Polycarp and the New Testament: The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature

By Holmes, Michael W. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Polycarp and the New Testament: The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature


Holmes, Michael W., Journal of Biblical Literature


Polycarp and the New Testament: The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature, by Paul Hartog. WUNT 2.134. Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2002. Pp. x + 281. EU49.00 (paper).

By any standard Polycarp of Smyrna must be reckoned as one of the most notable figures in the early postapostolic church. Yet despite his importance for the history of the church in the early second century, Polycarp's one surviving letter has seldom been given attention for its own sake, as scholarship has tended to discuss it primarily in terms of its significance for other matters (such as the authenticity of the Ignatian letters). This book declares its intention to rectify this state of affairs by examining Polycarp's letter to the Philippians on its own terms and for its own sake, and only then with regard to what it may contribute to other important questions-in this case, Polycarp's contribution to our understanding of the early formation of the NT.

Chapter 1 offers a nice review of past scholarship. Noting the way that most previous research was driven by extrinsic concerns, Hartog embraces the recent call to treat documents such as Polycarp's letter first in terms of its own circumstances and situation. He therefore properly directs attention to matters of introduction and prolegomena. Chapter 2 reviews and assesses the sources of (and the information they preserve about) the life of Polycarp, while the third surveys Smyrna, Philippi, and the churches there. He then turns to the letter itself as he discusses the text and authenticity of Philippians (ch. 4) and investigates the background of the letter, especially the indications of previous contact between Polycarp and the Philippian congregation (ch. 5). In ch. 6 he turns to the identity and role of the heresy mentioned in Philippians 7. He rightly rejects P. N. Harrison's claim that the primary focus of the letter is a crisis sparked by Marcion (or his followers). He also critiques H. 0. Maier's "twin problem" view that the letter deals with two separate and largely unrelated problems, docetic heresy and avarice of the presbyter Valens. Yet his own proposal-that Polycarp's response to the problem of Valens is the letter's primary focus, that the Valens incident reveals a failure of leadership at Philippi that leaves the congregation vulnerable to false teachers, and thus the reference to heresy is a generic anti-docetic exhortation-seems to differ from Maier only with respect to secondary details. Chapters 7 and 8 survey (rather cursorily) epistolary and rhetorical features of the letter, ch. 9 analyzes the theme of "righteousness" and its function in the letter, and ch. 10 addresses the question of the document's integrity (is it one letter or two?).

The stated topic of the book is the focus of the remaining three chapters. These address NT allusions in Philippians (ch. 11), Polycarp and Scripture, including Polycarp's alleged Marcionite leanings and questions related to the development of the NT canon (ch. 12), and Polycarp and Paul (ch. 13). A conclusion, bibliography, and three indices conclude the volume.

Chapters 9 and 10 constitute the book's major contribution to the study of Philippians. In his investigation of the theme of "righteousness" (ch. 9), Hartog pays close attention not only to the meaning of the term-confirming earlier studies that indicated that Polycarp used "righteousness" in "the ethical sense of morality rather than in a theological notion of `justification... (p. 145)-but also to the theme's function in the letter. Polycarp employs the theme not only to deal with the matter of Valen's sin, but also to shape what he hopes will be the congregation's response: "forgiveness instead of vengeance or anger," and "patient endurance even in unfortunate circumstances." Whereas previous investigations have paid primary attention only to the letter's content, Hartog integrates his discussion of content with observations about the letter's form, function, and purpose, and does so fruitfully. …

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