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The Apostolic Fathers

The term Apostolic Fathers (Latin: Patres Apostolici) was first used towards the end of the 17th century to describe the Christian writers of the late first century and early second century of the common era and the writings attributed to them . [a] These include writings such as I & II Clement, the seven Epistles of Ignatius, Epistle of Polycarp, Epistle of Barnabas,The Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache and Epistle to Diognetus. [1]

But the use of the term meant more than just a collection of early Christian writings. The authors of these writings were claimed by Christian tradition to be the pupils and friends of the apostles. [2] The apostolic fathers are part of the proof to the claim of the Christian church of their apostolic faith. We will examine this claim closely here.

We start with this quote on the apostolic fathers by New Testament scholar Edgar J. Goodspeed (1871-1962) in his book The Twelve: The Story of Christ's Apostles (1957):

Modern research have considerably reduced their [the apostolic fathers-PT] closeness to the apostolic circle...Hardly any one of their authors can be confidently said to have known the apostles, or any of them...[3]

Indeed many of the writings are by anonymous or pseudonymous authors, of which no claim to apostolic succession can be demonstrated:

  • The Epistle to Diognetus [b] is an anonymous document probably written around 120-200 CE. The main reason for the inclusion of this writing in the apostolic fathers is the claim of its author to be a "pupil of the apostles" in chapter 11 of the epistle. Yet, as the editors of Early Christian Writings point out, "any Christian who believed the creed could say that". [5]

  • The Didache, or Teachings of the Apostles, [c] is another document of which the author, date and place of origin are unknown. It is normally dated to around 90-110 CE. Although some scholars have argued for a 70 CE date of composition. [9] In any case, the work make no reference or claim to have been written by an apostle or by someone who knows any of the original apostles. Indeed the exhortation to the congregation to "choose for yourselves bishops and deacons" (Didache 15) expressly argues against any idea of apostolic succession of church leaders.

  • The Epistle of Barnabas [d] made its way into the collection because this Barnabas was associated with the friend of the Jerusalem apostles who introduced Paul to them. (Acts 9:27, 11:22-26, 13:1) However the work does not explicitly name its author. The document was attributed to Barnabas by Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215 CE). However Clement's contemporary, Origen (c185-254), rejected this attribution. Modern scholarship agrees with Origen in rejecting the idea that it was written by the first century Barnabas. It is normally dated by scholars to around 130-135 CE, although one finds estimates ranging from 70 to 200 CE in the literature. [7]

The next two sets of writings in the apostolic fathers are not anonymous but the writers make no claim to having known the apostles or having been in a line of succession from them:

  • The Shepherd of Hermas [e] is not an anonymous work because the author repeatedly referred to himself as Hermas. The work is normally dated to between 90-150 CE. The Muratorian Canon, a document dating to 170 CE, mentioned that Hermas was the brother of Pius I, bishop of Rome. Pius I was bishop between the years 140-155 CE. This would make Hermas a mid second century work. The work does not make any claim of being apostolic. [9]

  • The seven epistles of Ignatius were written by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch on his way to martyrdom in Rome somewhere around the end of the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE). The seven epistles were written to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna with a personal letter to Polycarp (c69-c155 CE). Nothing is known about Ignatius prior to these seven letters, and nothing further is known about him (except the obvious extrapolation that he was martyred in Rome) after he had written them. In his epistle he argued for the supremacy of bishops, yet made no mention of succession (apostolic or otherwise) at all. [10]

The succession claims regarding the remaining two apostolic fathers, Polycarp and Clement of Rome, are examined elsewhere. But even there it can be seen that neither Polycarp nor Clement knew any of the apostles.

Our analysis of the apostolic fathers had essentially confirmed the extreme case of Edgar Goodspeed's remarks above: namely that no case can be made for any of the apostolic fathers to have known any of the apostles.

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a.The term Apostolic Fathers seems to have been used as early as the sixth century when it was used by Severus of Antioch(c465-538) to refer to those church fathers who came immediately after the first (apostolic) generation. The use of the phrase to refer to the collection of their writings is generally credited to Ittig in 1669.
b.Addressed to "my lord Diognetus", the anonymous epistle is actually a treatise that argues for the superiority of Christianity over paganism and Judaism. The lower end of the dating (120) is based on the its knowledge of the Preaching of Peter, a document known to date from the early second century. The upper end (200) is set by its quotation by Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215). [4]
c.The Didache is a short manual of Christian morals, liturgy and practice.
d.The Epistle of Barnabas is a treatise which interprets the Old Testament allegorically. It uses the allegorical interpretation to argue that Christians, rather than the Jews, are the true heirs of the covenant.
e.The Shepherd of Hermas consists of three major sections. The works is divided into three major sections called respectively: Visions, Mandates and Similitudes. The earlier sections deal with eschatological visions while the rest relates to Christian virtues, behavior and principles. Initially his visions were delivered through the medium of an old woman. Later it was delivered by the angel of repentance in the guise of a shepherd (hence the name of the whole work!). The Shepherd of Hermas is the longest document ever produced by the early Church; being longer than any individual book in the New Testament. Only Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, put together, is longer than the Shepherd of Hermas. (The total length of The Shepherd of Hermas is about 75% of Luke-Acts)[8]

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1.Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: p93
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p30
2.Goodspeed, The Twelve: p116
4.Staniforth & Louth (ed), Early Christian Writings: p139
6.Chadwick, The Early Church: p47
Ferguson, op. cit.: p328
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p151
Staniforth & Louth (ed), op. cit.: p188-189
Streeter, The Primitive Church, p.280
7.Ferguson, : p167
Goodspeed, op. cit.: p127
Livingstone, op. cit.: p50
Staniforth & Louth (ed), op. cit.: p157
8.Ferguson, op. cit.: p521
Goodspeed, op. cit.: p118-120
Livingstone, op. cit.: p238
9.Chadwick, op. cit.: p43
Ferguson, : p521
Goodspeed, op. cit.: p118-120
Livingstone, op. cit.: p238
10. Ferguson, : p559
Goodspeed, op. cit.: p122-125
Livingstone, op. cit.: p255
Streeter, op. cit.: p164

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