Who was Polycarp of Smyrna?
Polycarp was the overseer of the Assembly at Smyrna during the end of the 1st century CE. Both Irenaeaus and Tertullian, 2nd century CE witnesses, attest that he was a disciple of John the Apostle. It is also known of Polycarp, mainly through the attestation of Irenaeaus, that he was companions with both Papias of Hieropolis and Ignatius of Antioch.
A study of Polycarp from a Nazarene perspective will prove most interesting; it is believed from the account of his martyrdom (and through tradition) that he kept the weekly Sabbaths, and furthermore that he was martyred on “the great Sabbath.” He was even called “a Nazarene” by Jewish Rabbi Isaac in the 15th century CE. Some have speculated that, under his oversight, the Assembly at Smyrna was also observant of the Sabbath.
Authorship of the Letter of Polycarp of Smyrna.
There is little to no doubt that Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians is anything other than genuine.
Martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna.
Not included in this volume is an account written from the perspective of the Assembly at Smyrna, recounting the martyrdom of their beloved overseer Polycarp. According to this account of his martyrdom, if it can be trusted, he was martyred on the “the great Sabbath” for his stark refusal to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, and to offer incense to him.
What does the letter of Polycarp of Smyrna mean to us today?
Quite possibly one of the most intriguing things about Polycarp is that he, like many of the New Testament writings, teaches obedience to the commandments of God, but unlike others, he does so through a very much “New Testament” focused way. His overt acceptance of the Apostolic Writings as Scripture is relatively unique to his writings as compared to (for instance) Clement of Rome and the supposed Letter of Barnabas (not included in this volume).
Polycarp’s gentle approach to obedience to God’s commands serves as a strong reminder us today that the Shepherds of our flocks should be likewise gentle in their approach; “feeding the flock of God, and taking the oversight thereof not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)
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