Apostolic Fathers

From BiblePortal Wikipedia

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography [1]

Apostolic Fathers. Definition of the Term.—The adjective Apostolicus (ἀποστολικός) is used to denote either morally or doctrinally accordance with the Apostles or historically connexion with the Apostles. In this latter sense it is especially applied to churches founded directly by Apostles or to persons associated with and taught by Apostles. The former are Apostolicae ecclesiae; the latter Apostolici viri or Apostolici simply. See especially Tertull. de Praescr. 32 "ut primus ille episcopus aliquem ex apostolis vel apostolicis viris qui tamen cum apostolis perseveravit habuerit auctorem et antecessorem. Hoc enim modo ecclesiae apostolicae census suos deferunt sicut Smyrnaeorum ecclesia Polycarpum ab Joanne collocatum refert sicut Romanorum Clementem a Petro ordinatum itidem," with the whole context. Cf. also de Praescr. 20 21; adv. Marc. i. 21 v. 2; de Carn. Chr. 2; de Pudic. 21. Hence among the Evangelists while St. Matthew and St. John are Apostoli St. Mark and St. Luke are Apostolici (adv. Marc. iv. 2). In accordance with this usage the term Apostolic Fathers is confined to those who are known or may reasonably be presumed to have associated with and derived their teaching directly from some Apostle. In its widest range it will include Barnabas Hermas Clemens Ignatius Polycarp Papias and the writer of the epistle to Diognetus. Some of these fail to satisfy the conditions which alone entitle to a place among the works of the Apostolic Fathers. Thus the "Shepherd" of Hermas has been placed in this category because it was supposed to have been written by the person of this name mentioned by St. Paul (Rom_16:14; see Origen ad loc. Op. iv. 683); but a more authentic tradition ascribes it to the brother of Pius who was bp. of Rome a little before the middle of 2nd cent. (Canon. Murat. p. 58 ed. Tregelles; see pseudo-Tertull. Poem. adv. Marc. iii. 294 in Tertull. Op. ii. 792 ed. Oehler). Thus again the claim of Papias to be considered an Apostolic Father rests on the supposition that he was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist as Irenaeus apparently imagines (Haer. v. 33 § 4); but Eusebius says that Irenaeus was mistaken and that the teacher of Papias was not the Apostle St. John but the presbyter of the same name (H. E. iii. 39). Again there is some uncertainty about the Epistle to Diognetus. Its claim is founded on an expression which occurs in § 11 and which has been interpreted literally as implying that the writer was a personal disciple of one or other of the Apostles. But in the first place the context shews that this literal interpretation is out of place and the passage must be explained as follows: "I do not make any strange statements nor indulge in unreasonable questionings but having learnt my lessons from the Apostles (lit. having become a disciple of Apostles) I stand forward as a teacher of the nations"; and secondly this is no part of the Ep. to Diognetus proper (§§ 1–10) but belongs to a later writing which has been accidentally attached to the Epistle owing to the loss of some leaves in the MS. This latter fact is conclusive. If therefore the Epistle has any title to a place among the Apostolic Fathers it must be established by internal evidence; and though the internal character suggests an early date perhaps as early as about A.D. 117 (see Westcott Canon p. 79) yet there is no hint of any historical connexion between the writer and the Apostles. Lastly the so-called Ep. of Barnabas occupies an unique position. If the writer had been the companion of St. Paul who bore that name then he would more properly be styled not an "apostolic man," as he is designated by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. ii. 20 p. 489 ὁ ἀποστολικὸς Βαρνάβας) but an "apostle," as the same Clement elsewhere styles him (Strom. ii. 6 p. 445; ii. 7 p. 447) in accordance with St. Luke's language (Act_14:14). But if the writer be not the Apostle Barnabas then we have no evidence of any personal relations with the Apostles though such is not impossible as the Epistle must have been written at some date between the age of Vespasian and that of Nerva. Three names remain Clement Ignatius and Polycarp about which there is no reasonable ground for hesitation.

All the genuine writings of these three Apostolic Fathers are epistolary in form, modelled more or less after the pattern of the Canonical Epistles, especially those of St. Paul, and called forth by pressing temporary needs. In no case is any literary motive prominent. A famous teacher writes in the name of the community over which he presides to quell the dissensions of a distant but friendly church. An aged disciple on his way to martyrdom pours out a few parting words of exhortation to the Christian brotherhoods with whom he is brought in contact during his journey. A bishop of a leading church, having occasion to send a parcel to another brotherhood at a distance, takes the opportunity of writing, in answer to their solicitations, a few plain words of advice and instruction. Such is the simple account of the letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp respectively.

The same form is preserved in the Ep. of Barnabas and the letter to Diognetus. But the spirit is somewhat different. They are rather treatises clothed in an epistolary dress, the aim of the one being polemical, of the other apologetic. Herein they resemble Hebrews more than the Epp. of St. Paul.

"The Apostolic Fathers," says de Pressensé, "are not great writers, but great characters" ( Trois Premiers Siècles, ii. 384). Their style is loose; there is a want of arrangement in the topics, and an absence of system in their teaching. On the one hand they present a marked contrast to the depth and clearness of conception with which the several N.T. writers place before us different aspects of the Gospel, and by which their title to a special inspiration is established. On the other, they lack the scientific spirit which distinguished the Fathers of the 4th and 5th cents., and which enabled them to formulate the doctrines of the faith as a bulwark against unbridled speculation. But though they are deficient in distinctness of conception and power of exposition, "this inferiority" to the later Fathers "is amply compensated by a certain naïveté and simplicity which forms the charm of their letters. If they have not the precision of the scientific spirit, they are free from its narrowness." There is a breadth of moral sympathy, an earnest sense of personal responsibility, a fervour of Christian devotion, which is the noblest testimony to the influence of the Gospel on characters obviously very diverse, and which will always command for their writings a respect to which their literary merits could lay no claim. The gentleness and serenity of Clement, whose whole spirit is absorbed in contemplating the harmonies of nature and of grace; the fiery zeal of Ignatius, in whom the one overmastering desire of martyrdom has crushed all human passion; the unbroken constancy of Polycarp, whose protracted life is spent in maintaining the faith once delivered to the saints,—these are lessons which can never become antiquated or lose their value.

Their Relation to the Apostolic Teaching and to the Canonical Scriptures .—Of the respective provinces of the Apostolic Fathers, we may say that Clement co-ordinates the different elements of Christian teaching as left by the Apostles; and Ignatius consolidates the structure of ecclesiastical polity, as sketched out by them; while for Polycarp, whose active career was just beginning as theirs ended, and who lived on for more than half a century after their deaths, was reserved the task of handing down unimpaired to a later generation the Apostolic doctrine and order thus co-ordinated and consolidated by his elder contemporaries—a task for which he was eminently fitted by his passive and receptive character.

The writings of these three Fathers lie well within the main stream of Catholic teaching. They are the proper link between the Canonical Scriptures and the church Fathers of the succeeding ages. They recognize all the different elements of the Apostolic teaching, though combining them in different proportions. "They prove that Christianity was Catholic from the very first, uniting a variety of forms in one faith. They shew that the great facts of the Gospel narrative, and the substance of the Apostolic letters, formed the basis and moulded the expression of the common creed" (Westcott, Canon , p. 55).

But when we turn to the other writings for which a place among the Apostolic Fathers has been claimed, the case is different. Though the writers are all apparently within the pale of the church, yet there is a tendency to that one-sided exaggeration—either in the direction of Judaisms or the opposite—which stands on the very verge of heresy. In the Ep. of Barnabas and in the letter to Diognetus, the repulsion from Judaism is so violent, that one step further would have carried the writers into Gnostic or Marcionite dualism. On the other hand, in the Shepherd of Hermas, and possibly in the Expositions of Papias (for in this instance the inferences drawn from a few scanty fragments must be precarious), the sympathy with the Old Dispensation is unduly strong, and the distinctive features of the Gospel are darkened by the shadow of the Law thus projected upon them. In Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, both extremes are avoided.

For the relation of these writers to the Canonical Scriptures the reader is referred to the thorough investigation in Westcott's Hist. of the Canon pp. 19–55. It will be sufficient here to state the more important results: (1) The Apostolic Fathers do not as a rule quote by name the canonical writings of the N.T. But (2) though (with exceptions) the books of the N.T. are not quoted by name fragments of most of the canonical Epistles lie embedded in the writings of these Fathers whose language is thoroughly leavened with the Apostolic diction. In like manner the facts of the Gospel history are referred to and the words of our Lord given though for the most part not as direct quotations. For (3) there is no decisive evidence that these Fathers recognized a Canon of the N.T. as a distinctly defined body of writings; though Barnabas once introduces our Lord's words as recorded in Mat_20:16; Mat_22:14 with the usual formula of Scriptural citation "As it is written (ὡς γέγραπται)." But (4) on the other hand they assign a special and preeminent authority to the Apostles which they distinctly disclaim for themselves. This is the case with Clement (§§ 5 7) and Ignatius (Romans 4) speaking of St. Peter and St. Paul; and with Polycarp (§ 3) speaking of St. Paul—the only Apostles that are mentioned by name in these writings. (5) Lastly though the language of the Canonical Gospels is frequently not quoted word for word yet there is no distinct allusion to any apocryphal narrative.


The standard work on the Apostolic Fathers is by the writer of the above article, the late bp. Lightfoot. His work on the principal subject, in five 8vo volumes, includes Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp. But after his death a single vol. was pub. containing revised texts of all the Apostolic Fathers, with short introductions and Eng. translations.

Holman Bible Dictionary [2]

The Didache, The Epistle to Diognetus, Papias Apology of Quadratus The Epistle to Diognetus Apology of Quadratus

The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles was not rediscovered until 1883 despite the fact that it had considerable usage in early centuries. An early church manual, it may be the earliest of the Apostolic Fathers, in its current form no later than A.D. 100 but possibly much earlier. Part one (chs. 1-6) contains the Jewish catechetical material known as “The Two Ways” adapted to Christian usage by insertion of teachings of Jesus. Part two gives directions concerning baptism (7), fasting and prayers (8), the eucharist (9-10), travelers who seek hospitality (11-13), worship on the Lord's day (14), and bishops and deacons (15). An exhortation to watchfulness concludes The Didache . Several allusions indicate Syria (perhaps Antioch) as the place of origin.

The Apostolic Fathers include two writings under the name of Clement, a Roman presbyter-bishop at the end of the first century, but only his letter to the Corinthians, the Epistle of 1Clement can be considered authentic. What is entitled The Second Letter of Clement to the Corinthians is actually an early sermon which dates from around A.D. 140.

Clement, whom early lists named as the third bishop of Rome (after Linus and Anacletus), composed his letter, reliably dated A.D. 96, in response to a disturbance in the church at Corinth. A group of younger members had revolted against the presbyter-bishops and driven them out. In part one (1-36) Clement appealed on behalf of the Church of Rome for unity, using numerous biblical examples. In part two (37-61) he discussed the divisions at Corinth and called for the restoration of order by submission to persons appointed presbyters by the apostles and their successors. Interestingly he drew his organizational pattern from the military structure used at Qumran. In his conclusion (62-65) he expressed hope that the letter bearer would return with news of reconciliation.

The so-called Second Letter of Clement urges hearers to repent for too great attachment to the “world.” The author cited authoritative writings that are now definitely identified as Gnostic in the library discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.

En route to Rome, where he suffered martyrdom during the reign of Trajan (98-117), Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote seven letters called the Epistles of Ignatius. At Smyrna he composed letters thanking the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles for sending messengers to greet him. From there he also sent a letter to the church at Rome begging them not to intercede on his behalf with the Emperor since he desired to be “ground by the teeth of wild beasts” so as to become “pure bread of Christ.” ( Romans 4:1 ). At Troas he learned that persecution had ceased at Antioch and wrote to the churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna as well as to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, entreating them to send messengers to Antioch to congratulate the faithful on the restoration of peace. In his letters Ignatius mentioned tensions within the communities to which he wrote and urged, as a solution, acceptance of episcopal authority. His special pleading would suggest that the churches of Asia Minor had not yet accepted rule by a single bishop with presbyters and deacons subordinate to him. Both Gnostic and Jewish leanings may have created the problem.

Papias was a bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor who, according to Irenaeus his pupil, was a hearer of John, the disciple and a friend of Polycarp. He wrote a five-volume work called Interpretation of the Lord's Oracles of which only fragments remain in the writings of others. The date of his writing is disputed either being around 110 or 120. Papias died a martyr's death around A.D. 155.

Polycarp's Epistle of Polycarp is a cover letter sent with “as many as he had” of the letters of Ignatius at the request of the church of Philippi. Because in its present form the letter is a virtual mosaic of quotations from the collected letters of Paul, P. N. Harrison proposed a two-letter hypothesis. According to this proposal, chapter 13 would be the cover letter written at the time of Ignatius's martyrdom,  Romans 1-12 a later composition dated around 135. The letter is primarily an exhortation to true faith and virtue.

Included in the Apostolic Fathers is The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the oldest account of a martyr's death recorded soon after it happened in 156. Written to strengthen faith in time of persecution, the account is somewhat embellished by miraculous happenings, for example, so much blood spurting from a wound in Polycarp's side that it extinguished the fire consuming him. The Martyrdom is notable as the first Christian writing to use the word “catholic” in reference to the church.

The so-called Epistle of Barnabas is neither a letter nor the work of Barnabas, Paul's companion and fellow missionary. An allusion to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 ( Romans 16:3-4 ) as an event of the distant past precludes such an early date. The main part of this sermon or treatise (chs. 1-17) attempts to prove that the Jews misunderstood the Scriptures from the beginning because they interpreted them literally. Had they interpreted properly, they would have recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the law. The author himself engaged in some rather fanciful allegorical exposition. To the apology is appended a Jewish document known as “The Two Ways” (of life and death).

Identified by the Muratorian Canon as the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome around 140-150, Hermas indicates that he had been brought to Rome after being taken captive and was purchased by a woman named Rhoda. Using the form of an apocalypse or revelation, the Shepherd of Hermas deals with the heatedly debated question of repentance for serious post-baptismal sins such as apostasy, adultery, or murder. Some in Rome, evidently following Hebrews, took an inflexible stance: those who committed such serious offenses should suffer permanent exclusion. Hermas proposed one repentance following baptism, a view widely accepted in the early churches.

The Epistle to Diognetus, is misnamed and misplaced. An attractive apology or defense of Christianity, it is of uncertain but considerably later date than the Apostolic Fathers, perhaps as late as the third century. The author contrasts the unsatisfying faith of other religions with Christian teachings concerning love and good citizenship. Christians live in the same cities and observe many of the same customs, but they exhibit the “professedly strange character” of a “heavenly citizenship” that distinguishes them from others. What the soul is to the body is what they are to the world.

Like the Epistle to Diognetus, the Apology of Quadratus is believed to be dated considerably later than the Apostolic Fathers. The writing which is a fragment from a defense of Christianity addressed to the Emperor Hadrian, is preserved by Eusebius. Some scholars believe the Epistle to Diognetus and the Apology of Quadratus are the same.

While the writings designated Apostolic Fathers differ in the precision of their dating and authorship, as writings that predate the formation of the New Testament canon, they are invaluable resources for understanding post-apostolic Christianity.

E. Glenn Hinson

Morrish Bible Dictionary [3]

This designation is applied to the early Christian writers, who had known the apostles, or had known those who had been acquainted with them.

1. BARNABAS; 2. CLEMENT; 3. HERMAS; are supposed to be the persons so named in the N.T.: see under their respective names.

4. POLYCARP, Bishop of Smyrna. He wrote an epistle to the Philippians about A.D. 125, Irenaeus says Polycarp was "instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ." He died a martyr's death. An ancient letter gives a particular account of his martyrdom.

5. IGNATIUS, Bishop of Antioch. Seven epistles are supposed to have been written by him, but they have been grossly interpolated; eight or nine others are wholly spurious. He was a martyr.

6. PAPIAS, Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia. He is said to have heard the apostle John. Various writings are attributed to him, but of which only fragments remain. He also died a martyr.

7. An unknown author of an eloquent and interesting epistle to Diognetus. Nearly all the above writings are very differentfrom the scripture except where that is quoted. There is a deep dark line of demarcation between them and the writings which are inspired. Some of them however are found at the end of some of the Greek Testaments and were formerly read in the churches. Happily all these are now eliminated from any association with the N.T. Besides the above there are six apocryphal 'Gospels,' a dozen 'Acts,' four 'Revelations,' the 'Passing away of Mary,' etc.

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [4]

An appellation usually given to the writers of the first century, who employed their pens in the cause of Christianity. Of these writers, Cotelerius, and after him Le Clerc, have published a collection in two volumes, accompanied both with their own annotations, and the remarks of other learned men.

See also the genuine epistles of the apostolic fathers be Abp. Wake.

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [5]

Fathers of the Church who lived the same time as the Apostles: Clemens, Barnabas Polycarp, Ignatius, and Hermas.