Polycarp — How a church father with a funny name gives us strong evidence for the early use and high esteem of the New Testament documents
How do we know the books that we have in the New Testament are the right books? Why isn’t the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary included with the other four gospels? And didn’t the teachings of the disciples and apostles get corrupted over the centuries?
Christians often get tested with these questions. While I hate to admit it, this is also the quiz that most believers flunk. We need to be better prepared and that requires a little understanding of early church history.
So let me introduce you to a guy who went by the funny name of Polycarp. His life and martyrdom are a big part of the answer to these inquiries.
WHO WAS POLYCARP?
Polycarp was born in 69 AD. While we don’t know a whole lot about his personal life, we do know that he was the bishop of the church in Smyrna, which is now Izmir, Turkey. He died for the faith at the ripe old age of 86 at the hands of Rome. And most importantly for our purposes, he wrote a letter to the church at Phillipi, which is dated between 110–140 AD.
POLYCARP KNEW JOHN AND OTHER APOSTLES
The reason why Polycarp is important as he’s a bridge to the original apostles themselves. According to his student Irenaeus (try spelling that name without looking it up), Polycarp was a student of the apostle John, and he knew other apostles, although they go unnamed.
Here’s Irenaeus: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.” — Against Heresies (Book III, 3.4)
“For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse — his going out, too, and his coming in — his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance.” — Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, Chapter 2
So if Polycarp is a direct link to the eyewitnesses of Jesus, we can look at his writings and see if anything he says contradicts the New Testament documents. Does he respect the accounts, or does he play fast and loose with them? Does he quote any non-canonical sources outside of the New Testament? These are the things that would undermine our confidence that the New Testament writings are genuine and trustworthy.
On the flipside, if Polycarp shows that he values the NT texts and uses them frequently, then they pass a test of “early use”.
SO WHAT NEW TESTAMENT BOOKS DOES POLYCARP QUOTE?
- Matthew (4 times)
- Mark (once)
- Luke (once)
- Acts (twice)
- Romans (once)
- 1st Corinthians (4 times)
- 2nd Corinthians (4 times)
- Galatians (3 times)
- Ephesians (4 times)
- Philippians (3 times)
- 1st Thessalonians (once)
- 2nd Thessalonians (once)
- 1st Timothy (3 times)
- 2nd Timothy (3 times)
- Hebrews (twice)
- 1st Peter (9 times)
- 1st John (once)
- 3rd John (once)
Whoa. That’s 17 out of the 27 books in the New Testament way before any church councils in the 300s.
Let me address quickly that some skeptics have cried foul over the church’s claim that Polycarp knew John. After all, he doesn’t quote from John’s Gospel. But the writer of 1st and 3rd John clearly is the writer of the Gospel of John. Moreover, Polycarp might have written other letters, we just have one of them. We don’t want to make an argument from silence.
If you read Polycarp’s letter, he’s firing out quotes from the New Testament like machine gun bullets. You probably got the gist of that looking at the list above. You just can’t get through more than a few sentences before he starts plainly drawing from the Gospels or Epistles. He quotes from our New Testament 47 times. Out of those times, the meaning of the text may be paraphrased but is never substantially changed.
WHAT WE LEARN FROM POLYCARP ABOUT JESUS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT
Polycarp mentions Paul’s martyrdom. He cites Paul’s letters and calls them Scripture. (12:2) He says that he knows that the Philippians are already well-versed in the Scriptures as he continues to quote Paul. (12:1) This is extraordinary because it shows us that in the early first century the Gospels and Epistles were already treated as the Word of God. This is also interesting because if no one knew who had written these works as some critics allege, then why would the Christians accept them as authentic?
Repeatedly Polycarp quotes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew and Luke. He also says that:
- Jesus came in the flesh
- Jesus was a servant to all
- Jesus died on the cross
- Jesus bore our sin
- Jesus was raised from the dead
- Jesus was glorified
- Jesus is our High Priest
- Christians are saved by grace through faith
- Jesus will judge the living and the dead
(You can see specifically what verses Polycarp quotes right here.)
Notably, Polycarp quotes zero heretics, zero gospels outside of our New Testament and contradicts zero teachings of Jesus or the apostles that we find in our Bible.
Everything he says is consistent with the New Testament records. His followers attest to him knowing the apostles and being a student of John himself. Not one to mince words, this disciple of the apostles says that anyone who perverts these teachings is the “first-born of Satan”. (7:3) And he died rather than deny the truths that he dearly held.
IN SHORT, POLYCARP’S WITNESS IS A BIG DEAL.
The importance of what we glean from just this short letter can’t be understated. It can be read for free online in about 15–20 minutes and it packs quite a punch. So when critics and skeptics ask you “how do you know the books in your Bible are the right ones?” introduce them to your newfound friend with the funny name. While Polycarp isn’t the only early evidence we have for the early use of the New Testament, he is one of the beginning links to a greater chain of unbroken testimony for our Bible.
For more on this type of evidence:
Originally published at isjesusalive.com on March 19, 2019.