An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers:  Part Two (Writings)

What writings are part of the Apostolic Fathers and how should we organize them.  There are several ways that we can approach this question, and I would like to begin by introducing the works of the Apostolic Fathers we will be discussing and then discussing various ways that these writings can be organized or understood.  Not all of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are equally easy to find–some of them are very easy to find and some of them are very difficult to find.  Some of them have been translated multiple times and some of them appear not to have been translated for decades, and in one case almost a century.  This means that the Apostolic Fathers collection is a far more heterogeneous collection of writings than one is used to if one is familiar with reading the Bible or with more organized sets of ancient writings like the Ante-Nicene or Post-Nicene writers or the Philokalia [1].  Once we understand this, we can accept this and deal with it in the course of our study of these texts.

The following writings are what this investigation of early Christian writings will cover in order:

The Epistle of 1 Clement
The Epistle of 2 Clement
The Didache
The Epistle Of Barnabas
The Epistle To Diognetus
The Fragment Of Quadratus
The Letters Of Ignatius of Antioch (7 in number)
The Epistle Of Polycarp To The Philippians and the Martyrdom Of Polycarp
The Fragments Of Papias
The Shepherd of Hermas

Together these works, which range from a single sentence that has survived of a much larger apologetic work (The Fragment of Quadratus) to the lengthy writings of Hermas and 1 Clement, make a large and striking collection of writings.  Let us briefly summarize the writings as we have it and their context.  1 Clement was written, so far as we know, by the leader of the Roman church to the brethren of Corinth regarding questions of congregational authority.  2 Clement is an anonymous work that appears to have been the text of a sermon preserved by the congregation of Corinth and later attached to 1 Clement by a later scribe, and one of if not the first known homiletic texts.  The Didache is an early work on congregational discipline, the first of its kind to have survived.  The Epistle of Barnabas is a highly allegorical treatment of the biblical law by a late first or second century Hellenistic Christian.  The Epistle to Digonetus and the Fragment of Quadratus are two examples of early apologetics texts from the early to mid second century AD.  The letters of Ignatius of Antioch are seven letters written to six congregations and one person (Polycarp of Smyrna) while he was en route to martyrdom in Rome, mostly dealing with the encouragement of local church authorities in various congregations along the way.  The Epistle of Polycarp is a letter that contains a great deal of scriptural citations and references and also references the letters of Ignatius, while the Martyrdom of Polycarp is the first known martyrology outside of the Bible.  The Fragments of Papias are those parts of Papias’ writings which were preserved in quotations by Irenaeus and Eusibius out of a five volume collection of writings about the Gospels.  Finally, the Shepherd of Hermas was a lengthy allegory comparing the church of God to a tower being built of stones that symbolize individual members.

Within this body of literature, what are the genres that are represented?  1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the letters of Ignatius, and the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians are all examples of epistles of a kind that would be very familiar to New Testament readers.  2 Clement is similar to Hebrews as a writing that appears like a treatise or the written text of a homily (sermon).  The Didache is a congregational manual of discipline.  The Epistles of Diognetus and Quadratus are early apologetical works written in the ancient style.  The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a foundational text in its genre of matyrology, and a work that served as an inspiration for many other examples of its kind.  Papias’ original writing was an early example of a commentary on the Gospels as well as perhaps a spiritual memoir of the oral stories told to him by the associates of the apostles he spoke to during the course of his life.  The Shepherd of Hermas is an early example of the Christian allegory, a genre that would later be graced with the efforts of John Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, and others.  This is a wide and diverse selection of genres, certainly a very miscellaneous one.

How do we find these writings nowadays?  As we might expect, we encounter these writings in a very miscellaneous fashion as well.  It is possible, for example, to find the majority of these texts as part of a “core” selection of Apostolic Fathers that includes 1 Clement, the letters of Ignatius, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle to Diognetus, the writings of and about Polycarp, and the Didache.  Separately there are inexpensive options for reading the Shepherd of Hermas and the fragments of Papias.  Finding the fragment of Quadratus and the book of 2 Clement is a considerably more difficult task that likely requires a fair amount of ingenuity on the part of the reader.  It seems likely that before the Apostolic Fathers as a whole are recognized as a coherent body of text that there are going to need to be publications that include the whole set of writings, including the fragments, allowing the reader to make judgments on the text rather than being selected according to the prejudices of the editor, but it is unclear if and when this will ever happen.  At present, at least, there appears to be no easily accessible and mass market publication that includes all of the apostolic fathers in one single volume for a reasonable price, and this is certainly one factor that has hindered the ability of these texts to be better known by even those who would be likely to view the texts favorably.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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