been the centre of church life when Ignatius arrived there. Burrhus went with him and he was joined at last by his Cilician deacon Philo and his Antiochene deacon Agathopous, 'an elect man who had said good-bye to life'. The bishop must have been an elect man, too, to inspire such service. They brought him the news that the persecution in Antioch had ceased, and a great council was being organized.

The two deacons had passed through Philadelphia, where Ignatius had run into controversy, and they had encountered a similar heckling; but the church as a whole had given them a warm welcome. Ignatius now wrote his Epistle to the Philadelphians, and another to the Smyr-naeans. We note a new emphasis in these Epistles, which dealt with the problem of schism.

|456 We would judge that the Jewish party in Philadelphia was not actually separated from the church; for men who professed Christianity were urging the claims of Judaism in the church assembly. The Docetics, on the other hand, appear to have separated themselves, or been separated, and this leads Ignatius to make a new point. Schismatics may be restored to the unity of the church provided they repent (a point in which he agreed with Clement); but those who follow a schism-maker have no inheritance in the kingdom of God.

The situation was serious. It was necessary to warn the Smyrnaeans against certain wild animals in human form, who were not to be received or even encountered, if this was possible. They were to be prayed for in the hope that they would repent, though this was a hard thing. Ignatius had encountered them personally, presumably at Troas, or on the way there, and they were now on the road to Smyrna. They had flattered him, but he had resisted their flatteries. They were not convinced by the Law or the Prophets, or even by the gospel as yet. They refused to confess the Lord as a human being 'in the flesh'. They had no faith in the blood of the Messiah. They had no fear of judgement to come. They were persons of influence and importance; 'Let no one be inflated by his position ', Ignatius says.

He goes on to discuss their indifference to the common Christianity and its social order; they cared nothing for love or charity; for the widow or the orphan or the afflicted, or the prisoner or the hungry or the thirsty; they absented themselves from eucharist and prayer, because they did not confess the eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Christ. He could give their names, but he refuses to mention them unless they repent.

It is a crisis in the church, with which Polycarp would have to deal as bishop of Smyrna; and Ignatius writes him a personal letter urging him to be firm. Polycarp mentions these men in his own letter to the Philippians, and gives the same picture as Ignatius. These teachers of an over-spiritualized gospel, which had parted company with the human element in the gospel record, were the predecessors of the Marcionite heresy; and it is important to note that they were officially condemned at this early date in Antioch and Smyrna. It is not said, however, that they rejected the God of the Jews, or preached Jesus as the Son of some higher deity, as Satornil did in Antioch and Marcion afterwards in Rome.

|457 Ignatius goes on, in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans and in the companion Epistle to Polycarp, to dwell on the social order of the church, and all its complex ministrations and personal relations, domestic, educational and charitable. His farewell sounds a sadder and more personal note; he has to break the ties with a number of new friends, including the charming Alke and the faithful Burrhus, whom he commends as a pattern of God's diaconate.


Ignatius tells us nothing about the church at Troas and the people he met there. One gets the impression that his party was waiting for a fair wind, an experience which serves as an illustration in his Epistle to Polycarp. The fair weather seems to have come suddenly, as such changes do, and it left him no time to complete his epistolary programme. He had to ask Polycarp to do this for him. He was sailing at once for Neapolis.

Or was the Epistle to Polycarp written from Neapolis? or even from Philippi? for a mail reached Polycarp from Philippi, by the hand of a certain Crescens, a Smyrnaean Christian who was planning to make his home there with his sister. It informed Polycarp of the welcome which had been given to Ignatius, and it must have mentioned Zosimus and Rufus too, since they are associated with Ignatius in Polycarp's reply. Ignatius had urged the Philippians to send delegates to the council at Antioch; but they contented themselves with sending letters which they entrusted to the Smyrnaeans to deliver. They asked Polycarp to send them copies of the Epistles which Ignatius had written to the churches in Asia.

There was other news of a less pleasant sort. A certain elder, named Valens, had misunderstood the position which was given him and had been guilty of various irregularities. The church at Philippi requested Polycarp to write them an 'Epistle concerning Righteousness' to help them over this crisis.

The epistle which the Philippians wrote to Polycarp has not survived, but it can be reconstructed to this extent out of Polycarp's reply. After that there is no further information about Ignatius. His party must have continued their journey overland to the Adriatic coast, with Zosimus and Rufus who seem to have been picked up at Philippi. |458 There they would take to sea again, and so reach Italy. The accounts of the martyrdom are late and worthless; but the day of the saint in the Syrian martyrology is October 17, and this agrees so well with the date August 24 in his Epistle to the Romans as to suggest that it may be a true tradition. If so, it is the earliest instance of the remembrance of the 'birthday' of a martyr; and we noted that Ignatius did allude to his death as a mystical birth, a birth into life eternal.


We must now return to the Epistle which he wrote to Polycarp himself. It was addressed to him as bishop, but was intended to be read to him in church; it was semi-private, semi-public, like the epistle to Philemon, and possibly 1 Timothy. It salutes him not merely as bishop of Smyrna, but as the leader who was destined to bear the principal burden during the next generation. 'The times call for you', he says, 'as the shipmasters wait for winds, and the storm-driven mariners look for the harbour.'

Stand firm as an anvil under the blows of the hammer. It is the part of a great athlete to be beaten and to win the victory; how much more must we endure everything for the sake of God, that he may endure us.
(Ignatius, To Polycarp, iii, 1.)

The last clause seems to be an example of the lack of literary precision which is complained of in the writings of Ignatius; or did he mean to write 'who endured for us'?

Ignatius was more than a bishop, more even than a martyr. He was the athlete of the Christian church, the strong man of his time, whose life was given on behalf of all the churches, as he himself says in his rhetorical style. 'I am your off-scourings, your scapegoat, your soul-substitute.' My life is given for you, is what he means. Force of circumstances had made him the champion of the church and the defender of the faith. Polycarp would succeed him, and be for forty more years the central pillar of Christendom, until the day when he would give his life like Ignatius, as a bishop and a martyr and a prophetic teacher. Ignatius urged Polycarp to pray for more understanding, and to 'be more eager than thou art'. To his rapid mentality there was something slow and perhaps a little sluggish about the younger man, who is often |459 dismissed by modern writers as conservative and lacking in originality; but in this respect he was a good representative of his period. The creative times were over and Ignatius, the ardent mystic and rhetorician, had no successors of his type; he was like Clement's phoenix, a rare and solitary bird.

Polycarp was no theologian, but an admirable teacher and pastor. He repeated the formulas of the apostolic kerugma and the apostolic tradition. He had a complete library of apostolic literature, including Clement; and he did not travel far from it. He stood firm just where he was like the anvil of the Ignatian metaphor. He was an iron man.


His Epistle is addressed from Polycarp and the elders who are with him, to the church of God which sojourns at Philippi. It mentions their reception of the martyrs in flowery language, which is almost worthy of Ignatius himself; but from that point it declines into a sober moralistic style which shows the influence of Clement.

He begins by recalling to the memory of the Philippians the faith which they had received in the earliest times, expressing it in words drawn from the apostolic writings, and notably from 1 Peter. He is emphasizing the true death and resurrection in opposition to the Docetics. He goes on to quote some words of the Lord which resemble Luke rather than Matthew, but are most likely drawn from the oral teaching:

Judge not that ye be not judged,
Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven,
Show mercy that ye may receive mercy:
With what measure ye measure,
It shall be measured unto you.


Blessed are the poor,
And those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake:
For theirs is the Kingdom of God.
(Polycarp, Philippians, 11.)

The first of these passages closely resembles the similar quotation in Clement.

He thus approaches the subject of 'righteousness', but pauses to |460 apologize for his lack of qualification for dealing with it. He is totally unable to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who had lived among them himself and written them Epistles; and this modesty is shown to be sincere by the way in which he continually falls back on the language of the apostolic writings, including Acts, 1 Peter, and 1 John. He confesses that he has no learning in the Old Testament scriptures. He mentions the three traditional virtues of faith, hope and charity. He goes on to the two commandments of love. Love, he maintains, is the fulfilment of righteousness, but the love of money is the beginning of all troubles, thus glancing at the case of Valens, we may suppose.

This echo of 1 Timothy introduces an exhortation in the style of that Epistle:

Let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness,
Let us begin by training ourselves to walk in the Lord's commandments,
And our women-folk to practise the domestic virtues.
(Polycarp, Philippians, iv, 1 – 2.)

He considers in turn the widows, the deacons, the young people, and finally the elders. The passage is also reminiscent of the Epistle of Clement, which was very much in Polycarp's mind.

He goes on to the question of forgiveness, and so to the false teachers who lead astray empty-headed men. He issues a strong warning against the Docetic heresy, in the course of which he quotes from the Epistle of John.

Whoever confesses not Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh is Antichrist.
(1 John iv. 3.)

And whoever does not confess the witness of the cross, he is of the devil.
And whoever falsifies the Oracles of the Lord for his own lusts, and says
there is neither resurrection nor judgement, he is the firstborn of Satan.
(Polycarp, Philippians, vii, 1.)

He urges the Philippians to follow the examples of Ignatius, Zosimus and Rufus, not to mention their own martyrs, and Paul himself and the rest of the apostles. He grieves over the erring elder and his wife, and prays that they may be granted true repentance and be restored as members of the church. The notion that Christians who have sinned cannot be restored is seldom found in the literature which appears at the top level in the early period.


The last Epistles of Ignatius had dealt with the same situation as the Epistle of Polycarp, the danger, locally, of the Docetic heresy. Ignatius knew the names of the leaders, but would not demean himself to give them. Perhaps Polycarp does mention one of them. 'I was deeply grieved about Valens', he says, 'who was at one time appointed a presbyter among you, that he should so misunderstand the position which was given to him'; and Ignatius had said, 'Let no one be inflated by his position.' It may be inferred from what Polycarp says that Valens and his wife were fond of money and not particularly chaste or truthful; but what he actually says about him is that he had a false view of his position in the church.

He prays that he may be granted true repentance, which is what Ignatius had said should be done. He advises the Philippians not to regard such persons as enemies, but to win them back as frail and erring members to the body, which shows that there were others of his type in Philippi who constituted a problem; a schismatic group in fact. It looks as if Valens were something more than an individual presbyter who had been found out in financial and social scandals. The terms of Polycarp's letter are consistent with the view that he had intellectual pretensions, had left Philippi under a cloud, had crossed swords with Ignatius at Troas, and then come on to Smyrna with his wife and possibly with a colleague or two. This reconstruction draws together the various references in the three closely related epistles, and so provides a more solid and realistic basis for the Epistle of Polycarp, which seems to require something more than the defalcations of one elder to explain. It has even been suggested that Valens had been the bishop of Philippi, and that Crescens was now designated as his successor.

A close examination of these possibilities seems to be called for, since there is a theory which explains the serious tone of the Epistle by dividing it in two and assigning the major part of it to a later date, so that Polycarp's anathema against Docetism can be regarded as a polemic against Marcion. He uses the provocative expression ' the first-born of Satan', which he applied to Marcion at a later date, according to a well attested story. But the heretics in the Epistle of Polycarp are not said to have repudiated the God of the Jewish revelation in favour of a higher deity, as Marcion did; and they are described in exactly the same |462 terms as the Docetics mentioned by Ignatius. Furthermore Polycarp might use the same language about heresy more than once in his long life. His Epistle fits exactly into the background supplied by Ignatius.


The theory of a later date for the bulk of his Epistle, somewhere in the hundred-and-twenties possibly, or even in the hundred-and-thirties, requires that the two last paragraphs, 13 and 14, should be detached from the rest and regarded as a separate letter of an early date, since their reference to Ignatius is obviously contemporary; it would consist of the brief notes which follow the benediction and prayer. Polycarp promises the Philippians to send their letters to Antioch; he may even take them himself, as he hopes to attend the council there. He had also, at their request, had copies made of the Ignatian Epistles, which he sends with the letter. He asks for further news about Ignatius and his companions as soon as reliable information becomes available. Like Clement, he undertakes the management of the correspondence with distant churches. We see how collections of such Epistles were made and distributed.

The theory is that these short notes, after the benediction and prayer, were a 'covering letter', which Polycarp sent to Philippi with the Ignatian Epistles; the bulk of the Epistle, ending with the benediction and prayer, could then be regarded as a later composition which was designed to deal with two problems, the heresy of Marcion and the dishonesty of Valens; though indeed it mentions the patient endurance of Ignatius, Zosimus and Rufus, and speaks of prisoners wreathed in honourable chains who had recently received a welcome in Philippi.

Actually the position of these brief notes after the benediction is sufficiently accounted for by the fact that they would be out of place in the body of a solemn charge which was to be read, as such, to the congregation. There are few apostolic Epistles which end on the solemn benediction; and 1 Peter, which Polycarp takes as a model, has short notes after the benediction.

The letter was written for Polycarp by Crescens, who was returning to Philippi. His sister is to follow him in a few days. And so the story ends, so far as the historical evidence is concerned; but the scenes which we have been privileged to witness give us a lively view of church life |463 as it was lived in the third apostolic generation, when men who could remember the apostles were still to be found, and their memory was yet green in the land.

We note that wherever the preservation of contemporary documents allows us a clear view of apostolic Christianity we are given a picture of busy activity and energetic administration. It is a scene of continual conflict and motion; conflict with the outside world and with the alien philosophy which was filtering its way into the church; motion of men and documents from one church to another. There was nothing aimless or left to chance. The churches were always interacting upon one another and giving one another assistance in the spiritual warfare. They were not afraid of strong leadership. Strong characters appear upon the scene who have an organic relation to the apostolic tradition and to the churches which they address. They stand firm and enable the whole church to gain strength and so pass through the crisis of the hour.

Clement, Hermas, Ignatius and Polycarp were men of this type. We are not at liberty to think of them simply as literary and theological figures whose works chanced to survive. They were proved and tested 'Elders' of apostolic and prophetic quality, whose labours crowned the apostolic tradition itself; and it is only by studying the whole mass of human and personal data, woven so far as is possible into a continuous story, that we are able to get the feel of the church life, and so relate our other studies to the realities of the situation. However we may reconstruct the story in this or that detail, this general picture remains the
<< | top | >>