On Paul and the Apostolic Fathers

I loved reading through the Apostolic Fathers and seeing the allusions to the New Testament. I’ve just been going over Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 5. It’s remarkable how he combines so many Pauline themes into his epistle. Polycarp’s Philippians 5 definitely alludes to Galatians. It starts with “God is not mocked (Θεὸς ού μυκτηρίζεται).” We also get his allusion back to “walking in the Spirit” with Polycarp’s reference to “the walk (περιπατειν).” Tracing this through to v. 3, we see the “flesh versus Spirit” dichotomy, with Polycarp sharply warning against the “desires of the world (επιθυμια ἐν τῳ κοσμῳ).”

Another fascinating aspect of this is how he conflates several related Pauline letters. For instance, Galatians 5 contains a vice list which ends with “those who live like this will not inherit the Kingdom of God. (βασίλεαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν)” But Polycarp shows full awareness of the very similar vice list in 1 Corinthians 6 because he quotes vices from that list that aren’t in Galatians. Both end with the bit on not inheriting the kingdom. We also have a subtle allusion to early parts of 1 Corinthians in Polycarp’s Philippians 5:2. Polycarp says that “if we live in a manner worth of him, we will rule with him (συμβασιλεύσομεν), if indeed we trust.” The same word for ruling is used ironically in 1 Corinthians 4:8, where Paul says, “Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you (συμβασιλεύσωμεν)!” In light of chapter 6, where Paul talks about the church judging on the last day, the irony here is not that the Corinthians “are kings,” (they will be someday), but that they are already kings.

Likewise, the flesh/Spirit antithesis in Galatians 5 seems to bring in Ephesians 4-6. Polycarp not only speaks of the flesh “desiring what is contrary to the Spirit,” but also talks about the flesh “waging war against the Spirit. (στρατευεται, literally to serve in the military).” This echoes the great military language of Ephesians 6, where we are instructed to “put on the full armor of God.” Likewise, Polycarp’s affinity for παριπατεω (to walk) links with the adverb αξιῶς (worthy). Paul puts the two together Ephesians 4:1, where the Church is urged to “walk (περιπαῆσαι) in a manner worthy (αξιῶς) of the calling you have received.”

Watching the Apostolic Fathers read Paul is a treat. Or rather, watching Paul write through the Apostolic Fathers is a treat ;-) In this one chapter, Polycarp has leveraged at the very least, 1 Cor 4-6, Eph 4-6, and Gal 5-6. And those are just the ones I found. This early bishop was clearly significantly shaped by Paul, both by his letters, and no doubt by the liturgy that developed from his work. We have a lot to learn from these guys!


2 thoughts on “On Paul and the Apostolic Fathers

  1. I just finished a class on the Greek Fathers and I will be taking on on the Apostolic Fathers next summer. These are exciting theologians to read indeed!

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