The Preservation of the New Testament by the Church Fathers

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, praying towards the left with a crucifix, a rosary, a book, and a skull on the table in front of him

One of the more underrated aspects of the Christian tradition is the multiple early church leaders who were personally taught by the apostles of Jesus, who themselves carried the beliefs espoused in the biblical writings. This creates a lineage of the preservation of the New Testament without any gaps that go back to the events detailed in the New Testament. Among those early church leaders were Ignatius, Polycarp, and Irenaeus – all linked to the apostle John.

John was one of the apostles who was closest to Jesus. He was with Jesus the most. He was the only one at the foot of the cross after Jesus had been scourged and crucified and dying on the cross. This makes John an important link in transferring his knowledge and relaying his experiences with Jesus to those who would want to know. And it appears as though that’s what happened with Ignatius, Polycarp, and Irenaeus.

The succession of early church leaders and the transmission of the New Testament teachings
The succession of early church leaders and the transmission of the New Testament teachings

Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 35-110)

Ignatius converted to Christianity at a young age. He was a disciple of the apostle John and friends with Polycarp who became his disciple.

Ignatius’ Importance for the New Testament

He was apparently eager to counteract the teachings of two heretical sects — the Judaizers, who did not accept the authority of the New Testament, and the Docetists, who held that Christ’s sufferings and death were apparent but not real.

He is known mainly from seven highly regarded letters he wrote during a trip to Rome as a prisoner condemned to be executed for his beliefs during a persecution of the Antioch church. His death in the Roman arena is recorded by Irenaeus, Polycarp’s disciple.

Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.36) places Ignatius’ martyrdom in the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117). This is typically held to be c. AD 110. Later in his life, he was chosen to serve as the Bishop of Antioch, Syria, succeeding Saint Peter and St. Evodius (who died around A.D. 67). The early Church historian, Eusebius, records that Ignatius succeeded Evodius IEusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, II.iii.22.. Making his apostolic succession even more immediate, Theodoret of Cyrrhus reported that St. Peter himself appointed Ignatius. IITheodoret of Cyrrhus, Dial. Immutab., I, iv, 33a.

Role: Bishop of Antioch
Disciple of: Apostle John
Friends: Polycarp
Death: Martyred by being thrown to wild animals in the Colosseum, his remains were carried back to Antioch by his companions.

Polycarp (c. AD 69-155)

Polycarp was instructed by the Apostle John, who wrote the Gospel of John.

Polycarp was a Greek who became bishop of Smyrna, refused to recant his Christian faith, and was burned to death.

Polycarp’s Importance for the New Testament

Polycarp may be the most important figure to have maintained and verified many of the facts communicated in the New Testament. In his Epistle to the Philippians, most likely written between AD 100 and 150, Polycarp lays to rest many of the modern claims that core Christian beliefs were a later fabrication or evolved as a matter of reflection layering onto the truth by age and distance from the original events. For example,

Jesus is shown to have divine authority and ultimate judgment of man

“believed in Him who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory,” and a throne at His right hand. To Him all things” in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him.” IIIPolycarp, An Epistle to the Philippians, 2:1

Paul is confirmed to have written the Epistle to the Philippians

“For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith” IVIbid, 3:2

Polycarp also reconfirms the core Christian doctrine of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone

“In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;” into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that “by grace ye are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” VIbid, 1:3

Christ’s atonement of our sins by His death on the cross

“Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, “who bore our sins in His own body on the tree,” “who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,” but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him.” VIIbid, 8:1

He also exhorts believers to stay away from heresy, which was apparently already a threat to the core Christian doctrines:

“Let us then serve Him [Christ] in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us]. Let us be zealous in the pursuit of that which is good, keeping ourselves from causes of offense, from false brethren, and from those who in hypocrisy bear the name of the Lord, and draw away vain men into error.” VIIIbid, 6:3

Interestingly, Polycarp also alludes to the fact that the Philippians had seen Paul and the apostles and had witnessed with their own eyes the example of righteousness and patience set by them, 

“I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as ye have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles.” VIIIIbid, 9:1

Apparently, Paul and some of the apostles had visited Philippi and were direct witnesses to the church there. Not only this, but Polycarp also confirms that Paul “commended at the beginning of his Epistle”IXIbid, 11:3 those Christians in Philippi. 

Lastly, but certainly not least, Polycarp verifies the core Christian doctrine of the deity of Jesus by stating,

“But may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting High Priest, build you up in faith and truth, and in all meekness, gentleness, patience, longsuffering, forbearance, and purity; and may He bestow on you a lot and portion among His saints, and on us with you, and on all who are under heaven, who shall believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Father, who “raised Him from the dead.”” XIbid, 12:2

Polycarp’s run-on reference to God as “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting High Priest” is a fairly decent reference to the deity of Jesus, a doctrinal truth already well established by the date of the writing of the epistle.

In this epistle, Polycarp also makes 112 Biblical reminiscences, out of which 100 are from the New Testament (Gospel according to Matthew, Gospel according to Mark, Gospel according to Luke, Acts, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Hebrews, I Peter, I John, III John).

Polycarp was friends with Ignatius and Irenaeus, who regarded Polycarp’s memory as a link to the apostolic past. He relates how and when he became a Christian, and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard Polycarp personally in lower Asia. In particular, he heard the account of Polycarp’s discussion with “John the Presbyter” and others who had seen Jesus. Irenaeus also reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a bishop, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the very great age of Polycarp.

This is also later (maybe 20 years later) essentially confirmed by Tertullian:

“Anyhow, the heresies are, at best, novelties and have no continuity with the teaching of Christ. Perhaps some heretics may claim Apostolic antiquity: we reply: Let them publish the origins of their churches and unroll the catalog of their bishops till now from the Apostles or from some bishop appointed by the Apostles, as the Smyrnaeans count from Polycarp and John, and the Romans from Clement and Peter; let heretics invent something to match this (Tertullian. Liber de praescriptione haereticorum. Circa 200 A.D. as cited in Chapman J. Transcribed by Lucy Tobin. Tertullian. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Copyright © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).”

Irenaeus was Polycarp’s disciple, and he tells us that,

“Polycarp was instructed by the apostles and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ” XIAdversus Haereses, iii. 3 

Irenaeus also mentions Polycarp in his letter to Pope Victor: 

“And when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus, although a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points, they were at once well inclined towards each other [with regard to the matter in hand], not willing that any quarrel should arise between them upon this head. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church, both those who did observe [this custom] and those who did not.” XIIEusebius, Hist. Eccl., iv. 14

The aforementioned passage was preserved by Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., iv. 14. There is also a reference to Polycarp’s epistles provided by Irenaeus in his Epistle to Florinus, adding to the authenticity of Polycarp’s epistles, namely the Epistle to the Philippians. This was also preserved by Eusebius. It ends with the following:

“And this can be shown plainly from the letters which he sent, either to neighboring churches for their confirmation, or to some of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.” XIIIHist. Eccl., v. 20

Jerome provides the following summary in Illustrious Men 17:

“Polycarp disciple of the apostle John and by him ordained bishop of Smyrna was chief of all Asia, where he saw and had as teachers some of the apostles and of those who had seen the Lord. He, on account of certain questions concerning the day of the Passover, went to Rome in the time of the emperor Antoninus Pius while Anicetus ruled the church in that city. There he led back to the faith many of the believers who had been deceived through the persuasion of Marcion and Valentinus, and when. Marcion met him by chance and said “Do you know us” he replied, “I know the firstborn of the devil.” Afterwards during the reign of Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus in the fourth persecution after Nero, in the presence of the proconsul holding court at Smyrna and all the people crying out against him in the Amphitheater, he was burned. He wrote a very valuable Epistle to the Philippians which is read to the present day in the meetings in Asia.”

Role: Bishop of Smyrna
Disciple of: Apostle John (is referred to as another “hearer of John” as Irenaeus interprets Papias’ testimony). But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna…always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. III, Chapter 4, Verse 3 and Chapter 3, Verse 4).
Friends: Ignatius (from a reference from his own epistle to the Philippians) , Papias ( Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, V.xxxiii)
Death: Martyred. Burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor.
Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, “Eighty and six years I have served him,” () which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old or that he may have lived eighty-six years after his conversion.[2] Polycarp goes on to say, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.” Polycarp was burned at the stake for refusing to renounce Christ and burn incense to the Roman Emperor.[12] The date of Polycarp’s death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, c. 166 – 167. However, a post-Eusebian addition to the Martyrdom of Polycarp dates his death to Saturday, February 23, in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus — which works out to be 155 or 156. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist.

The following account of Polycarp’s martyrdom is from the Epistle from the Church at Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium:

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, Have respect to your old age, and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists. But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, Away with the Atheists. Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ; Polycarp declared, Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?

And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, Swear by the fortune of Cæsar, he answered,

“Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Cæsar, and pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them.”

The proconsul replied, Persuade the people. But Polycarp said,

“To you, I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1 But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me.”

The proconsul then said to him, I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.

But he answered, Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.

But again, the proconsul said to him, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.

But Polycarp said, You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.”

Epistle from the Church at Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium

Irenaeus (c. AD 130–202)

Irenaeus was born in Smyrna. He was the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of the apostle John. Not much is known about the life of Irenause, but we do have some very important highlights. At some point, he moved to what is modern-day France. In 177 AD, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius ordered a violent persecution of Christians in France, but Irenaeus escaped to Rome. Irenaeus returned to France after the persecution had subsided, and he was made bishop of Lyons in 178 AD, replacing the previous bishop, who had died or been killed in the persecution.

Irenaeus’ Importance for the New Testament

Irenaeus is best known for his works Against Heresies and Proof of Apostolic Preaching. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus launched an attack on the early heresy of Gnosticism to protect the Christians against the false teaching. The work was extremely important both in terms of the protection of the Christians against the Gnostic error and as a form of transmission of the details of the belief system itself. Before 1945 (discovery of the Nag Hammadi library), everything we knew about Gnosticism was preserved for us by Irenaeus.

Gnostics denied Christ’s true humanity and taught that the human body was evil. Perhaps his most important contribution was the theory of recapitulation, which emphasizes Christ’s true humanity as the one who undoes Adam’s fall and fulfills all that God intended for mankind.

Often unrealized, but of supreme importance is the fact that Irenaeus quoted from every New Testament book except 3 John well before the biblical canon was officially defined. This clearly shows that the ancient church accepted the authority of the New Testament writings and clearly refutes the notion that the cannon evolved through centuries.

Role: Bishop of Lyons
Disciple of: Polycarp
Death: Some sources indicate that he was martyred, but we do not have enough evidence to determine the actual events surrounding his death.

References

References
I Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, II.iii.22.
II Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Dial. Immutab., I, iv, 33a.
III Polycarp, An Epistle to the Philippians, 2:1
IV Ibid, 3:2
V Ibid, 1:3
VI Ibid, 8:1
VII Ibid, 6:3
VIII Ibid, 9:1
IX Ibid, 11:3
X Ibid, 12:2
XI Adversus Haereses, iii. 3
XII Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., iv. 14
XIII Hist. Eccl., v. 20
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