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The Apostolic Fathers are a small number of Early Christian authors who lived and wrote in the second half of the 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century. They are acknowledged as leaders in the early church, although their writings were not included in the New Testament. They include St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna.

The label "Apostolic Fathers" has been applied to them since the 17th century to indicate that they 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 Nazarethmarker and the later generation of Church Fathers: Christian apologists, defenders of orthodoxy, and developers of doctrine.

Apostolic Fathers and their works

Famous Apostolic Fathers include St. Clement of Rome (fl. 96), 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.

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 Testaments. The epistle repeatedly refers to the Old Testament as scripture and includes numerous references to the Book of Judith. Within the letter, Clement calls on the Christians of Corinth to maintain harmony and order. Tradition identifies the author as St. Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome (third after Saint Peter), and scholarly consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of the letter's authenticity. Early church lists place him as the second or third or as possibly the immediate successor of Saint Peter as bishop of Rome, although another very recent source states that "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 St. Clement. Whereas First 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

Saint Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus {GK - 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 Romemarker, 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.


Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (c 69- ca. 155) was a Christian bishop of Smyrnamarker (now İzmirmarker 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, 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 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 Polycarp's 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 by most scholars to the early second 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 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.

Apostolic authority

St. Polycarp, depicted with a book as a symbol of his writings.
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 or Proto-orthodox 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, adoption of some 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 more Jewish Christianities 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.

Apostolic connection

The early Church relied on apostolic authority in separating orthodox from unorthodox works, teachings, and practices. The four Gospels were each assigned, directly or indirectly to an apostle, as were certain other New Testament books. Earlier church fathers were also associated with apostles: Clement with Peter (associated closely with Rome) and with Paul (as the Clement Paul wrote about in Philippians 4:2), Papias and Polycarp with John (associated with Asia Minor).

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

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 Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. Published English translations have also been done by various translators, such as J.B. Lightfoot and Michael W. Holmes.


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