24 October 2018

Polycarp: John’s Disciple? (1999)


[Note written before 9:42 a.m. PDT on 24 October 1999]
I
 just got a couple of messages while I was online staring at the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Polycarp. I wonder whether religious types ever actually think about how their reasoning might appear to outsiders. One of the issues in the life of Polycarp is whether he was in some sense a disciple of John—presumably the John who was the brother of James and one of the inner three of the Twelve. One of the factors to consider is when Polycarp lived—or rather, in this case, the date of his death. (He was supposed to be 86 when he died—at least 86 actually—so if we have the date of his death, we have the date of his birth and hence the span of his life.) According to Eusebius Polycarp died in 166, so he must have been born in 80—which makes it difficult for him to have been a disciple of John, though he could have seen him maybe when a child. But wait—among a number of researchers (admittedly mostly conservative types, though that doesn't affect the argument) the date of 155 is favored for Polycarp’s death, based on the dates that various officials mentioned were in office, and so on. In this case Polycarp was born in 69, which makes it a lot easier to see how he could have been a disciple of John. But is this sound, or mere wishful thinking? There seem to me to be difficulties with both dates, and I see Helmut Koester simply has Polycarp martyred “after 160” which is probably about as much as can really be said, as the inconsistencies in the lines of evidence seem to me to show that either (a) we don’t know enough about the times various officials were in office to reach a conclusion, or (b) some of the data we are working with are simply inaccurate. Or both.
Anyway, the Catholic Encyclopedia article after reviewing the evidence as to date comes down on the side of 155 because “155 must be approximately correct if St. Polycarp was appointed bishop by St. John.” But this is the very point at issue! What I get from this is that the author was determined to reach this conclusion no matter what, and that the evidence presented is basically so much window dressing. And yet up till that point the argument followed an apparently impartial course. It kind of makes one wonder. [24 Oc 1999]

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