Apostolic Fathers

Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers are a small collection of Early Christian authors who lived and wrote in the second half of the 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century. These authors are acknowledged as leaders in the early church, but their writings were not included in the New Testament Biblical canon.

The apostolic fathers include St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna.

The Roman Catholic label "Apostolic Fathers" has been used since the 17th century to emphasize that these authors 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 knew Jesus of Nazareth and the later generation of Christian apologists, defenders of orthodoxy, and developers of doctrine known as the Church Fathers.

Apostolic fathers and their works

Famous Apostolic Fathers include St. Clement of Rome ("c" 30 - "c" 100),Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972] St. Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. In addition, the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas are usually placed among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers although their authors are unknown.

t. Clement of Rome

St. Clement of Rome's first epistle, 1 Clement ("c" 96),Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972] 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 Testaments. The epistle repeatedly refers to the Old Testament as scripture [B. Metzger, "Canon of the New Testament" (Oxford University Press) 1987:43.] and includes numerous references to the Book of Judith. Within the letter, Clement calls on the Christians of Corinth to maintain harmony and order.Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972] Tradition identifies the author as St. Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome, and scholarly consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of the letter's authenticity. [Louth 1987:20; preface to both epistles in William Jurgens "The Faith of the Early Fathers", vol 1", pp 6 and 42 respectively.]

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 an oral homily or sermon, making it the oldest existing Christian sermon outisde of the New Testament.

Ignatius of Antioch

Saint Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus) ("c" 35-110) [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).] was the third Bishop or Patriarch of Antioch and a student of the Apostle John. 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, and the role of bishops. 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.Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972]


Saint Polycarp of Smyrna ("c" 69- ca. 155) was a Christian bishop of Smyrna (now İzmir in Turkey). It is recorded that "He had been a disciple of John." 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 Pope'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.Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972] Church Father Irenaeus was one of Polycarp's students. Polycarp is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.


The Didache (Koine Greek: "Teaching" [See [http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/words.pl?strongs=1322&page=1&flag_full=1 Strong's G1322] ] ) is a brief early Christian treatise, dated by most scholars to the early second century. [Metzger, Bruce. The canon of the New Testament. 1997] 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. ["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] but rejected as spurious or non-canonical by others, [Athanasius, [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xxv.iii.iii.xxv.html "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"] Scholars knew of the Didache through references in other texts, but the text itself had been lost. It was rediscovered in 1873.

hepherd 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 and in Greek. The Shepherd had great authority in the second and third 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.

Definition of terms

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 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 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, 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 christianities which exclude the Gentiles on the other. By the 4th century, mainstream Nicene Christianity, dominated by the interpretation of Paul of Tarsus and teetering midway between Gentile paganism and rabbinical Judaism, was in a position to declare significantly different interpretations as heretical.

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 eye-witnesses 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 (called epistles), others relate historical events, e.g. the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and one (the Didache) is a guide for ethical and liturgical practice.

Origin of term

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. (Other traditions make little distinction between these Apostolic Fathers and Church Fathers in general.)

Opposition to term

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. These ideological descendants of the Radical Reformation must choose between believing that the Scriptures were corrupted by this "Apostate Church" or that the Scriptures were somehow preserved and canonized by this "Apostate Church." 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 first and early-second century Christian leaders' perspective.

Works by these authors that are missing today

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

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 pagan-Christian syncretist. 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 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 was expressed by early church fathers can be validated as being incomplete and biased, of course, but quite accurate.

Relationship to orthodoxy

Within the Pauline tradition that eventually triumphed, 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

*The Epistle to Diognetus (this one is hard to date and might also be of a later date)
*The First Epistle of Clement
*The Second Epistle of Clement (not actually written by Clement, but still a very early writing)
*The Didache
*The Epistle of Barnabas
*Seven short 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 Epistle about Polycarp's Martyrdom
*The Shepherd of Hermas
*The fragments from the writings of Papias, which have survived as quotations by later writers
*One short fragment from a writing by Quadratus of AthensFact|date=February 2007

Most or all of these works were originally written in Greek. English translations of these works can be found online in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series on the [http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ Christian Classics Ethereal Library website] . Published English translations have also been done by various translators, such as J.B. Lightfoot and Michael W. Holmes.


External links

* [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01637a.htm "Catholic Encyclopedia":] Apostolic Fathers
* [http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/APO_ARN/APOSTOLIC_FATHERS.html Apostolic Fathers] in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
* [http://www.lcms.org/ca/www/cyclopedia/02/display.asp?t1=a&word=APOSTOLICFATHERS Apostolic Fathers] in the Christian Cyclopedia

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Apostolic fathers — Apostolic Ap os*tol ic, Apostolical Ap os*tol ic*al, a. [L. apostolicus, Gr. ?: cf. F. apostolique.] 1. Pertaining to an apostle, or to the apostles, their times, or their peculiar spirit; as, an apostolical mission; the apostolic age. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Apostolic Fathers — n. 1. a group of early Christian writers of the late first and early second century traditionally believed to have known some of the Apostles 2. the writings attributed to them …   English World dictionary

  • apostolic fathers —    The apostolic fathers were Christian writers of the first and second century AD who had a personal relationship with the Apostles and so are considered to be reliable teachers of genuine apostolic doctrine. Prominent among these writers were… …   Glossary of theological terms

  • Apostolic Fathers — The Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Hermas, Polycarp, and Papias; and the authors of the epistle of Barnabas, the epistle to Diognetus, 2 Clement, and the Didache) form the literary link between the NT period and later Christian… …   Dictionary of the Bible

  • APOSTOLIC FATHERS —    Fathers of the Church who lived the same time as the Apostles: Clemens, Barnabas Polycarp, Ignatius, and Hermas …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • Apostolic Fathers — 1. the fathers of the early Christian church whose lives overlapped those of any of the apostles. 2. the collection of works attributed to them. [1820 30] * * * …   Universalium

  • Apostolic Fathers —    See Fathers …   American Church Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • Apostolic Fathers — Ap′ostol′ic Fa′thers n. pl. rel the fathers of the early Christian church …   From formal English to slang

  • Apostolic Fathers — 1. the fathers of the early Christian church whose lives overlapped those of any of the apostles. 2. the collection of works attributed to them. [1820 30] …   Useful english dictionary

  • APOSTOLIC FATHERS —    those CHRISTIAN writers who lived immediately after the time of the APOSTLES, such as CLEMENT OF ROME …   Concise dictionary of Religion

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