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Apostolic Fathers

Holman Bible Dictionary

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Early Christian authors believed to have known the apostles. The Apostolic Fathers are not mentioned in the Bible. Five Apostolic Fathers appear in the original seventeenth century list: Barnabas, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Hermas. Today the list usually includes nine items, adding The Didache, The Epistle to Diognetus, Papias , and Apology of Quadratus . Although scholars dispute whether any of the writers knew the apostles, all but possibly two of the writings, The Epistle to Diognetus and the Apology of Quadratus , originated before A.D. 156.

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

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Apostolic Fathers'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​a/apostolic-fathers.html. 1991.
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