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Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers were a small group of Christian authors who lived and wrote in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. While there are other threads of continuity from the 'sayings' and actions of Jesus beside the one Pauline thread that historically became the only non-"heretical" one, the Roman Catholic label Apostolic Fathers has been used since the 17th century (see below) to emphasize that these authors were to be thought of as being of the generation that had personal contact with the Apostles— if not of personally knowing or having studied with the Apostles— then of having had an early reputation for having been so. Thus they provide a link between the Apostles who knew Jesus of Nazareth and the later generation of Christian apologists and defenders of orthodox authority and developers of doctrine: the Church Fathers.

Not all Christians employ this term. The authority resonant in the phrase "Apostolic Fathers" offers the sense that these writers provide the authentic connections to the apostolic generation, for those Christians for whom Church tradition is of comparable weight with Scripture: a useful connotation in manipulating discourse, 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.

By contrast, the writings of the desposyni, the surviving members of the family of Jesus of Nazareth, of whom James the Just is allowed to be one of the three "pillars of the church" in earliest days, have almost completely disappeared. These were not later considered "Apostolic Fathers" in the Gentile church as it was first envisaged and shepherded by Paul of Tarsus.

Several other themes of early Christianity are missing from the official Apostolic Fathers. Themes of continuing revelation, of "secret" writings, of arcane initiations, of the public role of women are among the strands not represented by the Apostolic Fathers.

The "Apostolic Fathers" are distinguished from other Christian authors of this same period by their interest in setting forth those Christian practices and theology that largely fell within those developing traditions of Pauline Christianity that became the mainstream and that from the 4th century onward was in a position to label divergent views as heresy. Thus there are second century and even earlier writings that do not fall in the category of "Apostolic Fathers." Such writings have been actively denounced and suppressed in the following centuries and are now considered "lost" works or fragmentary or even marginal heresies.

Within the Pauline tradition that eventually triumphed, on one hand Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian— all of them after the time of the Apostolic Fathers proper— primarily addressed their works to people beyond the Christian community and defended the Christian religion against pagan criticism, and are considered Apologists. On the other hand, a small number of 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 evidence for one strain of early Christianity, as well as its intellectual history.

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.)

The list of Fathers included under this title has varied. Inclusion is strictly based on church tradition, but literary criticism removed some writings formerly considered as 2nd-century, while of all the modern rediscovered writings, only the Didache, discovered in the 1880s, has added one orthodox writing to the list.

Chief in importance, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, are three 1st-century Bishops: St Clement of Rome, St Ignatius of Antioch, and St Polycarp of Smyrna, of whose intimate personal relations with the Apostles there is the strongest Church tradition. Clement, third successor to Peter as Bishop of Rome, "had seen the blessed Apostles [Peter and Paul] and had been conversant with them" (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, III, iii, 3). Ignatius was the second successor of St. Peter in the See of Antioch (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., III, 36) and during his life in that centre of Christian activity may have met with others of the Apostolic band. An accepted tradition, substantiated by the similarity of Ignatius's thought with the ideas of the Johannine writings, declares him a disciple of St. John. Polycarp was "instructed by Apostles" (Irenaeus, op. cit., III, iii, 4) and had been a disciple of St. John (Eusebius, op. cit., III, 36; V, 20) whose contemporary he was for nearly twenty years. Papias would certainly have been one of this group, if his work had not been inexplicably lost.

The works of the Apostolic Fathers include:

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 Holmes.

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Last updated: 10-10-2005 05:53:16
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