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Saturday 12 September 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (4): Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp was probably born about 70 A.D. and was martyred at the age of 86 in the mid-second century. He was bishop of the church at Smyrna for a significant amount of time.1 The details of his martyrdom are preserved in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the earliest surviving text from the Christian martyr-acts genre (a text which will be discussed in an upcoming post in this series). His importance to church history can be seen from the fact that his "life and ministry spanned the time between the end of the apostolic era and the emergence of catholic Christianity".2 Although Polycarp was apparently a prolific writer, only one work survives under his name: a letter to the Philippians. Some think the extant text actually incorporates two distinct letters, with chapters 13-14 being "a brief cover note written to accompany a copy of the letters of Ignatius which Polycarp sent to Philippi", and chapters 1-12 being "Polycarp's response to a later 'crisis letter' from Philippi, penned several years after Ignatius's martyrdom."3 However, Holmes thinks the document is "more likely a single unified letter than it is a combination of two."4 The dating of the letter is dependent on the dating of the martyrdom and letters of Ignatius (on which see the previous post).

The two most common terms for Satan in early Christian literature, ho diabolos and ho satanas, both occur in one passage in the letter which constitutes a threefold denunciation of heresy:
For anyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist (antichristos estin); and whoever does not confess the witness of the cross is from the devil (ek tou diabolou estin); and whoever distorts the words of the Lord for his own passions, saying that there is neither resurrection nor judgment – this one is the firstborn of Satan (houtos prōtotokos esti tou satana). (Polycarp to the Philippians 7.1)5
The synonymous parallelism implies that ho diabolos and ho satanas are equivalent terms. The same cannot be said for antichristos since it lacks the article and is not in the genitive case.

The reader will immediately notice the verbal parallel between the first clause and 1 John 4:2-3 (compare 2 John 7). Some scholars argue on this basis that Polycarp is under "influence from the Johannine epistles",6 while others have suggested that Polycarp and the Johannine epistles draw on "a common anti-gnostic ecclesiastical tradition."7

While the Gospel and letters of John do not use the expression “firstborn of Satan”, it does use the expression “of the devil” (ek tou diabolou, John 8:44; cf. ek tou ponērou, 1 John 3:12) and uses paternal/filial imagery for the devil’s relationship with evil humans (John 8:44; 1 John 3:10). Hence, Johannine Satanology provides a useful proxy from which to reconstruct Polycarp’s Satanology. The validity of this approach is reinforced by the form of Philippians 7.1, which appears to be a well-established confessional, even liturgical, formula.8

The Satanology of the Johannine literature is widely agreed to reflect a cosmic dualism in which Satan is set over the forces of evil opposed to God.9 Moreover, the view of Gnosticism presupposed in Philippians 7.1 is arguably similar to the view of heresy expressed in Rev. 2:24.10  Again, Philippians 6.3 (the verse prior to 7.1) uses the term apoplanōsi for the activities of false teachers; Dochhorn notes that this word has a Satanological connotation (cf. Rev. 12:9; 20:2).11 The evidence before us suggests that Polycarp shared the same view of Satan as these writers.

A further proxy for Polycarp’s Satanology is found in Ignatius of Antioch. It appears from both this letter and from Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp that the two men were well acquainted and held each other in high regard (Ignatius, Polycarp 1.1, 2.3, 7.2-3; Polycarp, Philippians 1.1; 9.1).12 Ignatius entrusts Polycarp with the task of writing letters on his behalf to churches to which he did not have a chance to write (Ignatius, Polycarp 8.1), while Polycarp says he has forwarded letters of Ignatius to the Philippians who “will be able to profit greatly from them, for they deal with faith and endurance and all edification that is suitable in our Lord” (Polycarp, Philippians 13.2). Inasmuch as “Ignatius plays the role of a mentor” toward Polycarp,13  it is quite plausible that he has influenced Polycarp theologically. One can therefore to some extent justify interpreting ho diabolos and ho satanas in Philippians 7.1 through the lenses of the Ignatian letters (which, as we have seen, witness to a cosmological Satanology).

Yet another proxy is available in the clearly mythological view of Satan in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (2.4(3.1); 17.1; these texts will be studied in the next post in this series). This document claims to have been written by the church at Smyrna (Martyrdom of Polycarp prescript), of which Polycarp had been bishop (Ignatius, Polycarp prescript; Martyrdom of Polycarp 16.2) until his late martyrdom. It is reasonable to assume that the document would reflect the view of Satan which the bishop himself had taught in Smyrna.

Furthermore, Irenaus of Lyons claimed to have been mentored by Polycarp (Against Heresies 3.3.4).14 Irenaeus clearly had a well-developed Satanology,15 and he refers to Polycarp having used the expression “firstborn of Satan” for Marcion (Against Heresies 3.3.4). Papias, who was a companion of Polycarp according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.33.4), also believed in a fall of angels, and although his writings are lost for the most part, there is some evidence (albeit of disputed authenticity) that he believed in Satan as well (the fragments of Papias will be discussed in a subsequent post).

Thus, both those likely to have influenced Polycarp and those likely to have been influenced by Polycarp reflect a cosmological, personal view of Satan. This gives further support to such a reading of the Satanological language in Philippians 7.1.

A final observation is in order with respect to the expression “firstborn of Satan.” Dahl argues that Philippians 7.1 and John 8.44 both depend on a Jewish tradition which held that Cain was the offspring of a union between Satan and Eve (cf. 1 John 3.8).16 This tradition may lie ultimately behind the phraseology, but both John and Polycarp apply the term to contemporary opponents, who are Satan’s children through spiritual, and not physical, heredity (1 John 4.4). Filial imagery for those under Satan’s control is known from other early Christian traditions as well (Matt. 13:38; Acts 13:10).

In summary, there is good evidence that Polycarp of Smyrna stood firmly within the early Christian tradition which used the terms 'devil' and 'Satan' to refer to a personal supernatural enemy.


  • 1 For introductory details on Polycarp and his Letter to the Philippians, see Holmes, M. (2006). Polycarp of Smyrna, Letter to the Philippians. The Expository Times, 118, 53-63; Ehrman, B.D. (2003). The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 324-331.
  • 2 Holmes, op. cit., p. 53.
  • 3 ibid., p. 60.
  • 4 ibid., p. 62.
  • 5 Ehrman, op. cit., pp. 342-343, text and translation.
  • 6 Dochhorn, J. (2007a). Mit Kain kam der Tod in die Welt. Zur Auslegung von SapSal 2,24 in 1 Clem 3,4; 4,1-7, mit einem Seitenblick auf Polykarp, Phil. 7,1 und Theophilus, Ad. Autol. II, 29,3-4. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde älteren Kirche, 98(1), 150-159. Here p. 155; apparently also Ehrman, op. cit., p. 343 n. 27.
  • 7 Hartog, P. (2013). Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 127; Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, p. 92 n. 2. Hartog argues that since ‘firstborn of Satan’ is parallel to ‘antichrist’ and ‘of the devil’ which are both “traditional epithets”, therefore ‘firstborn of Satan’ must also be “a common label.” (Hartog, P. (2002). Polycarp and the New Testament: The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 102.
  • 8 So Ludemann, G. (1996). Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 176; Gokey, op. cit., p. 177.
  • 9 Stuckenbruck, L.T. (2011). ‘Protect them from the Evil One’ (John 17:15) Light from the Dead Sea Scrolls. In M.L. Coloe & T. Thatcher (Eds.), John, Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Sixty Years of Discovery and Debate (pp. 139-160). Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature; Jobes, K.H. (2014). 1, 2, and 3 John. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, pp. 65-67; Lieu, J. (1991). The Theology of the Johannine Epistles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 83; Barton, S.C. (2008). Johannine Dualism and Contemporary Pluralism. In R. Bauckham & C. Mosser (Eds.), The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (pp. 3-18). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 14; Kovacs, J.L. (1995). ‘Now Shall the Ruler of This World Be Drive Out’: Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36. Journal of Biblical Literature, 114(2), 227-247; Löfstedt, T. (2009). The Ruler of This World. Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, 74, 55-79.
  • 10 The similarity is noted by Fiorenza, who interprets Rev. 2:24 to mean that “the probable claim of the Nicolaitans to know the deep mysteries of God is according to [the author of Revelation] knowledge not of divine but of demonic realities” (Fiorenza, E.S. (1973). Apocalyptic and Gnosis in the Book of Revelation and Paul. Journal of Biblical Literature, 92(4), 565-581. Here p. 569 n. 25).
  • 11 Dochhorn, op. cit., pp. 154-155.
  • 12 “Polycarp worked with Ignatius, compiling and preserving his letters, and Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp reflects their friendship and mutual respect” (Gray, L. (2010). Polycarp. Ignatius of Antioch. In G.T. Kurian & J.D. Smith III (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature, Vol. 2 (pp. 527-528). Lanham: Scarecrow Press, p. 528). Commenting on these texts from Ignatius, Polycarp, Schoedel writes, “Ignatius knows Polycarp’s ‘godly purpose’ – Polycarp’s firm guidance of the church in Smyrna and his support of Ignatius in this connection” (Schoedel, W.R. (1985). Ignatius of Antioch. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, p. 258). He further notes, “Polycarp’s unquestioned worthiness in this connection may be taken as a reflection of the superiority that Ignatius attributes to the churches who support him (see on Ignatius, Ephesians 11.2-12.1)” (op. cit., p. 279 n. 10). Hence, what seems to be implicit here is that Polycarp was a loyal supporter of Ignatius.
  • 13 House, M.A. (2010). Ignatius of Antioch. In G.T. Kurian & J.D. Smith III (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature, Vol. 2 (pp. 381-382). Lanham: Scarecrow Press, p. 381.
  • 14 “Polycarp…mentored Irenaeus” (Gray, op. cit., p. 528), and “Irenaeus regarded Polycarp as the most important living link between Christ and himself” (Grant, R.M. (2006). Irenaeus of Lyons. London: Routledge, p. 36).
  • 15 See e.g. Russell J.B. (1987). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 46, 82ff. For primary sources, see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.1, 3.7-8, 4.40-41, 5.23-25.
  • 16 Dahl, N.A. (1964). Der Erstgeborene Satans und der Vater des Teufels (Polyk. 7.1 and Joh 8.44). In W. Eltester & F.H. Kettler (Eds.), Apophoreta: Festschrift für Ernst Haenchen zu seinem siebzigsten Geburtstag am 10. Dezember 1964 (pp. 70-84). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, p. 71; so also Dochhorn, op. cit., pp. 155-157; Lieu, J.M. (2003). Image and Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century. London: Bloomsbury, p. 243.

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