The Apostolic Fathers is a term used to describe a group of Early Christian writings produced in the late 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century. These writings, though popular in Early Christianity, were ultimately not part of the New Testament once it reached its final form. Many of the writings derive from the same time period and geographical location as other works of early Christian literature that did come to be part of the final form of the New Testament, and some of the writings found among the "Apostolic Fathers" seem to have been just as highly regarded as some of the writings (that remained) in the New Testament.
Apostolic Fathers: Works included and use of the term
The following writings are generally grouped together as the "Apostolic Fathers":
- Letters attributed to Clement of Rome
- Letters attributed to Ignatius of Antioch
- Letter by and the martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna
- Fragments preserving statements by and about Papias of Hierapolis
- Shepherd of Hermas
- Epistle of Barnabas
- Epistle to Diognetus
The label "Apostolic Fathers" has been applied to these writings only since the 17th century, to indicate that they were thought of as representing the generation that had personal contact with the Twelve Apostles. 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 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.
Clement of Rome
Clement of Rome's first epistle, 1 Clement (c 96), 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, and it demonstrates the author's familiarity with many books of both the Old Testament and New Testament. The epistle repeatedly refers to the Old Testament as scripture 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. Tradition identifies the author as Clement, bishop of Rome, and scholarly consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of the letter's authenticity. Early church lists place him as the second or third bishop of Rome, although "there is no evidence for monarchical episcopacy in Rome at so early a date".
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 Clement. Whereas 1 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
Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus, Greek for God-bearer) (c 35–110) was bishop of Antioch. He may have known the Apostle John directly, and his thought is certainly influenced by the tradition associated with this Apostle. 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, and the nature of Biblical Sabbath. 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.
Polycarp of Smyrna
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" 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". 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 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. Church Father Irenaeus was one of his students. Polycarp is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
The Didache (Koine Greek: "Teaching") 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 but rejected as spurious or non-canonical by others, 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
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.
Character of the writings
The writings included among the Apostolic Fathers represent a variety of early Christian traditions across various cultural, ethnic, and linguistic lines. The traditions they represent hold the Jewish Scriptures to be inspired by God (unlike Marcionism) and that the Jewish prophets point to the actual flesh and blood of Jesus through which both Jew and Gentile are saved.
Use of the term
- ...[T]he expression ['Apostolic Fathers'] itself does not occur, so far as I have observed, until comparatively recent times. Its origin, or at least its general currency, should probably be traces to the idea of gathering together the literary remains of those who flourished in the age immediately succeeding the Apostles, and who presumably therefore were their direct personal disciples. This idea first took shape in the edition of Cotelier during the last half of the seventeenth century (A.D. 1672). Indeed such a collection would have been an impossibility a few years earlier. The first half of that century saw in print for the first time the Epistles of Clement (A.D. 1633), and of Barnabas (A.D. 1645), to say nothing of the original Greek of Polycarp's Epistle (A.D. 1633) and the Ignatian Letters in their genuine form (A.D. 1644, 1646). The materials therefore would have been too scanty for such a project at any previous epoch. In his title page however Cotelier does not use the actual expression, though he approximates to it, SS. Patrum qui temporibus Apostolicis floruerunt opera; but the next editor [Thomas] Ittig (1699), adopts as his title Patres Apostolici, and thenceforward it becomes common.
The first English translation was published in 1693, by William Wake (1657-1737), then Rector of St. James at Westminster, later (1716) Archbishop of Canterbury, titled, The Genuine Epistles of the Apostolical Fathers, St. Barnabas, St. Clement, St. Ignatius, St. Polycarp, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Martyrdoms of St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp written by Those who were Present at Their Sufferings. Since its publication - and it was virtually the only English translation available until the middle of the 19th century - a great many better manuscripts of the Apostolic Fathers have been discovered.
List of works
- The Epistle to Diognetus
- The First Epistle of Clement
- The Second Epistle of Clement (not actually written by Clement)
- The Didache
- The Epistle of Barnabas
- Seven Epistles of Ignatius (the longer forms of these Epistles, and those beyond the seven, are widely considered later emendations and forgeries)
- The Epistle of Polycarp
- The Martyrdom of Polycarp
- The Shepherd of Hermas
- Fragments of the writings of Papias, which have survived as quotations in later writers
- One short fragment of a writing by Quadratus of Athens (this does not appear in most editions before circa 1980)
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.
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
- Die Apostolischen Väter. Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1992 Andreas Lindemann and Henning Paulsen (German)
- Cf. Philip Schaff: The Apostolic Fathers, with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus
- Cross, F. L. & Livingstone E.A. eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church art. Apostolic Fathers, The Oxford University Press (1974)
- Some editors place the Epistle to Diognetus among the apologetic writings, rather than among the Apostolic Fathrers (Stevenson, J. A New Eusebius SPCK (1965) p. 400).
- See H.J. de Jonge: On the origin of the term "Apostolic Fathers"; but note now D. Lincicum, "The Paratextual Invention of the Term 'Apostolic Fathers'," Journal of Theological Studies (2015)
- Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972
- 1 Clement, Lightfoot translation, is 13, 316 words; Hebrews is only 7,300-400 words depending on translation.
- B. Metzger, Canon of the New Testament (Oxford University Press) 1987:43.
- Louth 1987:20; preface to both epistles in William Jurgens The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol 1", pp 6 and 42 respectively.
- "Clement of Rome, St." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
- 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.
- History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity, AD 100-325 - "Clement of Rome"
- Annuario Pontificio (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2008 ISBN 978-88-209-8021-4), p. 7*
- 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).
- "Ignatius, St." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
- Encyclopædia Britannica: Saint Ignatius of Antioch
- Eph 6:1, Mag 2:1,6:1,7:1,13:2, Tr 3:1, Smy 8:1,9:1
- Ignatius's Letter to the Magnesians 9: "Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner"
- Adversus haereses, 3:3:4
- Letter to Florinus, quoted in , Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, chapter 20.
- See Strong's G1322
- 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.
- 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
- J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, (1890, second ed., London, Macmillan & Co.) volume 1, page 3. See also, David Lincincum, The Paratextual Invention of the Term 'Apostolic Fathers', The Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. vol. 66, nr. 1 (April 2015) pages 139-148; H.J. de Jonge, On the Origin of the Term 'Apostolic Fathers', The Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. vol. 29, nr. 2 (Oct. 1978) pages 503-505.
- Wake's 1693 translation is still available to this day, reprinted in a volume (first published in 1820) now being sold under the title The Lost Books of the Bible, which is described at length in chapter 15 of Edgar J. Goodspeed, Modern Apocrypha (1956, Boston, Beacon Press).
- 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 2015-11-12.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Apostolic Fathers
- Apostolic Fathers in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- Apostolic Fathers in the Christian Cyclopedia
- SBL Apostolic Fathers Section