Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna & Martyr, c.156 AD

Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna (today known as Izmir), a city on the west coast of Turkey. The letters to the "seven churches in Asia" at the beginning of the book of Revelation include a letter to the church in Smyrna, identifying it as a church undergoing persecution.

Polycarp is said to have known the Apostle John, and to have been instructed by him in the Christian faith. Polycarp, in his turn, was known to Irenaeus , who later became Bishop of Lyons in what is now France. We have (1) Irenaeus brief memoir of Polycarp; (2) a letter to Polycarp from Ignatius of Antioch, written around 115 AD when Ignatius was passing through Turkey, being sent in chains to Rome to be put to death; (3) a letter from Polycarp to the church at Philippi, written at the same time; and (4) an account of the arrest, trial, conviction, and martyrdom of Polycarp, written after his death by one or more members of his congregation.

Polycarp was denounced to the government, arrested, and tried on the charge of being a Christian. When the proconsul urged him to save his life by cursing Christ, he replied: "Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" The magistrate was reluctant to kill a a gentle old man, but he had no choice.

Polycarp was sentenced to be burned. As he waited for the fire to be lighted, he prayed:

"Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and hosts and all creation, and of the whole race of the upright who live in your presence: I bless you that you have thought me worthy of this day and hour, to be numbered among the martyrs and share in the cup of Christ, for resurrection to eternal life, for soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be accepted before you today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as you, the faithful and true God, have prepared and foreshown and brought about. For this reason and for all things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved child, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for the ages to come. Amen."

The fire was then lit and shortly thereafter a soldier stabbed Polycarp to death by order of the magistrate. His friends gave his remains honorable burial, and wrote an account of his death to other churches. See the Penguin volume, Ancient Christian Writers.


Irenaeus of Smyrna

Irenaeus (pronounced eye-ren-EE-S) was probably born around 125. As a young man in Smyrna (near Ephesus, in what is now western Turkey) he heard the preaching of Polycarp, who as a young man had heard the preaching of the Apostle John. Afterward, probably while still a young man, Polycarp moved west to Lyons in southern France. In 177, Pothinus, the bishop of Lyons, sent him on a mission to Rome. During his absence a severe persecution broke out in Lyons, claiming the lives of the bishop and others (see 2 June). When Irenaeus returned to Lyons, he was made bishop. He died around 202. He is thus an important link between the apostolic church and later times, and also an important link between Eastern and Western Christianity.

His principal work is the Refutation of Heresies, a defense of orthodox Christianity against its Gnostic rivals. A shorter work is his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, a brief summary of Christian teaching, largely concerned with Christ as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. An interesting bit of trivia about this latter book is that it is, as far as I know, the first Christian writing to refer to the earth as a sphere.

One of the earliest heresies to arise in the Christian church was Gnosticism, and Irenaeus was one of its chief early opponents. Not all Gnostics believed exactly the same thing, but the general outlines of the belief are fairly clear.

Gnostics were dualists, teaching that there are two great opposing forces: good versus evil, light versus darkness, knowledge versus ignorance, spirit versus matter. Since the world is material, and leaves much room for improvement, they denied that God had made it. "How can the perfect produce the imperfect, the infinite produce the finite, the spiritual produce the material?" they asked. One solution was to say that there were thirty beings called AEons, and that God had made the first AEon, which made the second AEon, which made the third, and so on to the thirtieth AEon, which made the world. (This, Gnostics pointed out to the initiate, was the true inward spiritual meaning of the statement that Jesus was thirty years old when he began to preach.) As Irenaeus pointed out, this did not help at all. Assuming the Gnostic view of the matter, each of the thirty must be either finite or infinite, material or non-material, and somewhere along the line you would have an infinite being producing a finite one, a spiritual being producing a material one.

The Gnostics were Docetists (pronounced do-SEE-tists). This word comes from the Greek word meaning "to seem." They taught that Christ did not really have a material body, but only seemed to have one. It was an appearance, so that he could communicate with men, but was not really there. (If holograms had been known then, they would certainly have said that the supposed body of Jesus was a hologram.) They went on to say that Jesus was not really born, and did not really suffer or die, but merely appeared to do so. It was in opposition to early Gnostic teachers that the Apostle John wrote (1 John 4:1-3) that anyone who denies that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of antiChrist.

Gnostics claimed to be Christians, but Christians with a difference. They said that Jesus had had two doctrines: one a doctrine fit for the common man, and preached to everyone, and the other an advanced teaching, kept secret from the multitudes, fit only for the chosen few, the spiritually elite. They, the Gnostics, were the spiritually elite, and although the doctrines taught in the churches were not exactly wrong, and were in fact as close to the truth as the common man could hope to come, it was to the Gnostics that one must turn for the real truth. They remind me very much of the Rosicrucians. When I mention this, I often get blank stares, but not many years ago many popular science magazines carried their advertisements, with assertions that Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Archimedes, and so on had all been members of a secret society called the Rosicrucians, and owed their achievements largely to this fact. Was there any evidence of this aside from the traditions of the group itself? Of course not! They were a secret society. Why were they secret? "Because our wisdom would be misunderstood by the common man, and so must be reserved for the tiny handful of mankind in every generation who are spiritually advanced enough to appreciate it. So send us twenty bucks and we'll spill our guts."

In opposition to this idea, Irenaeus maintained that the Gospel message is for everyone. He was perhaps the first to speak of the Church as "Catholic" (universal). In using this term, he made three contrasts:

(1) He contrasted the over-all church with the single local congregation, so that one spoke of the Church in Ephesus, but also of the Catholic Church, of which the Churches in Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, Antioch, etc. were local branches or chapters.

(2) He contrasted Christianity with Judaism, in that the task of Judaism was to preserve the knowledge of the one God by establishing a solid national base for it among a single people, but the task of Christianity was to set out from that base to preach the Truth to all nations.

(3) He contrasted Christianity with Gnosticism, in that the Gnostics claimed to have a message only for the few with the right aptitudes and temperaments, whereas the Christian Gospel was to be proclaimed to all men everywhere. Irenaeus then went on to say: If Jesus did have a special secret teaching, to whom would He entrust it? Clearly, to His disciples, to the Twelve, who were with Him constantly, and to whom he spoke without reservation (Mark 4:34). And was the teaching of the Twelve different from that of Paul? Here the Gnostics, and others since, have tried to drive a wedge between Paul and the original Apostles, but Peter writes of Paul in the highest terms (2 Peter 3:15), as one whose teaching is authentic. Again, we find Paul saying to the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:27), that he has declared to them the whole counsel of God. Where, then, do we look for Christ's authentic teaching? In the congregations that were founded by the apostles, who set trustworthy men in charge of them, and charged them to pass on the teaching unchanged to future generations through carefully chosen successors.

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Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch

After the Apostles, Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch in Syria. His predecessor, of whom little is known, was named Euodius. Whether he knew any of the Apostles directly is uncertain. Little is known of his life except for the very end of it. Early in the second century (perhaps around 107 Ad, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan), he was arrested by the Imperial authorities, condemned to death, and transported to Rome to die in the arena. By thus dealing with a leader, the rulers hoped to terrify the rank and file. Instead, Ignatius took the opportunity to encourage them, speaking to groups of Christians at every town along the way. When the prison escort reached the west coast of Asia Minor, it halted before taking ship, and delegations from several Asian churches were able to visit Ignatius, to speak with him at length, to assist him with items for his journey, and to bid him an affectionate farewell and commend him to the grace of God. In response he wrote seven letters that have been preserved: five to congregations that had greeted him, en masse or by delegates (Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Philadelphians, and Smyrnaeans), one to the congregation that would greet him at his destination (Romans), and one to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the Apostle John.

His letters are available in several modern translations. Perhaps the most accessible is the Penguin Paperback, Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth. The themes with which he is chiefly concerned are (1) the importance of maintaining Christian unity in love and sound doctrine (with warnings against factionalism and against the heresy of Docetism -- the belief that Christ was not fully human and did not have a material body or really suffer and die), (2) the role of the clergy as a focus of Christian unity, (3) Christian martyrdom as a glorious privilege, eagerly to be grasped.

He writes:

"I am God's wheat, ground fine by the lion's teeth to be made Purest bread for Christ.

"No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire. The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God."

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Philip

In the sixth chapter of Acts, we read that the Apostles commissioned seven men in the congregation at Jerusalem to supervise the church's ministry to the needs of its widows and other poor. (This is generally considered to be the beginning of the office of Deacon in the Church, although the Scriptures do not use this term in referring to the original seven men.) Two of these have gained lasting fame. One was Stephen, who became the Church's first martyr. The other was Philip, whose story we find in Acts 8:5-40; 21:8-9.

After the death of Stephen, there was a general persecution of the Church at Jerusalem, and many Christians fled to escape it. Philip fled to Samaria, where he preached the Gospel to the Samaritans, a group who had split off from the Jewish people about six centuries earlier, had intermarried with other peoples, and were considered outsiders by most Jews. They received the message with eagerness, and soon Peter and John came to Samaria to bless the new converts.

After this, Philip was sent by God to walk along the road from Jerusalem southwest to Gaza, where he met a eunuch (a term meaning literally a castrated man, but also used to mean simply an official of a royal court) of the Queen of Ethiopia (probably meaning Nubia - -- what we now call the Sudan), returning home after worshipping in Jerusalem. The man was reading from Isaiah 53 ("He was wounded for our transgressions"), and Philip told him about Jesus, and persuaded him that the words were a prophecy of the saving work of Jesus. The man was baptized, and went on his way rejoicing, while Philip went north to Caesarea, the major seaport of Israel, and its secular capital.

When Paul (accompanied by Luke) was going up to Jerusalem for the last time, he paused at Caesarea and spent several days with Philip. (This may be the source of some of the information Luke used in writing the early chapters of Acts.) We are told that Philip had four daughters who prophesied. (This is relevant to discussions of the role of women in the Church.)

Was Philip the Deacon the same person as Philip the Apostle?

No, they were different. There were Twelve Apostles, and they said, "Our work is to preach the Gospel, not to administer the budget. Choose seven men to administer the budget." Obviously they meant seven men other than themselves.

Moreover, when Philip went to Samaria, and preached and made converts, he baptized them, but none of them received the Holy Spirit. It was not until Peter and John came from Jerusalem and laid hands on them that they received the Spirit. Surely this means that Philip was not an Apostle--not one of the Twelve.

Yes, they were the same person.

We have ancient testimony identifying them. Papias of Hierapolis, a second-century writer who had spoken with some of the apostles, speaks of the Philip of Acts 21 as one of the Apostles. Polycrates, a second-century bishop of Ephesus, says that Philip, "one of the Twelve", was buried at Hierapolis along with two aged virgin daughters of his, and that a third daughter, a prophetess, was buried at Ephesus. It seems unlikely that two Philips would both have unmarried daughters of whom at least one was known as a prophetess.

If eleven of the Twelve Apostles refused the work of administering the church's welfare program, but one, for special reasons, accepted it, it is not clear that Luke would have felt bound to point this out. The Jerusalem community may have thought it desirable to have one man serve both as one of the Twelve and one of the Seven, so as to provide a link, a liason, between the two groups. Philip, who specifically named in John's account of the feeding of the Five Thousand (John 6:5), is likely to have had special abilities in organizing the feeding of the hungry, and related matters. Moreover, the Seven were originally appointed because the Greek-speaking Jews complained that their widows were being neglected. Philip had a Greek name ("lover of horses"), which at least suggests some kind of Hellenistic element in his background. Even more to the point, we note that earlier, when a group of Greek-speaking Jews wanted a chance to speak with Jesus, they went first to Philip (Jn 12:20f). Clearly Philip was a good choice for dealing with Hellenists.

As for the objection that Philip's Samaritan converts receive the laying on of hands, not from Philip, but from Peter and John, it must be noted that Peter and John were there specifically as representatives of the Apostles gathered at Jerusalem. It may very well be that Philip wanted to make sure that the receiving of a group of Samaritans into the Church, a gesture certain to stir up violent emotions in some Christians, had the official support of the College of Apostles.

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