Some claim that according to Polycarp, the Christians at Smyrna (one of the seven churches of Asia addressed in Revelation) had not known the Lord at the time of Paul’s ministry, which ended with his death (c. 66).
If the church in Smyrna wasn’t in existence during Paul’s lifetime (which ended around 66), then Revelation could not have been written around AD 65.
Polycarp does not, however, state that the church in Smyrna did not exist during Paul’s ministry. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he only claimed that the church in Smyrna didn’t exist at the time when Paul wrote to the Philippians:
But I have neither seen nor heard of any such thing among you, in the midst of whom the blessed Paul laboured, and who are commended in the beginning of his Epistle. For he boasts of you in all those Churches which alone then knew the Lord; but we [of Smyrna] had not yet known Him. (Polycarp, ad Phil. 11.3).
Thus, Paul wrote to the Philippians, he boasted to other churches of them at that time (see Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-2; 11:9), and at that time the church at Smyrna did not yet exist.
This raises two questions:
i. When did Paul write Philippians?
ii. When was the church at Smyrna founded?
When did Paul write to the Philippians?
Traditionally, it has been thought that Paul wrote his prison letters (Colossians Ephesians Philemon, and Philippians) from Rome, during Paul’s first imprisonment in the city. Philippians has consequently usually been dated between AD 59 and 63.
Thus, on this basis, Revelation could have been written anytime after AD 59, without necessarily contradicting Polycarp’s statement.
When did Smyrna Believe?
The answer to the second question is perhaps provided by Acts 19:10, which states that “all Asia” heard the gospel when Paul was residing in the city from 52-55 AD. Smyrna was one of the three foremost cities of Asia Minor, alongside Ephesus and Pergamum, and so there is a good likelihood–if Acts is accurately recording history–that residents of the city would have heard the gospel at this time.
Mark Hitchcock, arguing for the late date, counters that there is no proof that a church was founded in Smyrna during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (The End Times Controversy, p.147). But if “all Asia” heard, it is likely that there were at least some converts from that prominent city of approximately 100,000 residents.
During this Ephesian ministry, Paul sent his co-workers to other cities in Asia, such as Epaphras, who converted the Colossians (Col 1:6-7). Furthermore, when Paul wrote to the church at Corinth in around the year 55, he sent them greetings from “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), showing that there must have been a number of churches in the region. This period would therefore seem a likely context for some at Smyrna to have first come to know the Lord.
Was Polycarp Mistaken?
If converts were made in Smyrna at the time that “all Asia” heard the gospel (AD 53-55), why did Polycarp state that those in Smyrna had not yet known the Lord when Paul wrote to the Philippians, which is usually placed sometime between AD 59 and 63?
Is the Acts narrative mistaken, or was Polycarp wrong?
Perhaps neither. A growing number of New Testament scholars now believe that Paul’s prison letters (such as Philippians) were written during an Ephesian imprisonment during his ministry in the city (c. 52–55 AD).
There is early evidence for this. The Marcionite Prologue to the Colossians (c. AD 200) claims that Paul wrote to the Colossians (written during the same imprisonment, if Pauline authorship is accepted) from Ephesus.
And the Life of Polycarp by Pionius (usually dated to the second half of the fourth century) also seems to presuppose that there were already established believers in Smyrna during Paul’s lifetime.
It speaks of a time when Paul arrived in Smyrna from Galatia during the days of unleavened bread, and spent time with the Christians who were (already) in the city, before departing for Jerusalem. In Smyrna he visits Strataeas, who had heard him in Pamphylia, and who is said to to be son of Eunice and Lois, and brother of Timothy (Vit. Pion. 2); it adds that he succeeded to Paul’s teaching upon his departure (Vit. Pion. 3). The work seems to be missing material, and its historical worth is questionable, but it may preserve early traditions of Paul’s movements.
Such a journey cannot be fitted into the Acts narrative, but it may have been placed within the context of Paul’s travels between his first and second Roman imprisonment, or in the early 60s.
It can be noted that the Apostolic Constitutions claims that a Strataeas, the son of Lois, was the second bishop of the city, after Aristo (Aristion, the disciple of the Lord mentioned by Papias?) (Apost. Const. 7.46).
It is unlikely that Polycarp had a detailed knowledge of the chronology of Paul’s letters, but a knowledge of pivotal events surrounding Paul’s Ephesian ministry might explain his precise chronology: It was during the Ephesian imprisonment that Paul wrote to the Philippians, but it was immediately after his release from prison that a great work of ministry in Ephesus commenced which culminated, by the end of Paul’s stay in the city, with all of the region (including Smyrna) having heard the gospel.
The discussion can fittingly be concluded with the words of John A. T. Robinson: on the matter:
One objection however can be dismissed, which is constantly repeated from one writer to another. This is that Polycarp in his epistle to the Philippians (11 .3) states that his own church at Smyrna had not been founded till after the death of Paul – so that it could not therefore be addressed as it is in Rev. 2.8-11 as early as the late 60s. But, as Lighfoot observed long ago, all that Polycarp actually says is that “the Philippians were converted to the Gospel before the Smyrnaens – a statement which entirely accords with the notices of the two churches in the New Testament.” It is astonishing that so much has continued to be built on so little.Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 229-230.
- See, e.g. Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1987), 40; Mark Hitchcock, “The Stake in the Heart—The AD 95 Date of Revelation,” in The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 147.
- Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1998), 74