Apostolic Fathers

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The Apostolic Fathers are a small number of Early Christian authors who lived and wrote in the second half of the 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century.[1][2] They are acknowledged as leaders in the early church, although their writings were not included in the New Testament. They include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, the author of the Didache, and the author of the Shepherd of Hermas.

The label "Apostolic Fathers" has been applied to them since the 17th century to indicate that they were thought of as being of the generation that had personal contact with the Twelve Apostles. Thus they provide a link between the Apostles—who had personal contact with Jesus—and the later generations of Church Fathers, which includes the Christian apologists, defenders of orthodoxy, and developers of doctrine.

Apostolic Fathers and their works[edit]

The following are considered to be "Apostolic Fathers":[3] Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas, Polycarp of Smyrna and Papias along with the unknown authors of the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle to Diognetus,[n 1] 2 Clement and the Didache.

Clement of Rome[edit]

Main article: Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome's first epistle, 1 Clement (c 96),[4] was copied and widely read and is generally considered to be the oldest Christian epistle in existence outside of the New Testament. The letter is extremely lengthy, twice as long as the Epistle to the Hebrews,[5] and it demonstrates the author's familiarity with many books of both the Old Testament and New Testaments. The epistle repeatedly refers to the Old Testament as scripture[6] and includes numerous references to the Book of Judith thereby establishing usage or at least familiarity with Judith in his time. Within the letter, Clement calls on the Christians of Corinth to maintain harmony and order.[4] Tradition identifies the author as St. Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome (third after Saint Peter), and scholarly consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of the letter's authenticity.[7] Early church lists place him as the second or third[8][9] or as possibly the immediate successor[10][11] of Saint Peter as bishop of Rome, although another very recent source states that "there is no evidence for monarchical episcopacy in Rome at so early a date".[8]

Second Clement was traditionally ascribed to St. Clement of Rome, but it is now generally considered to have been written later, c 140–160, and therefore could not be the work of St. Clement. Whereas First Clement was an epistle, 2 Clement appears to be a transcript of an oral homily or sermon, making it the oldest existing Christian sermon outside of the New Testament.

Ignatius of Antioch[edit]

Main article: Ignatius of Antioch

Saint Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus, Greek for God-bearer) (c 35–110)[12] was bishop of Antioch.[13] He may have known the Apostle John directly, and his thought is certainly influenced by the tradition associated with this Apostle.[14] En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of the theology of the earliest Christians. Important topics addressed in these letters include ecclesiology, the sacraments, the role of bishops,[15] and the nature of Biblical Sabbath.[16] He clearly identifies the local-church hierarchy composed of bishop, presbyters, and deacons and claims to have spoken in some of the churches through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He is the second after Clement to mention Paul's epistles.[4]

Polycarp of Smyrna[edit]

Main article: Polycarp

Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (c 69–ca. 155) was a Christian bishop of Smyrna (now İzmir in Turkey). Irenaeus wrote that "Polycarp also was not only instructed by the apostles, and conversed with many who had seen the Lord, but was also appointed bishop by apostles in Asia and in the church in Smyrna"[17] and that he himself had, as a boy, listened to "the accounts which (Polycarp) gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord".[18] The options for this John are John the son of Zebedee, traditionally viewed as the author of the Fourth Gospel, or John the Presbyter (Lake 1912). Traditional advocates follow Eusebius in insisting that the apostolic connection of Papius was with John the Evangelist, and that this John, the author of the Gospel of John, was the same as the Apostle John. Polycarp, c 156, tried and failed to persuade Anicetus, Bishop of Rome, to have the West celebrate Easter on 14 Nisan, as in the East. He rejected the Bishop's suggestion that the East use the Western date. In 155, the Smyrnans demanded Polycarp's execution as a Christian, and he died a martyr. His story has it that the flames built to kill him refused to burn him, and that when he was stabbed to death, so much blood issued from his body that it quenched the flames around him.[4] Church Father Irenaeus was one of his students. Polycarp is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.


Main article: Didache

The Didache (Koine Greek: "Teaching"[19]) is a brief early Christian treatise, dated anywhere from as early as AD 50 to the early 2nd century. It contains instructions for Christian communities. The text, parts of which may have constituted the first written catechism, has three main sections dealing with Christian lessons, rituals such as baptism and eucharist, and church organization. It was considered by some of the Church Fathers as part of the New Testament[20] but rejected as spurious or non-canonical by others,[21] Scholars knew of the Didache through references in other texts, but the text itself had been lost. It was rediscovered in 1873.

Shepherd of Hermas[edit]

Main article: Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century) was popular in the early church and even considered scriptural by some of the early Church fathers, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. It was written in Rome in the Greek language. The Shepherd had great authority in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The work comprises five visions, twelve mandates, and ten parables. It relies on allegory and pays special attention to the church, calling the faithful to repent of the sins that have harmed it.

Apostolic authority[edit]

St. Polycarp, depicted with a book as a symbol of his writings.

The "Apostolic Fathers" are distinguished from other Christian authors of this same period in that their practices and theology largely fell within those developing traditions of Pauline Christianity or Proto-orthodox Christianity that became the mainstream. They represent a tradition of early Christianity shared by many different churches across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences. The tradition they represent holds the Jewish Scriptures to be inspired by God (against Marcionism) and holds that the Jewish prophets point to the actual flesh and blood of Jesus through which both Jew and Gentile are saved. Furthermore, they present the picture of an organized church made up of many different cross-cultural, sister churches sharing one apostolic tradition. Their ecclesiology, rejection of some Judaic values, and emphasis upon the historical nature of Jesus Christ stand in stark contrast to the various ideologies of more paganized Christianities, on the one hand, and more Jewish Christianities on the other.[22] They speak of certain other views as heterodoxy or heresy.[23]

Other texts written much later are not considered apostolic writings. They were actively denounced from the very beginning by men such as Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, and the writer of the canonical First Epistle of John as being "anti-christ" and contrary to the tradition received from the apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. The texts presenting alternative Christianities were then actively suppressed in the following centuries and many are now "lost" works, the contents of which can only be speculated.

The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are in a number of genres, some, e.g. the writings of Clement of Rome are letters (also called epistles), others relate historical events, e.g. the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and one (the Didache) is a guide for ethical and liturgical practice.

Apostolic connection[edit]

The early church relied on apostolic authority in separating orthodox from unorthodox works, teachings, and practices. The four Gospels were each assigned, directly or indirectly to an apostle,[24] as were certain other New Testament books. Earlier church fathers were also associated with apostles: Clement with Peter (associated closely with Rome) and with Paul (as the Clement Paul wrote about in Philippians 4:3), Papias and Polycarp with John (associated with Asia Minor). Due to various overlaps between the writings that later were included into the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the latter ones have drawn an increasing attention of the New Testament scholarship.[25]

Origin of term[edit]

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the use of the term "Apostolic Fathers" can be traced to a 1672 title of Jean-Baptiste Cotelier, his SS. Patrum qui temporibus apostolicis floruerunt opera ("Works of the holy fathers who flourished in the apostolic times"), which title was abbreviated to Bibliotheca Patrum Apostolicorum by L. J. Ittig in his edition (Leipzig, 1699) of the same writings. Since then the term has been universally used, especially by Roman Catholic writers.

Opposition to term[edit]

Not all Christians employ the term "Apostolic Fathers". The authority resonant in the phrase suggests that these writers provide the authentic historical connections to the apostolic generation. For those Christians for whom Church tradition is of comparable weight with Scripture, this is a helpful apologetic trope, and thus a possible motivation for its use. Christians who believe that a Great Apostasy took place early in the church's history are particularly unlikely to employ this term. In Protestant theology the term "Apostolic Fathers" is also less used and the writings are less frequently studied (but see Paleo-Orthodoxy), leaving more room for hermeneutic variance from these 1st- and early 2nd-century Christian leaders' perspective.

Works by these authors that are missing today[edit]

Only some writings by these church leaders are extant. Other writings did not survive and exist only as references, in quotations and excerpts, or as literal fragments of parchment or papyrus. These other writings, being alleged quotes from the apostolic fathers, are often stylistically different and sometimes address issues not addressed in the canonical New Testament and the extant writings of the apostolic fathers.

Works by contemporaneous authors not considered Apostolic Fathers[edit]

The writings from the early Christian tradition during the time of the Roman Empire that are not classed in those of the Apostolic Fathers include the writings of the desposyni, the apocrypha (including apocryphal gospels), much of the pseudepigrapha, and the writings of unorthodox leaders, or heretics such as Marcion, an anti-Judaic thinker, and Valentinius, a gnostic. The apocryphal gospels and pseudepigrapha are, for the most part, later writings that seem to have less historical accuracy than the canonical scriptures. Most of these writings depict a Christianized form of paganism as opposed to a Christianized form of Judaism. For the part of the heretics, much of what is known about them comes from the Apostolic Fathers' and Church Fathers' arguments against them; this information was once thought to be highly inaccurate due to the biases of these church writers. In light of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, however, most of the information about these groups as expressed by early church fathers can be validated as being incomplete and biased, but quite accurate.

Relationship to orthodoxy[edit]

Within the Pauline tradition, but after the time of the Apostolic Fathers proper, some authors addressed their works to people beyond the Christian community and defended the Christian religion against paganism, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. These are considered Apologists. A small number of other authors, now only known in fragments, such as Papias and Hegesippus, were more concerned with the apostolic continuity of the individual churches and their histories. Although some of the minor opinions expounded by the Apostolic Fathers are no longer considered entirely orthodox, their writings provide important data regarding a strain of early Christianity which remains largely true to its Jewish roots while including both non-Jewish and Jewish believers as being viable members of the organized church they depict.

List of works[edit]

Most or all of these works were originally written in Greek. Older English translations of these works can be found online in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. Published English translations have also been made by various scholars of early Christianity, such as J.B. Lightfoot, Kirsopp Lake, Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes.[26]

Greek text editions:

  • The Apostolic Fathers. Vol. 1. I Clement. II Clement. Ignatius. Polycarp. Didache. Barnabas. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912 Kirsopp Lake
  • The Apostolic Fathers. Vol. 2. Shepherd of Hermas. Martyrdom of Polycarp. Epistle to Diogentus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913 Kirsopp Lake
  • The Apostolic Fathers. Vol. 1. I Clement. II Clement. Ignatius. Polycarp. Didache. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003 Bart Ehrman (replaced Lake)
  • The Apostolic Fathers. Vol. 2. Epistle of Barnabas. Papias and Quadratus. Epistle to Diognetus. The Shepherd of Hermas. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005 Bart Ehrman (replaced Lake)
  • The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007 Michael Holmes
  • Standard Critical Text: Die Apostolischen Väter. Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1992 Andreas Lindemann and Henning Paulsen (German)


  1. ^ The dating of this work is uncertain and some authors place it among the apologetic writings of the following generation (Stevenson, J. A New Eusebius SPCK (1965) p. 400).


  1. ^ Cf. Philip Schaff: The Apostolic Fathers, with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus
  2. ^ The earliest known use of the term "Apostolic(al) Fathers" was by William Wake, in 1693, when he was chaplain in ordinary to King William and Queen Mary of England; see H.J. de Jonge: On the origin of the term "Apostolic Fathers"
  3. ^ Cross, F. L. & Livingstone E.A. eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church art. Apostolic Fathers, The Oxford University Press (1974)
  4. ^ a b c d Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972
  5. ^ 1 Clement, Lightfoot translation, is 13, 316 words; Hebrews is only 7,300-400 words depending on translation.
  6. ^ B. Metzger, Canon of the New Testament (Oxford University Press) 1987:43.
  7. ^ Louth 1987:20; preface to both epistles in William Jurgens The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol 1", pp 6 and 42 respectively.
  8. ^ a b "Clement of Rome, St." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  9. ^ The Catholic Encyclopedia says that no critic now doubts that the names Cletus and Anacletus in lists that would make Clement the fourth successor of Saint Peter refer to the one person, not two.
  10. ^ History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity, AD 100-325 - "Clement of Rome"
  11. ^ Annuario Pontificio (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2008 ISBN 978-88-209-8021-4), p. 7*
  12. ^ See "Ignatius" in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, ed. Jerald Brauer (Philadelphia:Westminster, 1971) and also David Hugh Farmer, "Ignatius of Antioch" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Saints (New York:Oxford University Press, 1987).
  13. ^ "Ignatius, St." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  14. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: Saint Ignatius of Antioch
  15. ^ Eph 6:1, Mag 2:1,6:1,7:1,13:2, Tr 3:1, Smy 8:1,9:1
  16. ^ Ignatius's Letter to the Magnesians 9: "Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner"
  17. ^ Adversus haereses, 3:3:4
  18. ^ Letter to Florinus, quoted in [1], Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, chapter 20.
  19. ^ See Strong's G1322
  20. ^ Apostolic Constitutions "Canon 85" (approved at the Orthodox Synod of Trullo in 692); Rufinus, Commentary on Apostles Creed 37 (as Deuterocanonical) c. 380; John of Damascus Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith 4.17; and the 81-book canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which includes the Didascalia which is based on the Didache.
  21. ^ Athanasius, Festal Letter 39 (excludes them from the canon, but recommends them for reading) in 367; Rejected by 60 Books Canon and by Nicephorus in Stichometria
  22. ^ Even Jewish Christianity accepted gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem, see also Circumcision controversy in early Christianity#Jewish background
  23. ^ Jostein Ådna (editor), The Formation of the Early Church (Mohr Siebeck 2005 ISBN 978-316148561-9), p. 342
  24. ^ Mark to Peter's interpreter, Luke to Paul's companion, and Matthew and John directly to apostles.
  25. ^ See A. Gregory & C. Tuckett (eds.), The New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, 2005, Oxford, 2 volume set
  26. ^ For a review of the most recent editions of the Apostolic Fathers and an overview of the current state of scholarship, see Timothy B. Sailors, "Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Review of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations". Retrieved 2014-01-24. 

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