Saint Polycarp, seventeenth-century engraving by Michael Burghers
We begin our reading with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the traditional name for the authors of the oldest extant Christian literature outside the New Testament. This diverse group of writers—several of them anonymous—lived and wrote during or shortly after the time of the apostles themselves, and their writings reflect a concern for church authority after the passing of Christ’s first disciples.
The Apostolic Fathers whose names we know were all leaders in the early church, and some corresponded with one another. Clement led the church in Rome during the late first century. Origen (whom we’ll read later this year) speculated that he may have been the Clement named by Paul in Philippians 4:3, but no details of his biography are known. Polycarp was the bishop of the church in Smyrna for several decades around the start of the second century. He was a central figure who helped Christians navigate the perils of state-sponsored persecution, and he died a martyr at the age of eighty-six years old. Ignatius, a close associate of Polycarp, led the church in Antioch. In his letters Ignatius expresses an almost macabre yearning for martyrdom, perhaps attempting to steel himself for inevitable persecution or overstating his example to his flock. Ignatius was indeed martyred in the early second century during the Emperor Trajan’s reign. Finally, Papias presided as bishop of Hierapolis. A contemporary of Polycarp and reputed (by Irenaeus) to be a disciple of the Apostle John, Papias authored a popular work that exists only in small fragments today.
Places of origin and destinations of the Apostolic Fathers’ writings (Rome excluded)
Virtually nothing is known about the author or recipient of the Epistle to Diognetus or the so-called Epistle of Barnabas. The former is the earliest recorded instance of Christian apology (defense of the faith), while the latter takes up the issue of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, engaging in the sort of allegorical interpretation of scripture that became popular in Alexandria in the following centuries. Eight other letters attributed to Ignatius were not actually written by him, but because they were written in or before the sixth century, they are included in our reading as a useful example of later Christian arguments against heresy.
Clement’s sole surviving work is his Epistle to the Corinthians, which he wrote probably during the 90s to deal with many of the same problems that the Apostle Paul had addressed in the church.Likewise, only one letter of Polycarp’s survives, the Epistle to the Philippians, written apparently after the Philippians requested that Polycarp instruct them on the topic of righteousness. The letter mentions the recent death of Ignatius, thus dating it in the early 100s.
Icon of Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius wrote his seven authentic Epistles while traveling under armed guard to Rome to face martyrdom (again, in the early 100s). In the ANF edition, we recommend giving closer attention to what are called the “shorter” versions of the epistles. Modern scholars know these as the “middle recension” and regard them the authentic epistles. The “long” version is a later interpolation, perhaps by the same person who wrote the spurious epistles, while the Syriac versions reflect a later, shorter redaction (now called the “short recension”).
The fragments from Papias come from his work Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, written around 130. The Epistle of Barnabas likely comes from the first half of the second century, the Epistle to Diognetus from the second half.
Several works that properly belong to the literature of the Apostolic Fathers are not on our schedule for these first few weeks but will appear later (largely because they were discovered and translated as the ANF was being compiled in the nineteenth century). Those works include II Clement, the Didache, fragments from Quadratus, and the Shepherd of Hermas, all of which will be further introduced when we come to them in our reading.
Although the need to define themselves against the traditions of Judaism and the scrutiny of an increasingly aggressive state occupies some of their attention, a central theme running through the writings of the Apostolic Fathers is the search for church unity and authority, especially when direct appeal can no longer be made to one of Christ’s original apostles. For Clement and Ignatius, the office of the bishop is critical to resolving this problem. By apostolic appointment (in Clement’s view), or by his position as the representative of God in the church (in Ignatius’s view), the bishop is cloaked with authority to heal divisions within the assembly and to constitute the unity of the church.
A Vision of the Trinity, painted around 1735 by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Because Archbishop Clemens August commissioned the painting, Tiepolo depicted his namesake Clement of Rome as the one beholding the Trinity.
In this vein, internal strife and division within the churches attract much more attention than external threats of persecution or false philosophy. “Harmony” [ομονοια] is a key recurring term in Clement’s epistle, and Clement actually invokes the harmonious governance of Rome as a positive example for the church. Ignatius impresses on his readers that unity is the distinguishing mark of the true faith, while Polycarp instructs the Philippians that righteous belief is inseparable from righteous behavior, and the church must therefore be “joined together in the truth” as well as in “blameless conduct.”
One of the more fascinating elements in this search for authority is the light the Apostolic Fathers throw on the developing New Testament canon. In regulating Christian harmony, these writers clearly recognize and draw on the authority of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets. While none of the Apostolic Fathers explicitly discusses the possibility of new scripture, each exhibits familiarity with texts that would eventually form the New Testament canon. Clement appears to consciously follow Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as a model. Polycarp and Ignatius both appear familiar with the epistles of Paul and, in the latter case, the gospel of Matthew. The boundaries of what may constitute sacred writings are not yet at all clear, however. Papias comments on the writing of Matthew, John, and the Revelation, all the while alluding to a larger oral tradition of Christ’s acts and teachings, only a part of which was written down (cf. John 21:25). Polycarp draws equally upon Clement’s Epistle as he does the writings of Paul, and he may well have been the one who first compiled the letters of Ignatius, perhaps with the intent to preserve sacred writ. As we read the Apostolic Fathers it should, however, become clear why later Christians ultimately retreated from including their writings in the New Testament canon.
For readers looking for a more modern translation of the Apostolic Fathers, we’ve already mentioned the work of Michael W. Holmes. Holmes has produced a parallel Greek-English edition as well as a less expensive English-only text.
Another recent translation is Maxwell Staniforth’s for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Writings series.
Among the other patristics series we’ve recommended, see Bart Ehrman’s two volumes for the Loeb Classical Library, Francis Glimm’s volume for the Fathers of the Church, or volume 1 and volume 6 of the Ancient Christian Writers. These works also contain lengthier critical introductions to the Apostolic Fathers, with bibliographies.