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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Moffit

Sojourners by Grace

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

1 Peter's Influence on Polycarp in his Development of a Distinctly Christian Identity in Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians


Most of our knowledge of Polycarp (ca. 70-156 AD), the bishop of Smyrna, has been handed down through Ignatius, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and The Martyrdom of Polycarp written shortly after his death.[1] In addition, much can be learned about Polycarp’s own thought and theology from his sole surviving letter to the church at Philippi. Irenaeus commended the letter to those who desired to “learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth” (AH 3.3.4). The Letter to the Philippians provides insight into his Polycarp’s theology. It is an important witness to the development of a distinctly Christian identity as formulated by the early church. Likely borrowing from 1 Peter, Polycarp utilized the motif of the Christian life as a “sojourn” in order to exhort the Philippians to righteous action in accord with their Christian identity distinguishing them from those of the world.

Survey of Secondary Literature

A great many secondary works have been written on Polycarp’s life, theology, use of Scripture and his Letter to the Philippians.[2] Michael Holmes has written several works that generally defend the integrity and unity of Poly Phil.[3] He gives helpful insight into the direct correlation between belief and behavior in Polycarp’s understanding of righteousness.[4] Harry Maier provided a helpful corrective in Polycarp scholarship by introducing a social perspective of interpreting Poly Phil in light of the sin of the presbyter Valens.[5]

Several scholars have written on the textual integrity and unity of Poly Phil. Many debate an alleged discrepancy between Ignatius’ assumed death in 9.1 and Polycarp asking for more information about his fate in 13.2. Most conjecture that it is a composite work with chapters 13-14 written prior to the remainder of the letter, which is surmised to have been written several years later.[6] Paul Hartog recently defended the unity of the work.[7] Excellent English translations with Greek texts and brief commentaries on Poly Phil can be found in two separate collections of the Apostolic Fathers by Bart Ehrman and Michael Holmes.[8]

Thesis: The Church of God that Sojourns at Philippi

Polycarp’s salutation described the church as comprised of those who “sojourn” in this world. Philippians’ salutation echoes language primarily from the salutations of 1 Peter and 1 Clement. Polycarp elaborated on this unique identity throughout the letter by drawing from several sources that later formed the New Testament. He distinguished the beliefs and behaviors that characterize those who are sojourners from those Gentiles outside the church who love the present world.

Polycarp purposefully employed the motif of the Christian life as a “sojourn” in order to establish a distinctly Christian identity as the foundation for his exhortation to righteous belief and behavior in “this present world” in order to receive “the world to come.”

The historical context will be examined in order to establish the occasion for Polycarp’s letter and the issues he seeks to address. The salutation and chapters 1 and 2 will then be examined to demonstrate Polycarp’s method of establishing a distinctly Christian identity in order to build the foundation for the long exhortation that follows. Finally, Polycarp’s exhortation concerning righteousness will be analyzed in light of Valens’ sin. The exhortation demonstrates that Polycarp sought to establish a Christian identity throughout his letter in order to distinguish the beliefs and behaviors of those inside the community from those outside.

Historical Survey

Philippians is Polycarp’s response to a letter from the Philippian church around the time of Ignatius’ martyrdom. The Philippians requested that Polycarp forward their letter on to Syria and send them the collected letters of Ignatius in Polycarp’s possession (PolPhil 13.1-2). Polycarp agreed to fulfill these requests. He also wrote concerning righteousness (δικαιοσύνης) in response to the Philippians’ request to do so (3.1).[9]

The request to write concerning righteousness was likely instigated by the present circumstances in the Philippian church surrounding the former presbyter Valens (PolPhil 11.1-4). Valens was likely caught in sin regarding personal and/or the church’s finances. Chapter 11 mentions the “love of money” (avaritia) twice in the context of Valens’ shortcomings. Holmes argues that Valens’ behavior led to a crisis within the Philippian church in that it undermined their identity and led to questions concerning the true nature of righteousness.[10] This is further supported by Polycarp’s emphasis on avoiding the “love of money” (φιλαργυρία) in his general exhortation and in his exhortation specifically to widows, deacons, and especially presbyters (PolPhil 2.2; 4.1, 3; 5.2; 6.1; Cf. 1 Tim 6:10). The situation in Philippi influenced Polycarp to respond by reinforcing Christian identity and behavior in contrast to the behavior of Valens.[11]

Sojourners by Grace

Polycarp purposefully follows the pattern of 1 Peter 1 in Philippians’ salutation through chapter 2 in order to establish the church’s identity as the foundation to exhort them to righteous belief and behavior.[12] The reference in Polycarp’s salutation to “the church of God that sojourns (παροικούσῃ) at Philippi” is not inconsequential to the remainder of the letter. By addressing the Philippians in this way he immediately defines their identity in the world.

παροικέω occurs six times in the Apostolic Fathers in four places: In the salutations of 1 Clem, Poly Phil, Mart Pol, and in Diogn 6.8 (Cf. BDAG, 779; L&N, 85.78, 731). 1 Pet 1:1 uses the synonymous term παρεπίδημος in its salutation and later pairs παροίκους and παρεπιδήμους together in 2:11as a final reminder of their identity before he begins his exhortation to right action. The connection of these Apostolic Fathers to each other and to the tradition of 1 Peter is notable.[13] Polycarp utilizes both 1 Peter and 1 Clem extensively in Philippians. The Martyrdom of Polycarp carries on this tradition in its salutation by emphasizing that the catholic church sojourns in every place. Diognetus’ use of the term in 6.8 occurs in the context of several allusions to 1 Peter as Diognetus elaborates on Christians dwelling in the world as sojourners (παροικοῦσιν) amid perishable things, but not being of the world while they wait for the imperishable in heaven (Diogn 6.1-9).[14]

The motif of the Christian life as a sojourn lays the foundation for Polycarp’s subsequent exhortation. “Knowing that we brought nothing into the world and cannot take anything out,” Christians are instructed to live as sojourners armed with the “weapons of righteousness” (PolPhil 4.1; Cf. 1 Tim 6:7). Equally important for Polycarp is the understanding that salvation and the consequent Christian identity is “by grace” and “not because of works” (1.3; Cf. Eph. 2:5, 8-9). Belief in Christ with an “inexpressible and glorious joy” is by the “will of God through Jesus Christ (1.3; Cf. 1 Pet 1:8). In accordance with the pattern of 1 Pet 1:1-12, Polycarp establishes the grace of God in Philippians salutation-1.3 prior to beginning his exhortation.

Likewise, Polycarp begins his exhortation in 2.1 with a quotation from the beginning of Peter’s exhortation in 1 Pet 1:13, “Therefore, prepare for action” (Διὸ ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας). Διὸ is the important hinge for both Polycarp and 1 Peter.[15] As a result of God’s grace toward humans through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians are expected to respond with belief and action appropriate to that truth. The Christian’s new identity as a sojourner is normative for how the Christian ought to think and live. Whereas Peter continued by exhorting his audience to holiness, Polycarp addresses the issue of righteousness in light of Valens’ sin of avarice.

A Distinctly Christian Identity in the Exhortation Concerning Righteousness

After Polycarp’s general exhortation in 2.1-3, he continues with a discussion specifically focused on righteousness in 3.1-7.2. This extended exhortation serves to remind the Philippians that their identity as sojourners in the world ought to be accompanied by beliefs and actions that reflect this distinct identity. Valens’ love of money compromised this identity as he “strayed too close to the world” and was no longer distinct from it.[16]

“Love of money” is a characteristic of the “sinful desires in the world” (PolPhil 5.3). Therefore, since this particular sin had afflicted the Philippian church, Polycarp exhorted them several times to avoid the love of money. Instead, the Philippians are encouraged to please Christ in “this present world” in order to “receive the world to come” (5.2). Polycarp makes a sharp distinction between “this present world” and “the world to come” so that Christians know where their hope is to be found. This reinforces the motif of the Christian life as a sojourn because the believer’s hope is not in this present world but in their final destination. Only those who “prove to be citizens worthy of him” will also “reign with him” in that world to come (5.2; 2 Tim 2:12; Cf. Phil 1:27; 1 Clem 21:1). They are to hold fast to this belief in the future judgment and resurrection by maintaining the characteristic behaviors of those who truly believe. Otherwise, they will prove themselves to be “false brothers…who bear the name of the Lord hypocritically” (6.3).

Holmes argues that “Polycarp believed that wrong behaviors were prima facie evidence of wrong beliefs. Further, wrong beliefs and/or behaviors are characteristic of outsiders, not insiders.”[17] The reverse is also true according to Polycarp. Those who truly believe in God’s promises of judgment, resurrection, and the world to come will have right behaviors, which characterize the believing community. In contrast, Polycarp labels those outside the believing community who hold false beliefs as “antichrist,” “of the devil” and “the firstborn of Satan” (PolPhil 7.1). Holmes correctly states that for Polycarp “orthopraxy is the other side of the coin of orthodoxy.” As a result, Polycarp’s main goal in the exhortation section of his letter was to maintain and protect the integrity of the community in terms of both its beliefs and behaviors.”[18]

Maier argues that the community, in the wake of Valens’ sin, was left in “social chaos” so that Polycarp’s main concern was to “promote a purity-preserving and boundary-reinforcing ethos.”[19] Maier’s assessment is incomplete because he provides little room for the gospel and Christian identity as the foundation for ethical behavior. Polycarp does not establish a community ethos solely by exhorting about proper and improper moral behavior. Rather, Polycarp establishes a community ethos through both indicative and imperative. According to Polycarp, they are a distinct Christian community, not only because of what they do, but because of what Christ has done and will do for them. As a result, Polycarp concludes his exhortation with an encouragement to endure because of what Christ has already done (PolPhil 8.1).

Poly Phil 8.1 calls Christ Jesus the “guarantee of our righteousness.” Polycarp explains how Christ is the guarantee by repeating the works of Christ recorded in 1 Pet 2:21-24. According to 1 Pet 2:24, the reason Christ “bore our sins in his body upon the tree” was so “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Polycarp specifically chose this theme to end the bulk of his exhortation. Christ “endured all things, in order that we might live in him” (PolPhil 8.1). Christ’s work on behalf of sinners necessarily leads to righteous belief and behavior. Therefore, Polycarp encourages the Philippians to follow the “example he set for us” (8.2; Cf. 1 Pet 2:21). For those who do “not love the present world but the one who died on our behalf and was raised by God for our sakes” will receive their reward and dwell “with the Lord” (9.2). Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians established a community identity as sojourners in contrast to the world by defining the community based on Christ’s work on their behalf, which necessarily led to righteous characteristics in the beliefs and behaviors of true saints that did not love this world.


Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians comes alive when his method and goals are more fully understood. Polycarp does not simply string together unconnected allusions from various scriptures in order to establish proper and improper moral behavior. Rather, Polycarp effectively employed the motif of the Christian life as a sojourn from 1 Peter by drawing on various scriptures to support his multifaceted exhortation to righteous belief and behavior. In doing so, he established a distinctly Christian identity in contrast to the identity and characteristics of those who love the world. Polycarp’s contribution reinforced the teaching of the documents that later formed the New Testament and helped establish Christian orthodoxy in the young church by shaping the church’s identity, belief and behavior.

[1] See Ignatius, Polycarp; Irenaeus, AH, 3.3.4; Eusebius, HE, 3.36; 4.14; 5.20; 5.24. [2] Paul Hartog, “Historical and Theological Studies Polycarp, Ephesians, and ‘Scripture,’” WTJ 70, N 2 (Fall 2008), 253-275. Hartog argues from Poly Phil 12.1 that Polycarp regarded Ephesians as authoritative “Scripture” on par with the LXX; Charles E. Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus’ Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of Ad Diognetum. WUNT 186, (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 97-177. Hill introduced an intriguing proposal, arguing that Polycarp wrote the Epistle to Diognetus as an oral address to Diognetus, a city council member in Smyrna, sometime between AD 145 and the end of his life in 155. Intriguing though it may be, certainty concerning authorship and date of Diognetus remains beyond reach. [3] Michael W. Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, edited by Paul Foster (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 108-125; Michael W. Holmes, “Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians and the Writings That Later Formed the New Testament,” in The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Andrew Gregory and Christopher Tuckett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 187-227. Holmes rates the probability of Polycarp’s quotation of or allusion to each New Testament book. [4] Holmes, “Polycarp,” 115-116. [5] Harry O. Maier, “Purity and Danger in Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians: The Sin of Valens in Social Perspective,” JECS 3. No. 1: 229-247. [6] P. N. Harrison, Polycarp’s Two Epistles to the Philippians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936). Cf. Kenneth Berding, Polycarp and Paul: An Analysis of Their Literary and Theological Relationship in Light of Polycarp’s Use of Biblical and Extra-Biblical Literature, VCSup 62 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 15-24. [7] Paul Hartog, Polycarp and the New Testament: The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature, WUNT 134 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), 148-169. [8] Bart D. Ehrman, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers v.1. LCL, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 323-353; Michael W. Holmes, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 272-297. Both authors also give a helpful history of the textual transmission and variants. Cf. Joseph B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers,(London: Macmillan and Co., 1891). Issues of translation and interpretation are further complicated by the fact that chapters 10-12, 14 only survive in Latin translation. [9] See Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 324-326. Ehrman posits an additional reason being a response to heretical teaching as demonstrated in the exhortation of Poly Phil 7.1. He argues that 7.1 is likely a response to the heretical teaching of Marcion since the description of “firstborn of Satan” is used of the false teaching in 7.1 as well as in Polycarp’s direct words to Marcion as reported by Irenaeus in AH, 3.3.4. This theory requires a much later dating for the bulk of Polycarp’s letter and adherence to Harrison’s partition theory for the document. Holmes explains that this understanding of 7.1 is unnecessary as it is likely not an attack against the heretic. Marcion is never mentioned in Poly Phil, and Polycarp’s direct words to him come only through Irenaeus. Rather, 7.1 appears to be an elaboration on 1 John in order to further establish a distinctly Christian identity by distinguishing between Christians and antichrists. Holmes’ assessment that “7.1 plays a minimal role in the document” is a correct understanding of the main thrust of Polycarp’s letter and his reasons for writing it. Cf. Holmes, “Polycarp,” 115-116. [10] Holmes, “Polycarp,” 116. [11] Cf. Maier, “Purity and Danger,” 243-245. Maier takes a sociological view of “group boundaries” in order to explain Polycarp’s exhortation as forming a social identity. “To connect avarice with defilement is to establish a group boundary and to relegate greed to the space outside the community; the primary danger of avarice is that it leads one away to a dangerous state of idolatry…Polycarp’s paraenesis [is] motivated primarily by a concern to establish allegiance to a particular and characteristic community ethos.” Maier’s sociological analysis is helpful in that it places Polycarp’s exhortation in the proper context of Valens’ sin and correctly returns the focus to Polycarp’s emphasis on establishing the church’s identity rather than on combating heretical teachings outside the church. [12] Most scholars agree that it is beyond a reasonable doubt that Polycarp used 1 Peter in composing his letter. See Holmes, “Polycarp’s Letter,” 220-223, 226. Holmes provides an excellent examination of specific quotations of or allusions to 1 Peter in Poly Phil. He says, “It appears virtually certain that Polycarp made relatively extensive use of 1 Peter.” Cf. Eusebius, HE, 4.14. Eusebius remarks that “Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians mentioned above and still extant, has included some quotations from the First Epistle of Peter.” [13] A second connection further demonstrates that the salutations purposefully utilize each other. In the blessing that each salutation contains, the verb Πληθυνθείη (be multiplied – APOpt3sg) is used. It occurs only in the salutations of 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; Jude 2 in the NT and in the salutations of 1 Clem, Poly Phil, Mart Pol in the Apostolic Fathers linking these Apostolic Fathers (at least in their salutations) to the Petrine tradition. Poly Phil utilizes the wording of 1 Pet 1:2 χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη πληθυνθείη (may grace and peace be multiplied to you) replacing χάρις with ἔλεος (mercy) and adding “from God Almighty and Jesus Christ our Savior.” 1 Clem and the Mart Pol also use a similar blessing formula with their own slight emendations. [14] The noun form πάροικος also occurs in Diogn 5.5 in the context of how Christians “live on earth” as “sojourners” with their “citizenship” in heaven (Cf. Diogn 5.9). Diognetus’ utilization of a motif similar to Polycarp makes Charles Hill’s proposal that Polycarp wrote Diognetus even more intriguing. In Diognetus 6.5, the author strongly alludes to the image produced in 1 Peter 2:11 where the enemies are seen as “fleshly cravings (ἐπιθυμιῶν),” the very things that wage war (στρατεύονται) against the soul (1 Pet 2:11). Polycarp also alludes to 1 Peter, saying, “For it is good to be cut off (ἀνακόπτεσθαι) from the sinful desires (ἐπιθυμιῶν) in the world, because every sinful desire wages war (στρατεὐεται) against the spirit.” Polycarp and Diognetus, echoing 1 Peter, promote Christians withdrawing from the world insofar as the world participates in sin (1 Pet 4:1-4). However, complete isolation from the world is not advocated. Rather, Christians endure in the world by living uprightly and following Christ’s example of suffering. The eschatological hope of judgment and resurrection motivate the Christian to this endurance. [15] The use of Διὸ is evidence for a direct quotation of 1 Pet 1:13. Διὸ is more rarely used than οὖν even though both have a very similar meaning (BDAG, 250, 736). οὖν occurs 1299 times in the LXX, NT, and AF, while Διὸ occurs only 96 (542 to 15 in the AF) times. [16] Maier, “Purity and Danger,” 238. [17] Holmes, “Polycarp,” 115. [18] Holmes, “Polycarp,” 116. [19] Maier, “Purity and Danger,” 229.


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