An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers: Part One (Identity)

Who were the Apostolic Fathers, and why should you care?  I would like to spend today dealing with the first of these questions, or rather the first part of the first of these questions.  The expression apostolic fathers is a fairly recent one, although the term expresses a reality that existed in the first and early second century AD.  The reality expressed is that the Apostles influenced later believers who, like them, did some writing.  It is possible that some of the writers we know within this tradition may have known some of the Apostles personally.  It is clear that some of these people were very interested in passing on either the written (Polycarp) or oral (Papias) information that they had received from others and that this was a major interest of theirs.  But who were these people, these ancient men, most of whom are extremely obscure?  Before we delve into the writings of these ancient men and examine their relevance to us today, I would like to give a bit of an introduction to who these people were that we will be looking at.

Clement of Rome is the first of the Fathers we will be looking at, specifically as the author of the book of 1 Clement.  I may, at a later time, examine 2 Clement, which was not written by the same author as 1 Clement and is an anonymous work, but I will save that for later, and as the author of that early sermon is anonymous, there is nothing to be said about him.  Clement is often considered, by those who believe in apostolic succession [1], to be among the early Bishops of Rome.  Whatever the truth about this, the book of 1 Clement reveals him to have been a leader in Rome who was deeply concerned with maintaining proper church authorities in Corinth, and the book is an early hint of the power that the leaders of the Church of Rome would gain in later generations, which is one of the factors that makes this book well worth discussing.

Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom, managed to write several letters along the way, which have much of interest concerning the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, the importance of the imitatio Christi to those of later generations, and other related matters of church authority.  The epistles, even where one may find that they do not always reflect very positively on our view of the personality and perhaps even the character of the author, are at least emblematic of a man who is on his way to face death and is trying to do so as bravely as possible and giving some encouragement to others, one of whom is Polycarp of Smyrna.

It just so happens that Polycarp of Smyrna [2] is perhaps the unsung hero of the Apostolic Fathers.  His brave defense against the Bishop of Rome of the keeping of the Passover as it was kept by Jesus Christ and the apostles on the beginning of the 14th of Nisan (as opposed to Easter Sunday) has been an inspiration within my own particular religious tradition, and has ensured that he is the best known of this particular group of people.  In addition to this, he was the recipient of one of the letters of Ignatius and was responsible for collecting the rest of Ignatius’ epistles (seven in total) as one set that he provided along with a letter of his own to the Philippians which is another one of the works in this collection.  The martyrology of this leader was among the first, and the first we have recorded outside of the Bible, and thus serves as an early example of a genre of particular importance in the early Church of God.  For all of these reasons, as a defender of the faith, as a writer, as a collector of the writers of others, and as a martyr for the faith, Polycarp certainly deserves to be remembered and thought of fondly.

Hermas is another one of the Apostlic Fathers, and is responsible for a lengthy book that we will looking at eventually (but not particularly soon).  Hermas is interesting as a person because he was a literate but not necessarily intellectual writer whose book reveals him to have been a somewhat flawed person–no spoilers–and who also appears to have been a brother of a bishop of Rome and a former slave.  Hermas is an interesting figure because he demonstrates to some the sort of background that people would expect of the early Church of God in terms of literacy as well as social class.

Papias was an Apostolic Father who may not have known any of the apostles personally but who was an avid collector of tales and traditions about them.  Despite the fact that he was a prolific writer during his lifetime, none of his writings survive except insofar as they have been collected in excerpts by other writers, most notably Eusebius.  Among the most notable achievements of Papias was that he is one of the early witnesses to the four writers of the canonical Gospels and collects some interesting information about how they were viewed in the early second century AD, and that is certainly well worth remembering.

There are, of course, other Apostolic Fathers as well, but we know very little about them so it is worthwhile to write them only briefly.  The Martyrdom of Polycarp was written by a fellow named Marcion (not the famous heretic by that name) about which nothing more is known.  2 Clement, as we have mentioned earlier, is an anonymous second century example of Christian writing about whose author we know nothing.  The author(s) of the Epistles of Barnabas and the Didache have likewise left us very little if any personal information except for the content of their own views about, respectively, the law of God and the proper discipline for Christian congregations.  Quadratus is a largely forgotten Apostolic Father who is only remembered in a single citation by Eusebius where he is said to have been an early leader of the Church of God in Athens and a disciple of the Apostles.  The Epistle to Diogenes is likewise written by someone about whom we know nothing.

What does all this tell us about the Apostolic Fathers?  For one, these were not famous people about whom the world knew a lot.  Most of these people are only remembered for what they wrote and for the fact that they lived in the generation or two after the apostles and who may have known the apostles personally.  That this sort of obscure connection is enough that their writings are often collected and some of them were well regarded throughout history suggests that we do not know much about what happened with Christianity in its early periods.  If a writer who is remembered for a single sentence and for having been a disciple of the apostles is listened among the top figures of the Church of God in the early 2nd Century, and if the best known figures are known to have been famous in large part for having been martyrs, that suggests that the Apostolic Fathers are truly only the survivors or remnants from a particularly difficult time in history where very little has survived from.  To the extent that we value what has survived, then these people have something that is worthwhile for us to ponder and reflect on, as we will do if time permits.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/03/30/on-the-follies-of-apostolic-succession/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/02/26/some-thoughts-on-polycarps-martyrdom/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/04/08/a-false-dilemma-between-polycarp-and-anicetus/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers: Part One (Identity)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: The Martyrdom Of Polycarp As Genre Template | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: You Had The Right Idea | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: The Second Epistle Of Clement To The Corinthians | Edge Induced Cohesion

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