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Polycarp is said to be a student of the Apostle John. Yet he never mentions it in his epistle, nor does he quote the Gospel of John. Why is that?

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Polycarp quotes more than a dozen books of the New Testament (source), including all 3 Synoptic Gospels. The absence of any quotation from the Gospel of John is sometimes used to discredit the claim that a) Polycarp knew John and/or b) John wrote John.

There's a much simpler explanation.

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Timing

We have it on the authority of Polycarp's student, Irenaeus, that John was the last of the canonical Gospels written (see Against Heresies 3.1.1). This statement is independently corroborated by the Muratorian Canon & by Clement of Alexandria, and it is supported by numerous later historians.

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Memory & Conflation

A review of Polycarp's NT quotations shows that he is almost certainly quoting from memory. In fact, there's a great example of this in Polycarp chapter 2:

Judge not, that you be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you again (Epistle to the Philippians ch. 2)

In this passage, Polycarp seamlessly blends the words of Matthew & Luke. It would make no sense to do this if copying one/both directly from a scroll, and because a scroll takes 2 hands to manipulate, a person couldn't actually work with 3 scrolls (Matthew + Luke + the epistle) at the same time. This blend is a very plausible result, however, of quoting from memory. On my channel I have a video about this phenomenon, microconflation (see the last few minutes here).

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Arguments from Authority

Why doesn't Polycarp name-drop John?

This one is easy--an argument from authority need not be made explicitly if the authority is already known and recognized. Polycarp's audience knows who he is and who he studied under--he's writing to the church in Philippi, just a short distance across the Aegean Sea. Polycarp needs no introduction to this crowd (note how brief the greeting/introduction is in chapter 1), nor does he need to waive his credentials to impress anyone.

John has only been gone for a few years (the last we hear of him is about AD 100, the epistle is written about 7 years later), so numerous people in this area knew John, that wasn't unique to Polycarp.

Unfortunately only one of Polycarp's writings survives today. Perhaps in other writings he provided more personal anecdotes, but most of what we know about his personal life comes from people who knew him, not from Polycarp himself.

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Conclusion

If we grant:

  1. The Synoptics have been around longer than John (possibly a lot longer) when Polycarp was writing (circa AD 107)
  2. Polycarp's primary method is to quote scripture from memory

We should expect to find lots of quotes from earlier NT documents (like the Synoptics & Paul, which we do) because Polycarp has studied and taught from them for years, and fewer quotes from the later NT documents, which he only read later in life.

Young brains memorize much more easily than older brains. Polycarp read the Synoptics when he was young.

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    Great explanations, HTTR! +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 8:05
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Polycarp does quote from 1 John 4:3, which until recently was widely believed to be written by the same John who wrote the Gospel of John.

“For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;” quoting 1 John 4:3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: chapter 7

Polycarp also references the Gospel of John.

bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ Chapter 1. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. (John 15:8)

walk in the commandments of the Lord. Chapter 4. If ye love me, keep my commandments. John 14:15

Lastly, Polycarp wrote about Sacred Scripture.

For I trust that ye are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures Chapter 12

This comment would be akin to meaningless unless there was a compilation of Sacred Sripture, which would have included the four gospels as the Muratorian Fragment and Irenaeus mention.

The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. Muratorian Fragment

  1. It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds,3449 while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground”3450 of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. Irenaeus

So, Polycarp knew Scripture and his disciple Irenaeus knew of the four gospels. Moreover, Polycarp quotes 1 John and references the Gospel of John.

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Why didn't Polycarp mention John in his Epistle?

Obviously, Polycarp felt he he no need to emphasize the fact in any of his writings. ”Ops guys, did I mention that I studied under the Apostles!” It is easy for historians to use this fact to discredit the traditional belief that many Christians hold that Polycarp knew St. John the Apostle. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp “was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ.”

Let us have some context now. Polycarp died in 155 AD, at the age of 86. He stated to his executioners that “Fourscore and six years have I served him (Jesus), and he has never done me injury.” He was martyred at Smyrna. St. John mentioned Smyrna in his Book of Revelation, as one of the Seven churches of Asia.

Polycarp was a Christian in 69 AD and that is well early enough to have known St. John and other Apostles of the Lord. Smyrna is not all that far from the area that St. John spent the last years of his life while on earth!

Polycarp was a bishop of the early church, a disciple of the apostle John, a contemporary of Ignatius, and the teacher of Irenaeus. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp “was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ.” He lived from the latter half of the first century to the mid-second century. Polycarp was martyred by the Romans, and his death was influential, even among the pagans.

Polycarp was one of the Apostolic Fathers—a group of church leaders and early Christian writers who directly followed the apostles. Unfortunately, the only extant writing by Polycarp is his letter to the Philippians, but he is mentioned in other documents including “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” and a few papers written by Irenaeus.

The letter is notable for two things. First, it continues Paul’s tradition of warning against false teaching in the church, namely the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism. Second, it quotes or paraphrases from many books that would later be recognized as part of the New Testament canon. Polycarp’s letter includes phrases from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude. This is a strong indication that the early church already considered the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles as inspired Scripture.

Information on Polycarp is scarce. Ignatius included him in his greeting in his letters to the churches in Magnesia Ephesus, but most of our information about Polycarp comes from the writings of his student Irenaeus. In Irenaeus’ letter to Florinus, he attempts to bring an old friend back from heresy by recounting their time together under Polycarp’s tutelage, reminding him of when Polycarp spoke of his own study under the apostle John and others who’d had firsthand experience with Jesus. In Irenaeus’ letter to Pope Victor, he reminds the pope that, despite Polycarp’s strict rejection of false teaching, he was gracious regarding non-theological matters—and so the pope should lighten up about when to celebrate Easter.

Irenaeus’ passage on the Roman church gives us an interesting view of the troubles the church had with maintaining orthodoxy and the role Polycarp played in the debate. The last of the apostles to teach in Rome was killed around AD 67. The last of their students, Clement, died twenty-five years later. But, in Asia, the apostle John lived until around AD 100, and his student, Polycarp, wasn’t killed until half a century later. Irenaeus points out that teachers several church-generations removed from the apostles could not extrapolate special knowledge from the apostles’ teachings that Polycarp (and, by extension, Irenaeus) would not be aware of. Irenaeus then gives specific notes of Polycarp’s strong words against Marcion and the Gnostic Cerinthus. - Who was Polycarp?

Map of western Anatolia showing the island Patmos and the locations of the cities housing the seven churches

Map of western Anatolia showing the island Patmos and the locations of the cities housing the seven churches!

Many believe that St. John the Apostle died on the Island of Patmos or at Ephesus. Both are clearly close to Smyrna!

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I am disturbed at this, and I asked my pastor Greg of Neuse Baptist Church in Kinston, NC, and here's what he told me. Polycarp knew about the book of John, but he did not like John because he felt John emphasized too much of Jesus's humanity instead of Christ's deity. Greg said Polycarp was born too late to have been a disciple of John.

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  • Genuinely a great answer. Fantastic work. You consulted a Holy Person of the Christ and relayed the answer truly. You ought to be proud of thyself. Ignore the robotic naysayers! Onward to Christ's Kingdom!!
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    Commented May 17 at 22:55
  • Snarky Christians really piss me off! 😡😡😡 This confusion makes me ask Jesus, "Are you really real?" Commented Jun 1 at 5:56

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