Did the Apostle John ever tell Polycarp the Empty Tomb Story?

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

Fundamentalist and conservative Christians claim that the Gospel of John was written by the Apostle John, son of Zebedee.  Non-Christian skeptics and even many moderate/liberal Christian scholars doubt this claim.

It is claimed by early Church Fathers that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was the disciple of the Apostle John.  Polycarp was executed as an old man in 155 AD.

One of the claims by Christian apologists that I desperately clung to as I saw my faith slipping away during my four month investigation in 2014 of the evidence for the claims of Christianity involved Polycarp.  As the disciple of John, one of the leading disciples of Jesus, surely John would have told Polycarp about his eyewitness experiences during the ministry of Jesus such as seeing Jesus walk on water on the Sea of Galilee, turn water into wine, raise Lazarus from the dead, witness the empty tomb, the appearances in the Upper Room and on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, the giving of the Great Commission, and the Ascension into heaven, right?  And Polycarp would have repeated this eyewitness testimony to other Christians, right?  And when Polycarp read the four gospels in the churches, he would have confirmed that the Apostle John had personally told him about all the stories contained in these books and that all the stories were true, right?  In addition, Polycarp would have confirmed that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John, right?  And that this Gospel accurately reflected the testimony about Jesus which he had directly heard from the eyewitness, John son of Zebedee, right?

But here are my questions, folks:  Do we have any evidence that Polycarp claimed that John wrote the Gospel of John?  Does Polycarp ever quote the Gospel of John?  If Polycarp’s alleged mentor, John the Apostle, had written the Gospel of John, wouldn’t Polycarp have been inclined to quote from this gospel?  Does Polycarp ever mention that John told him about an “Empty Tomb”, the smoking gun of modern Christian apologists for the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus?  And the biggest question of all:  Was Polycarp indeed a disciple of John the Apostle or is this yet another catholic tradition?  Read here for a discussion regarding why it is highly improbable that Polycarp was a disciple of John: Here are some excerpts:

There is absence of any reference to the connection between Polycarp and the apostle John in writings earlier than Irenaeus’ from Asia Minor. This is surprising because there were ample opportunities and many reasons for doing so.

…Ignatius (c35-c117), as we have seen above, passed through Asia Minor almost about the same time John was supposed to have died. Indeed while he was in Smyrna (Polycarp’s residence), he wrote a letter to Ephesus. If there is ever an occasion to talk about John (who according to Irenaeus appointed Polycarp bishop of Smyrna and lived in Ephesus until the “times of Trajan” (98-117)) this would be it. Yet he only mentioned the “apostle” Paul!

Again it strains credulity to think that Polycarp would have refrained from making any reference to John had he actually been appointed by the apostle.

…Thus with certainty we can say that there was an alternate tradition, that survived until the fourth century, in which there was no connection between Polycarp and the apostle John.

From our findings above we can conclude with some certainty that the tradition of Polycarp being a student of the apostle John and of his being appointed bishop of Smyrna by that son of Zebedee is spurious. This conclusion comes from the fact that there is no tradition earlier than Irenaeus (c 185) that makes that connection. The case is not just the lack of earlier witnesses but the fact that some of the earlier apostolic fathers (Ignatius and even Polycarp himself) had ample opportunities and reasons to bring this up in their writings but did not do so. This silence is unexplainable if the tradition had been historical. Furthermore we have very good reasons to believe that Irenaeus’ statements were made based on a confusion between two Johns, one the (deceased) apostle and the other an “elder” still living (probably in Palestine) during the early years of Polycarp. Finally we find evidence of an alternate tradition which does not connect Polycarp, nor the bishopric of Smyrna, with the apostle John.

Gary:  The only independent source we have for the Church’s claim that Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John comes from Irenaeus, the heresy hunter, writing at the end of the second century.  Why should we accept this man’s word on this issue as we know for a fact that he made other false claims, such as that Peter and Paul founded the church of Rome?  Another excerpt from the same article above:

We see above that Irenaeus claimed that both Peter and Paul founded the church in Rome:

Against Heresies 3:3:2

 “of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul”


Yet this is demonstrably untrue.

First let us look at the case of Paul. [a] We know from his epistle to the Romans, written around 57 CE, where Paul explained to his readers that the reason for his delay in visiting the city was that he “did not wish to build on another man’s foundation”: 

Romans 15:20-23

 Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation … This is the reason that I have been so often hindered from coming to you. But now with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you…

Gary:  The evidence strongly suggests that Irenaeus was either a very poor historian…or a liar.  And remember, Irenaeus is the first Church Father to proclaim the traditional authorship of the four gospels…at the end of the second century!  No earlier Church Father had ever attributed the four gospels to “Matthew”, “John Mark”, “Luke the physician”, or “John, son of Zebedee”.

I have not thoroughly investigated all these issues, but in my brief search regarding the writings of Polycarp and the statements of Irenaeus about Polycarp, I see no evidence that Polycarp believed that John wrote the Gospel of John; that John had mentioned anything to him about witnessing the Empty Tomb ; or even that Polycarp was the disciple of John the Apostle!

Below is a copy of Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians.  A modern translator and editor of this document has interpolated references to passages from Paul’s epistles and even from some of the Gospels which he believes Polycarp was quoting in his “epistle”.  Look to see if you see anything from the Gospel of John.  If any of my readers has evidence which demonstrates that Polycarp credited John with the authorship of the Gospel of John, quotes from the Gospel of John, or mentions the Empty Tomb Story, please let me know and comment below.

Polycarp's martyrdom
The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Document below copied fromNew Advent

Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians


Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi: Mercy to you, and peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, be multiplied.

Chapter 1. Praise of the Philippians

I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because you have followed the example of true love [as displayed by God], and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord; and because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days Philippians 1:5 long gone by, endures even until now, and brings forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave. In whom, though now you see Him not, you believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; 1 Peter 1:8 into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that by grace you are saved, not of works, Ephesians 2:8-9 but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.

Chapter 2. An exhortation to virtue

Wherefore, girding up your loins, 1 Peter 1:13; Ephesians 6:14 serve the Lord in fear and truth, as those who have forsaken the vain, empty talk and error of the multitude, and believed in Him who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory, 1 Peter 1:21 and a throne at His right hand. To Him all things 1 Peter 3:22; Philippians 2:10 in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. Acts 17:31 His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, 1 Peter 3:9 or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: Judge not, that you be not judged; Matthew 7:1 forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; Luke 6:36 with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again; Matthew 7:2; Luke 6:38 and once more, Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

Chapter 3. Expressions of personal unworthiness

These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom 2 Peter 3:15 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 which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, is the mother of us all. Galatians 4:26 For if any one be inwardly possessed of these graces, he has fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that has love is far from all sin.

Chapter 4. Various exhortations

But the love of money is the root of all evils. 1 Timothy 6:10 Knowing, therefore, that as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out, 1 Timothy 6:7 let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness; Ephesians 6:11 and let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord. Next, [teach] your wives [to walk] in the faith given to them, and in love and purity tenderly loving their own husbands in all truth, and loving all [others] equally in all chastity; and to train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God. Teach the widows to be discreet as respects the faith of the Lord, praying continually 1 Thessalonians 5:17 for all, being far from all slandering, evil-speaking, false-witnessing, love of money, and every kind of evil; knowing that they are the altar of God, that He clearly perceives all things, and that nothing is hid from Him, neither reasonings, nor reflections, nor any one of the secret things of the heart.

Chapter 5. The duties of deacons, youths, and virgins

Knowing, then, that God is not mocked, Galatians 6:7 we ought to walk worthy of His commandment and glory. In like manner should the deacons be blameless before the face of His righteousness, as being the servants of God and Christ, and not of men. They must not be slanderers, double-tongued, 1 Timothy 3:8 or lovers of money, but temperate in all things, compassionate, industrious, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who was the servant Matthew 20:28 of all. If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, we shall also reign together with Him, 2 Timothy 2:12 provided only we believe. In like manner, let the young men also be blameless in all things, being especially careful to preserve purity, and keeping themselves in, as with a bridle, from every kind of evil. For it is well that they should be cut off from the lusts that are in the world, since every lust wars against the spirit; 1 Peter 2:11 and neither fornicators, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, shall inherit the kingdom of God, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 nor those who do things inconsistent and unbecoming. Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ. The virgins also must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.

Chapter 6. The duties of presbyters and others

And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those that wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man; Romans 12:17; 2 Corinthians 8:31 abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against any one, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin. If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive; Matthew 6:12-14 for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself. Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10 Let us then serve Him 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.

Chapter 7. Avoid the Docetæ, and persevere in fasting and prayer

For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist; 1 John 4:3 and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from Jude 3 the beginning; watching unto prayer, 1 Peter 4:7 and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God not to lead us into temptation, Matthew 6:13; Matthew 26:41 as the Lord has said: The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak. Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38

Chapter 8. Persevere in hope and patience

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, 1 Peter 2:24 who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, 1 Peter 2:22 but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him. 1 John 4:9 Let us then be imitators of His patience; and if we suffer Acts 5:41; 1 Peter 4:16 for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him. For He has set us this example 1 Peter 2:21 in Himself, and we have believed that such is the case.

Chapter 9. Patience inculcated

I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run Philippians 2:16; Galatians 2:2 in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead.

Chapter 10. Exhortation to the practice of virtue

Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood, 1 Peter 2:17 and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another, and despising no one. When you can do good, defer it not, because alms delivers from death. Tobit 4:10Tobit 12:9 Be all of you subject one to another 1 Peter 5:5 having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles, 1 Peter 2:12 that you may both receive praise for your good works, and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But woe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed! Isaiah 52:5 Teach, therefore, sobriety to all, and manifest it also in your own conduct.

Chapter 11. Expression of grief on account of Valens

I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him [in the Church]. I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness, and that you be chaste and truthful. Abstain from every form of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others? If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen. But who of us are ignorant of the judgment of the Lord? Do we not know that the saints shall judge the world? 1 Corinthians 6:2 as Paul teaches. 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. I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and do not count such as enemies, 2 Thessalonians 3:15 but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body. For by so acting you shall edify yourselves. 1 Corinthians 12:26

Chapter 12. Exhortation to various graces

For I trust that you are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures, and that nothing is hid from you; but to me this privilege is not yet granted. It is declared then in these Scriptures, Be angry, and sin not, and, Let not the sun go down upon your wrath. Ephesians 4:26 Happy is he who remembers this, which I believe to be the case with you. 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, long-suffering, forbearance, and purity; and may He bestow on you a lot and portion among His saints, and on us with you, and on all that are under heaven, who shall believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Father, who raised Him from the dead. Galatians 1:1 Pray for all the saints. Pray also for kings, 1 Timothy 2:2 and potentates, and princes, and for those that persecute and hate you, Matthew 5:44 and for the enemies of the cross, that your fruit may be manifest to all, and that you may be perfect in Him.

Chapter 13. Concerning the transmission of epistles

Both you and Ignatius wrote to me, that if any one went [from this] into Syria, he should carry your letter with him; which request I will attend to if I find a fitting opportunity, either personally, or through some other acting for me, that your desire may be fulfilled. The Epistles of Ignatius written by him to us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] which we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are subjoined to this Epistle, and by them you may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord. Any more certain information you may have obtained respecting both Ignatius himself, and those that were with him, have the goodness to make known to us.

Chapter 14. Conclusion

These things I have written to you by Crescens, whom up to the present time I have recommended unto you, and do now recommend. For he has acted blamelessly among us, and I believe also among you. Moreover, you will hold his sister in esteem when she comes to you. Be safe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with you all. Amen.


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