1902 Encyclopedia > Apostolic Fathers

Apostolic Fathers




APOSTOLIC FATHERS. The apostolic fathers is a name given to certain writers in the earliest period of Christianity, who were believed to have been the disciples of the apostles, and to have had intercourse with them. Those generally included under the title are Clemens Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas, and Hermas. Sometimes the name is extended to Papias of Hierapolis and the writer of the epistle to Diognetus. A critical examination of the writings attributed to these men, and a critical sifting of the traditions which we have in relation to their history, bring out the circumstance that the name is unsuitable. Clemens Romanus, Barnabas, and Hermas were supposed to be persons mentioned in the New Testament; but criticism proves conclusively that this is a mistake in regard to Barnabas and Hermas, and possibly also in regard to Clemens. Polycarp, in al probability, and according to the best testimony, had intercourse with apostles, but it was in his early youth; and his Letter belongs to a period considerably later than that of the apostles. The Epistles of Ignatius, as well as the personal history of that martyr, are involved in great obscurity, and critics differ widely in regard to both. At the same time, the writings assigned by most critics to these men with some degree of certainty belong to a very early age of Christianity. They are among the earliest utterance of the Christian faith which have come down to us. All of them are of the nature of occasional productions, with perhaps the exception of the Pastor of Hermas. All of them breathe a spirit of deep piety. There is no attempt to formulate the truths of Christianity. There are very few references to the books of the New Testament, and very few quotations from them. All of them are written in Greek.

Clemens Romanus. – According to the statement of Irenaeus, Clemens was the third bishop of the Roman Church; this seems to have been the tradition among the Greek writers. Tertullian, on the other hand, seems to have believed that he was the first bishop, and that he had been ordained by St. Peter. Origen regarded him as the Clemens mentioned in the Epistle to the Philippians, and Clemens Alexandrinus often calls him an apostle. Nothing is known of his death. Very late fictions represented him as a martyr. Eusebius gives as the date of his episcopate from 93 to 101 A.D. The only writing which can in any satisfactory manner be ascribed to Clemens Romanus us an epistle from the Roman Church to the Corinthian. Quarrels had arisen in the Corinthian Church, most probably in the reign of Domitian, as to some of the office-bearers of the church. And the Roman Church sent a letter to the Corinthian Church urging it to pursue a peaceful course, to shun envy and jealousy, and to do all things in order. The writing of this letter is ascribed to Clemens by Dionysius, bishop of the Corinthian Church, in a letter to Soter, bishop of the roman Church (166-174 A.D.), and all subsequent testimony is in favour of this authorship. The letter was found at the end of the Codex Alexandrinus. Its position there is in harmony with the circumstance noted by several of the ancients, that it was read in the churches on the Sunday. Clemens Alexandrinus also frequently quotes it as the work of the "Apostle Clemens," and the mode of quotation is such as to lead one to believe that he regarded it as Scripture, though some have maintained that he did not regard it as canonical. The genuineness of the epistle has been generally acknowledged. There is strong external testimony for it, and the internal evidence is at least not against it. But as Dionysius of Corinth (166 A.D.) is the first to mention Clemens as the author, there is a considerable interval between the date usually assigned to the epistle and the time of Dionysius, during which no one testifies to the epistle. Accordingly some critics have refused to recognize Clemens as the author, and they put the letter well on into the 2d century. The date usually assigned to the letter is 96 to 97 A.D. Some critics have assigned it to the year 68 A.D., but the arguments are not satisfactory. Some writers have taken exception to a few chapters in the letter which they regard as interpolations, but their opinions have not been generally adopted. The letter is defective. A whole leaf of the MS. is supposed to be wanting. The best edition of the epistle is by Professor Lightfoot (London and Cambridge, 1869). A whole literature arose around the name of Clemens in subsequent times. Of this literature the following portions have come down to us. 1. a second Epistle to the Corinthians, found along with the first in the Codex Alexandrinus. As far as one can judge from the writing itself, this work is rather a homily than a letter. In all probability its author belonged to Egypt. Various suppositions have been made as to its authorship, but none that commands the assent of a considerable number of critics. It seems to have been written towards the middle or end of the 2d. 2. Two letters on Virginity, found in Syriac. There is no external testimony that Clemens was the author of these letters, and they breathe as spirit of asceticism and dislike of marriage different from that prevalent in the early times of Christianity. They also refer to customs of a later date. Notwithstanding this, some critics, especially some Roman Catholics, have keenly defended their genuineness. 3. The Clementines. These appear in two forms: the Recognitions in Latin, and the Homilies in Greek. They are a fiction. The writer attempts to represent the state of the church as it was during the period between the ascension of Christ and the entrance of St. Paul on his work as an apostle. St. Peter is accordingly the hero of the work, and his great enemy is Simon the magician. The doctrines of the book are peculiar, and are mot nearly allied to those that are reckoned to be the doctrines of the Ebionites. The question arises, Did the writer wish to represent the doctrines as the merely temporary doctrines of that period of transition? Or did he regard the doctrines which he has put forth in the work as the only true doctrines, and the subsequent doctrines of the Catholic church as perversions the true and aberrations from them? Baur and the Tubingen school have regarded the book as giving a genuine picture of the state of the early church and of Ebionitic doctrine, and a great part of their theory of the origin and rise of Christianity is based upon it. They suppose that in Simon the magician the writer has attacked the apostle Paul. Many critics suppose that the work was written at a very early period, but that it received numerous additions. As the work now exists, it seems to belong to the end of the 2d or beginning of the 3d century. 4. The Apostolical Constitutions. This work is a series of regulations in regard to the management of the church, such as the functions and character of bishops, presbyters, and deacons (see last article). In all probability the work was the result of one addition after another made to an originally small nucleus. Some assign portion of it to the apostolic age. Whiston thought that it was inspired. Most probably the main portion of it belongs to the 3d century. There is no reason for connecting with it the name of Clemens, though this was done by ancient writers. We should add to this list that some ascribed the canonical epistle of the Hebrews to Clemens Romanus.

Ignatius. – The information we get in regard to Ignatius up till the time of Eusebius is exceedingly scanty. He is mentioned in the epistle of Polycarp. Origen speaks of him in two passages, which, however, may possibly be interpolations. Eusebius in his Chronicon, at the year 70 or 71 A.D., states that he was appointed bishop of Antioch, and at the year 109 A.D., that he suffered martyrdom. He repeats the same statements in his Ecclesiastical History, introducing his account of the martyrdom with the words, "The story goes." After the time of Eusebius our information becomes much more precise and minute. The birthday of the martyr (i.e., the day of his martyrdom) was celebrated in the church of Antioch. Speeches were delivered in his praise. Wonderful stories were told of him. He was one of the children whom Christ took up in His arms and blessed. He introduced antiphonal chants into the service of the church, because he had seen a vision of angels praising God in antiphonal hymns. The details of his martyrdom are given in a document devoted to the purpose. Of this document there are eight forms; but one is generally believed to be better than the rest. This one states that Trajan, in the ninth year of his reign, was in Antioch, that Ignatius was brought before him, and that the emperor condemned the bishop to be sent to Rome, and to be exposed to the wild beasts, The writers then describe the journey of Ignatius to Rome, mention various letters which he wrote on the way, and then narrate his exposure to the wild beasts, and how they saw him afterwards in a vision. The letters of Ignatius cause great difficulty to the critic. Eight of the letters ascribed to him are now universally rejected. There remain seven others. These seven appear in two Greek forms, a longer and a shorter. Latin translation of these forms are found, and they differ somewhat from the Greek. And of the seven letters three are found in Syriac, and the Syriac form is much shorter than the shortest of the Greek. Which are the original letters? Or have we the original letters at all? Unfortunately before the time of Eusebius there is no external testimony to these letters that can give us any clue to the true nature of the text. And the testimony of Eusebius is of little value. He states distinctly that there were seven letters. But the critics who maintain that the seven shorter Greek letters are largely interpolated, have no hesitation in agreeing to the opinion that these interpolation were made before the time of Eusebius. The shorter form unquestionably belongs to the 2d or 3d century, most probably to the 2d. A few critics have maintained that the longer form is the genuine. A very large number of critics regard the shorter Greek form as the original form, though almost all allow that there are some traces of interpolation even in the shorter epistles. Other critics maintain that the shorter Syriac forms are alone genuine, that they are not epitomes. But the original letters, and they appeal to the circumstance that all the references to the epistles up to the time of Eusebius belong exclusively to the three Syriac epistles. The question is embittered by a keen controversy in regard to Episcopacy, the Ignatian letters being supposed to afford strong evidence of the early institution of that form of church government. The longer text was first known to scholars. Usher discovered a Latin version of the shorter form, and Vossius the Greek original of this version. Tattam found the Syriac translation in an Egytian monastery, and Cureton edited it in 1845. Cureton’s services in connection with Ignatius deserve the highest praise; and his Corpus Ignatianum contains almost all the evidence that can be brought to bear on the subject. The contest in regard to Ignatius’s writings has been keen in various periods of the church’s history; and since the Syriac version appeared, the subject has been discussed by a host of writers, among whom may be mentioned Bunsen, Baur, Dusterdieck, Denziger, Hilgenfeld, Lipsius, Ritschl, Merx, Nirschl, Zahn, and Newman.





Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna. The principal part of the information we have in regard to him is derived from Irenaeus, and may be accepted with confidence. Irenaeus knew Polycarp personally, and remembered how Polycarp "related his intercourse with John and the rest who had seen the Lord." The apostles appointed Polycarp a bishop of the church in Smyrna, and he remained there a long time teaching the truth. In the time of Anicetus, Polycarp came to Rome, and showed a strong spirit of love and charity, which was fully-reciprocated by the roman bishop. They differed in regard to the celebration of the day of the Passover, but their differences did not interfere with their love for each other. A special document describes the martyrdom of Polycarp. There are good reasons for doubting the minute accuracy of this work, but the main circumstances have the appearance of being true. A persecution had arisen in Smyrna against the Christians, and naturally a demand was made for Polycarp, the chief of the Christians. At first he fled, but finding that this was of no use, he allowed himself to be apprehended and brought back. He was led before the proconsul, and urged to swear by Caesar and revile Christ. "Eighty and six years,’ said Polycarp, "have I served Him, and He has done me no ill, and how can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?" The multitude wished the Asiarch to expose the bishop to the lions, but the Asiarch refused, as the time for lions was over. So the people gathered wood and lighted a fire. And Polycarp was placed in the fire, and ultimately also stabbed. The date of his martyrdom has been matter of keen discussion. Eusebius fixed it at 166 A.D. The Martyrium mentions that it took place in the proconsulate of Statius Quadratus. Recently Waddington has tried to show that Quadratuswas proconsul in 154-5, and Lipsius has based on this result the conclusion that Polycarp suffered martyrdom in 155. This date, however, is open to serious objections; and even Waddington’s reasons for placing the proconsulate of Quadratus in 154-5 are not of a satisfactory nature. The only writing that can be now attributed to Polycarp is a letter to the Philippines. The letter is mentioned by Irenaeus and by subsequent writers. Jerome mentions that it was read in the churches. It is a simple outpouring of ordinary Christian thought and feeling. The Tubingen School deny the genuineness of the epistle on internal evidence. Ritschl has tried to show that it is largely interpolated, and there are strong reasons for believing the thirteenth chapter an interpolation.

Barnabas. – There has come down to us a work called the Epistle of Barnabas. This work is unanimously ascribed to Barnabas, the companion of St. Paul, by early Christian writers. Clemens Alexandrinus quotes the letter seven times, and speaks of it as the work of the apostle Barnabas. Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome mention it. The internal evidence is conclusive against its genuineness. The writer regards the Jews as entirely wrong in having practiced the ceremonial law. He thinks that Moses never intended that the precepts of the law should be carried out literally. They were to be understood from the first spiritually. By this literal interpretation the Jews had forfeited all claim to the covenant. The covenant belongs only to Christians who obey the law in spirit. The writer applies this principle to sacrifices, circumcision, and the Sabbath. It is difficult to imagine that Barnabas could have adopted such a mode of viewing the law. In all probability he adhered to some of the Jewish practices to the end of his days. Moreover, the writer commits such mistakes in relation to the Jewish ritual as no Jew would commit who had had practical experience of it. Some of the opinions in the letter, and the whole tone of thought indicate that the writer had strongly felt the influence of Alexandrian Judaistic speculation. Accordingly, some critics have maintained that it was written in Alexandria. There is no clue to a date; but there are various indications which have been differently interpreted by different critics. Some, as Weizsacker, have assigned it to the reign of Vespasian; others, as Wieseler, to the reign of Domitian; but the great majority of critics assign it to the reign of Hadrian, some time between 119 and 126 A.D. The letter consists of two parts. The latter part is somewhat different in style and purport from the former, and, accordingly, doubts have been entertained as to its genuineness. But there is no good reason for doubt, and external testimony is in favour of it. The first five chapters were extant only in the Latin translation until Tischendorf discovered the entire Greek of the first part in the Codex Sinaiticus. The letter is interesting, as throwing light upon a peculiar phase of theological speculation in the early church.

Hermas. The Pastor of Hermas is one of the most interesting books of Christian antiquity. The name Hermas occurs several times in the work, and it was therefore natural for the ancients to suppose that this was the name of the author. The book at a very early period became widely known in the east, and was regarded as inspired. Irenaeus, Clemens Alexandinus, and Origen speak of it and quote it as Scripture, and Eusebius uses somewhat similar language in regard to it. Origen asserts his belief that the author was the Hermas mentioned in the Epistle to the Romans. The African Church held a different opinion in regard to it. Tertullian speaks slightingly of it; and the story became current that it was written by a Hermas, who was brother to Pius, bishop of Rome from 140 to 155 A.D. It may be doubted whether the author has really given his name. The work is fictitious in form, and there is no good reason for supposing that he has introduced any real characters into it. There is no clear indication of a date, but various circumstances lead to the inference that it was written towards the end of the reign of Hadrian, or the beginning of the reign of Antoninus Pius. Internal evidence points strongly to Italy as the place in which it was written. The book is divided into three parts; visions, commandments, and similitudes. It was very popular with the ancient church, and deservedly so. It presents Christian truth in an attractive manner. Its tone is high and noble, and it breathes the spirit of the gospel of love. The name of Christ does not occur in it, and as the references to the Son of God are few, some have characertised the book as strongly Judaistic. Indeed, various jeresies and heretical tendencies have been discovred in it by keen-eyed critics; but as Clemens Alexandrinus and Origen failed to see them, and as the great mass of the early church accepted it as eminently fitted to edify, we cannot but think that the critics are wrong. The Pastor of Hermas has come down to us in several Latin translation. Simonides was the first to give us any portion of it in Greek. He brought three leaves of a codex of it from Mount Athos, with a copy of a considerable portion of the rest. The remainder of the Athos MS. has not been discovered. Tischendorf found a large portion of the Pastor OF Hermas in Greek at the end of the Codex Sinaiticus. The Greek is very nearly the same as the Greek of Simonides.

There are numerous editions of the works of the apostolic fathers, but special mention may be made of those of Cotelerius, Hefele, Dressel, Hilgenfeld, and Jacobson. Professor Lightfoot’s Clemens Romanus is the first part of what promises to be the most satisfactory edition of the apostolic fathers. Translations of all the works mentioned in this article, including the writings attributed to Clemens, are given in Clark’s Ante-Nicene Christian Library; and the works are discussed in Hilgenfeld’s Apostolische Vater, 1853, and Donaldson’s Apostolical Fathers, 1874. (J. D.)






The above article was written by James Donaldson, LL.D., Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of St. Andrews; Rector of High School, Aberdeen, 1866; Professor of Humanity at Aberdeen University, 1881-86; author of Early Christian Literature and Doctrine; Modern Greek Grammar; and Expiatory and Substitutionary Sacrifices of the Greeks; editor of The Apostolical Fathers.




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