Did Polycarp Call Jesus God?

In Michael W. Holmes’ translation of Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians we read:

Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal high priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth and in all gentleness and in all freedom from anger and forbearance and steadfastness and patient endurance and purity, and may he give to you a share and a place among his saints, and to us with you, and to all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ (dominum nostrum et deum Iesum Christum) and in his Father who raised him from the dead. (The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 12.2, italics mine)

Holmes notes (see The Apostolic Fathers Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed., p. 294-95), many ancient authorities omit et deum/and God (both readings are pretty evenly distributed among the Latin MSS.), so I wonder which reading is original.  Upon my initial reading of the letter I have to conclude that Polycarp did not originally call Jesus God in this passage because this would deviate from the language that he maintains throughout.  He consistently calls Jesus “Lord” while referring to the Father as “God.”

  • God Almighty and Jesus Christ our Savior/θεοῦ παντοκράτορος καὶ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν (Salutation)
  • our Lord Jesus Christ/τῷ κυρίῳ ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χρισῷ (1.1)
  • God and our Lord/θεοῦ καὶ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν (1.1)
  • our Lord Jesus Christ […] whom God raised up/τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν […] ὃν ἤγειρεν ὁ θεός (1.2)
  • the will of God through Jesus Christ/θελήματι θεοῦ διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (1.3)
  • serve God […] who raised our Lord Jesus Christ/δουλεύσατε τῷ θεῷ  […]  ἐγείραντα τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν (2.1)
  • God and Christ/θεὸν καὶ Χριστὸν (3.3)
  • God and Christ/θεοῦ καὶ Χριστοῦ (5.2)
  • the Lord, who became servant of all/τοῦ κυρίου, ὃς ἐγένετο διάκονος πάντων (5.2)
  • God and Christ/θεῷ καὶ Χριστῷ (5.3)
  • the Lord and God/τοῦ κυρίου καὶ θεοῦ (6.2)
  • the Lord […] who died on our behalf and was raised by God for our sakes/τῷ κυρίῳ […] ὑπέρ ἡμῶν ἀποθανόντα καὶ δι’ ἡμᾶς ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναστάντα (9.2)
  • Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ/Deus autem et pater domini nostri Iesu Christi (12.2)
  • the Son of God Jesus Christ/dei filius Iesus Christus (12.2)
  • Lord Jesus Christ/domino Iesu Christo (14.1)

I have purposely left out references where “God” or “Lord” stood alone and were not distinguished from one another, or did not identify either the Father or the Son explicitly (although it is easy enough to surmise which person is in view with each use).  But I think the results are overwhelming that Polycarp called Jesus either “Lord” or “Christ” or both.  The consistent witness up until 12.2 was to the Lord who was raised by God, so I think it fairly obvious that Polycarp would have maintained this description in 12.2 without the addition of calling Jesus God.

But let us not be misled into thinking that Polycarp didn’t view Jesus as divine simply because he didn’t call him God.  We can see his recognition of Jesus as divine in his attitude and reverence for him.  In 6.2 we see Polycarp speaking of asking forgiveness from the Lord.  Mark 2:7 // Luke 5:21 immediately come to mind here.  Likewise, in 10:2 we find Polycarp exhorting the Philippians to maintain an irreproachable standard of conduct so that the Lord may not be blasphemed.  A chapter later in 11.4 he prays that the Lord grant Valens and his wife repentance (cf. 2Tim. 2:25).  Even in the original passage we examined Polycarp acknowledges the eternality of the Son calling him “the eternal high priest” (sempiternus pontifex).  I think it’s very clear that Polycarp held Jesus in the highest regard and on a plane equal to that of the Father.


5 thoughts on “Did Polycarp Call Jesus God?

  1. Good analysis. The difficulties that the early church had on issues like the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity can in many cases be attributed to the lack of a completed universal canon. Also, what scriptures they had were manuscripts of varying accuracy and quality only in the hands of a few and written in languages that few could understand. Further, the scriptures were being interpreted primarily by people coming from a pagan culture and mindset. Christians today that have the benefit of 2000 years of Christian tradition and can buy one of several Bible translations that virtually everyone agrees on do not have that excuse. The Bible does say that to more that are given, more is required. Contemporary Christians have been given so much more in terms of theological foundation and tools than the early church (save those that learned from Jesus Christ and the apostles first hand!) did, and we will be judged on the basis of what we received on judgment day.

  2. Hi Nick.

    Very interesting post.

    Does the Michael Holmes translation give any details or a list of the MSS that have “…et deum…” with exact dates etc?

    If it does could you please either do a follow up post or email them please?

    Thank you.

    Have a great day.

  3. Edward: The apparatus says:

    et deum Lrpmf] — Lovbct

    “L” is “the combined testimony of the Latin manuscripts” (277) whereas the other letters stand for individual MSS. The ] “separates the reading of the text (and its support) from variant readings.” (xxv)

    He does not list the dates for the manuscripts but he does note in the introduction that for this passage we’re “dependent on a Latin translation, preserved in nine manuscripts.” (277) There’s a footnote to Lightfoot’s Apostolic Fathers 2.1.550-51; 2.3.317-18 for details. I’d surmise that you might find dates for the MSS there. I hope that helps.

  4. Thank you Nick.

    Much appreciated.

    I don’t have any modern translations of the AF or ANF personally, so when I stumbled across your site it caught my attention.

    I would be interested to see on this reading in Polycarp chapter 12, what other modern translations of the Apostolic Fathers say, such as Bart Erhman etc, for comparison.

    I will look up Lightfoot and see what he has got to say. I am most interested to see if any new MSS evidence has come to light since Lightfoots time.

    Thank you very much.

    Have a great day.

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