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Tag: Ignatius of Antioch

Genres of the Fathers: Epistolography

Here we stand, most of the way through the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch, over halfway through the ‘Apostolic Fathers‘. Most of what we have seen so far has been in epistolary form — that is, letters. We started with 1 Clement, a letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth; then we read Ad Diognetum, which may be a letter (however, Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings, thinks it an apology akin to Justin Martyr’s). Next we delved into the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and soon it was the letters of Ignatius, which include some pseudepigrapha, like the Epistle of Barnabas in a week — but even these pseudepigrapha are written in the form of a letter.

And these are not the last letters we’ll see, although it will be a while until more emerge after we hit Justin Martyr — although apologies tend to be addressed to someone, they are not, properly speaking, real or fictive correspondence. However, in September we will hit three letters of Origen’s, but it will not be until next Advent that we will again land upon a major corpus of Christian correspondence, that of Cyprian of Carthage. Nevertheless, the letter is an important genre in most Christian history.

After Cyprian, famous Christian epistolographers include Athanasius of Alexandria, Antony the Great (the Abbot), Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, popes from Damasus onwards, especially Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, Sidonius Apollonaris, Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, and others who escape me now, but could include famous Christians of the Middle Ages such as Alcuin and Boniface as well as of the Reformation, such as Luther and Erasmus. This is to say, as we read the Fathers, we will meet with letter-writers on many occasions, especially now and with greater frequency starting Year 2.

Two questions I shall now address: What is a letter? Why do Christians write so many? A related third question: What do we learn about the nature of early Christianity from this?

What is a letter?

This seems like a dumb question, but it’s the sort of basic question I like to ask sometimes. A letter is a piece of correspondence, written from one person to another due to a lack of immediate presence. Thus, letters are a mediated form of communication; traditionally, many have thought of letters as a poor substitute for live conversation. However, as the work of Jacques Derrida has demonstrated, even live conversation is, at some level, mediated. And, as the work of Walter J Ong, especially Orality and Literacy, there are certain thought-processes that are more easily and more fully expressed through writing, such as philosophy or certain types of story-telling.

That is to say, either everything is mediated, or a letter is as unmediated a glimpse of your friend as a conversation. It’s just a different aspect of the person’s mind.

In letters, people express their thoughts and fears, their joys and sorrows, their news. I once wrote a letter that presented a fictive account of me encountering a dragon on the streets of Nicosia, Cyprus. Another time, I wrote a letter wherein I waxed eloquent about an air freshener with an icon of Christ Pantokrator on it. In the vast epistolary corpus of Cicero (d. 43 BC), he writes letters consoling friends on the death of their children, letters lamenting the political situation, letters recommending one friend or acquaintance to another, letters about art, literature, oratory, or philosophy.

The breadth of the letter, in fact, led Derrida to say, ‘the letter, the epistle . . . is not a genre but all genres, literature itself’ (La Carte Postale, p. 48). The letter, whether from real correspondence such as the Ignatian letters we have been reading now or fictive such as Derrida’s in La Carte Postale or the upcoming Pseudo-Ignatian letters, is a short piece of literature that brings distanced minds together, usually on a single topic or theme — epitomised by the correspondence of Pliny the Younger (d. AD 112).

Why do Christians write so many letters?

The earliest Christian literature is the Pauline corpus of letters, possibly with 1 Thessalonians c. AD 51. Recently, the letters of Christian scholar C S Lewis (d. 1963) have been published for us to read. Who knows if someday the e-mails and other missives of this generation will find their way into edited volumes? I hope so, for in these e-mails much of the stuff of daily life, mission, and theology is embedded. Why has the epistolary habit been such a feature of Christian life?

I believe that it is partly because of the example of Paul’s letters. We all strive to follow Jesus in the Apostles’ footsteps. Our Scripture contains apostolic letters. So we, too, write one another letters. Another reason, I believe, is the close-knittedness of the early Christian communities. The church at Rome was distressed by goings-on in the church at Corinth — so 1 Clement was penned and sent forth. A letter, unlike a conversation, is a lasting testament to a relationship. So Ignatius sends letters not only to those he has not met but to those he has — testaments to their relationship, enduring repositories of his wisdom.

Another reason is the epistolary breadth I’ve mentioned above. In antiquity, there were no blogs. Publishing tracts and brief literature was fairly uncommon. But people sent letters to one another. The letter was a brief moment to craft what I think of as the ancient equivalent of the modern (and dying) familiar essay. It was an informal, tightly-knit, short treatment of an interesting subject that you hoped your friend would also like. And if your friend liked it, he could pass it on to others (we know that this happened from the correspondence both of Cicero and Pliny as well as explicit instructions or requests for letters in early Christian letters). Thus ideas could circulate in a brief, readable manner.

And Christians have always had a lot of ideas to share with each other, whether the importance of bishops or the truth of the general resurrection or the mystery of the Son’s union with the Father. Unlike a hefty volume such as Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, a letter could be copied and distributed widely without too much trouble. Christianity is a faith not just for learned philosophers but for common shepherds and carpenters — who might have time to read, or listen to a reading of, a letter, if not a lengthy, multi-volume philosophical treatise.

In investigating these two questions, I hope that we have seen some of the third, of what letters show us about early Christianity — its mutual love and affection, its attachment to ideas and words, its accessibility to all.

I also hope this will help us all appreciate the many Christian letters we’re going to encounter over the next seven years.

The Apostolic Fathers

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.

Alternate Readings

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.

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