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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

FATHERS. —The plural of ‘father’ is found in 14 passages in the Gospels, once (in the Greek) with no determining word ( Luke 1:17), twice with the article only, ‘the fathers’ ( John 6:58 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 7:22), and 11 times with a pronoun: ‘our’ ( Matthew 23:30,  Luke 1:55;  Luke 1:72,  John 4:20;  John 6:31); ‘your’ ( Matthew 23:32,  Luke 11:47-48,  John 6:49); ‘their’ ( Luke 6:23;  Luke 6:26). With one exception ( Luke 1:17) where it means ‘parents,’ as contrasted with ‘children,’ it is always employed in the sense of ‘ancestors,’ as in innumerable passages in the OT ( Genesis 47:9,  1 Kings 11:43;  1 Kings 14:31;  1 Kings 15:8 etc.), the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha ( 2 Esdras 7:36, Ps-Sol 8:25, 9:19 etc.), and the historical Assyrian texts ( šarrani abi-ia = ‘the kings my fathers,’ KI B [Note: IB Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek.] ii. 170, 172, etc.).

As early as about b.c. 200 the Heb. word ’âbóth came to have the narrower meaning of ‘distinguished ancestors.’ The long historical review in Sirach 44-49 opens (Heb.):

Let me now praise godly men,

Our fathers in their generations.

The fathers praised are Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Israel, Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, Joshua, Caleb, the Judges, Samuel, Nathan, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Josiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, the Twelve, Zerubbabel, Joshua the priest, Nehemiah. In a sort of appendix ( Sirach 49:14-16) are given Enoch (again), Joseph, Shem, Seth, Enos, Adam. The Hebrew heading of these chapters, ‘Praise of the fathers of the world,’ or, as Cowley and Neubauer render, ‘Praise of the patriarchs,’ cannot be urged, as it may be of much later date. The Greek heading πατέρων ὕμνος is of more value, as it may be pre-Christian. Among these distinguished ancestors or ‘fathers’ a group of three was early singled out for special notice—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is several times described in the OT as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ or ‘Israel’ ( Exodus 3:6;  Exodus 3:16,  1 Kings 18:36,  1 Chronicles 29:18,  2 Chronicles 30:6). In a tradition preserved in the Babylonian Talmud ( Berak . 16 b ) it is said: ‘Only three are called fathers.’ It is assumed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were ‘the fathers’ par excellence . The group is referred to 5 times in the Gospels ( Matthew 8:11;  Matthew 22:32,  Mark 12:26,  Luke 13:28;  Luke 20:37), and probably, without the names, in one of the passages cited above ( John 7:22 ‘not that it [circumcision] is of Moses but of the fathers’). The ‘fathers,’ then, in the language of our Lord and His contemporaries, could mean ancestors in general, or the ancestors of some particular period, as, for example, the wandering in the wilderness ( John 6:31;  John 6:49;  John 6:58), or ancestors of notable piety or renown, more especially the three patriarchs who were regarded as the founders of the people.

The thought that the great goodness of some of the fathers, especially of Abraham, was helpful to their sinful descendants, which found expression in the phrase zakkûth ’âbôth ‘merit of the fathers’ so often met with in the Talmud, can be traced as far back as the time of Christ and the Apostles. It probably underlies the words of St. Paul: ‘they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.’ ( Romans 11:28); and evidently lurks in the proud boast of being the seed of Abraham or children of Abraham ( Matthew 3:9,  Luke 3:8,  John 8:33;  John 8:39 etc.). The phrase, however, is never met with in the Gospels. The allied belief that the holy fathers could effectually intercede for their wicked descendants, which is distinctly attested in some of the Pseudepigrapha (Syriac Apocalypse, Apocalyptic of Bar. 85:12, Sib. Oracles ii. 330–333), is implied in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man in Hades appeals, not to God, but to one of the fathers ( Luke 16:24). Still there is no direct mention of their intercession in the Gospels.

The use of the term ‘fathers’ in the sense of ‘distinguished teachers of the Law, who prolonged the line of tradition’ which has become so widely known through the famous Talmudic tractate Pirke Abôth or Masseketh Abôth , is unrepresented in the Gospels, unless it is alluded to or echoed in the title ‘father’ applied to a living rabbi ( Matthew 23:9).

Literature.—R. H. Charles, Book of the Secrets of Enoch , pp. 69–70, note; Weber, Jüd. Theol. auf Grund des Talmud ,2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] etc. 292 ff.; Schürer, GJ V [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 317.

W. Taylor Smith.

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [2]

a term of honour applied to the first and most eminent writers of the Christian church. Those of the first century are called Apostolical fathers; those of the first three centuries, and till the council of Nice, Ante- Nicene; and those later than that council, Post-Nicene. Learned men are not unanimous concerning the degree of esteem which is due to these ancient fathers. Some represent them as the most excellent guides, while others place them in the very lowest rank of moral writers, and treat their precepts and decisions as perfectly insipid, and, in many respects, pernicious. It appears, however, incontestable, that, in the writings of the primitive fathers are many sublime sentiments, judicious thoughts, and several things well adapted to form a religious temper, and to excite pious and virtuous affections. At the same time, it must be confessed, that, after the earliest age, they abound still more with precepts of an excessive and unreasonable austerity, with stoical and academical dictates, with vague and indeterminate notions, and, what is still worse, with decisions absolutely false, and in evident opposition to the commands of Christ. Though the judgment of antiquity in some disputable points may certainly be useful, yet we ought never to consider the writings of the fathers as of equal authority with the Scriptures. In many cases they may be deemed competent witnesses, but we must not confide in their verdict as judges. As Biblical critics they are often fanciful and injudicious, and their principal value consists in this, that the succession of their writings enables us to prove the existence and authenticity of the sacred books, up to the age of the Apostles.

The following is a list of the entire fathers: Contemporaries of the Apostles, Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp, Papias, A.D. 116; Justin Martyr, 140; Dionysius of Corinth, 170; Tatian, 172; Hegesippus, 173; Melito, 177; Irenaeus, 178; Athenagoras, 178; Miltiades, 180; Theophilus, 181; Clement of Alexandria, 194; Tertullian, 200; Minutius Felix, 210; Ammonius, 220; Origen, 230; Firmilian, 233; Dionysius of Alexandria, 247; Cyprian, 248; Novatus or Novatian, 251; Arnobius, 306; Lactantius, 306; Alexander of Alexandria, 313; Eusebius, 315; Athanasius, 326; Cyril of Jerusalem, 348; Hilary, 354; Epiphanius, 368; Basil, 370; Gregory of Nazianzum, 370; Gregory of Nyssa, 370; Optatus, 370; Ambrose, 374; Philaster, 380; Jerome, 392; Theodore of Mopsuestia, 394; Ruffin, 397; Augustine, 398; Chrysostom, 398; Sulpitius Severus, 401; Cyril of Alexandria, 412; Theodoret, 423; and Gennadius, 494.

Archbishop Wake, in his Exposition of the Doctrine of the Church of England, has very satisfactorily shown, that the deference paid by Protestants to the Christian fathers of the first three ages, is neither of such an idolatrous description as is generally represented, nor is their authority ever extolled to an equality with that of the Holy Scriptures. "Though we have appealed," he says, "to the churches of the first ages for new proofs of the truth of our doctrine, it is not that we think that the doctors of those times had more right to judge of our faith than those had that followed them; but it is because after a serious examination we have found, that, as for what concerns the common belief that is among us, they have believed and practised the same things without adding other opinions or superstitions that destroy them,—wherein they have acted conformably to their and our rule, THE WORD OF GOD: notwithstanding, it cannot be denied, but that they effectually fell into some wrong opinions, as that of the Millenaries and infant communion," &c. The usefulness and necessity of studying the ancient fathers have been defended by many persons eminent for their learning and piety. Archbishop Usher was one who beyond all men then living knew the vast importance of these studies, and had derived the greatest benefits from them. The following brief advice, in the language of Dr. Parr, his erudite biographer, will convey his sentiments on this very interesting subject: "Indeed he had so great an esteem of the Ancient AUTHORS, for the acquiring any solid learning, whether sacred or profane, that his advice to young students, either in divinity or antiquity, was, not to spend too much time in epitomes, but to set themselves to read the ancient authors themselves; as, to begin with the FATHERS, and to read them according to the ages in which they lived, (which was the method he had taken himself,) and, together with them, carefully to peruse the Church HISTORIANS that treated of that age in which those fathers lived: by which means the student would be better able to perceive the reason and meaning of divers passages in their writings, (which otherwise would be obscure,) when he knew the original and growth of those heresies and heterodox opinions against which they wrote, and may also better judge what doctrines, ceremonies, and opinions prevailed in the church in every age, and by what means introduced.

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [3]

A term applied to ancient authors who have preserved in their writings traditions of the church. Thus St. Chrysostom, St. Basil, &c. are called Greek fathers, and St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, Latin fathers. No author who wrote later than the twelfth century is dignified with the title of father. Some suppose that the study of the fathers is barren and unimproving; that though there are some excellent things interspersed in their writings, yet the instruction to be derived from them will hardly repay the toil of breaking up the ground; that a life-time would hardly suffice to read them with care, and digest them completely. Others have such an high opinion of the fathers, as to be almost afraid of interpreting Scripture against their decision. The suppose, that as some of them were companions, disciples, or successively followers of the apostles, it is highly probable that they must have been well informed, that their sentiments must be strongly illustrative of the doctrines of the New Testament; and that as controversies have increased, and dogma received since their time, they must be much less entangled with decisions merely human than more recent commentators. Perhaps it is best to steer between these two opinions. If a person have ability, inclination, and opportunity to wade through them, let him: but if not, referring to them occasionally may suffice. One caution, however, is necessary, which is this; that though the judgment of antiquity in some disputable points certainly may be useful, yet we ought never to put them on the same footing as the Scriptures. In many cases they may be considered as competent witnesses; but we must not confide in their verdict as judges. Jortin's Works, vol. 7: chap. 2; Kett's Serm. at Brampton Lec. ser. 1; Warburton's Julian; Simpson's Strictures on Religious Opinions, latter end; Daille's Use of the Fathers, p. 167; Law's Theory; Dr. Clarke's View of the Succession of Sacred Literature, p. 312.

Morrish Bible Dictionary [4]

A term constantly applied both in the O.T. and in the N.T. to the patriarchs and chief men of Israel.  2 Kings 15:9;  Daniel 11:37;  Romans 9:5;  Hebrews 1:1; etc.