The Apostolic Fathers are a small number of Early Christian authors who lived and wrote in the second half of the 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century. They are acknowledged as leaders in the early church, although their writings were not included in the New Testament. They include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, the author of the Didache, and the author of the Shepherd of Hermas.
The label "Apostolic Fathers" has been applied to them since the 17th century to indicate that they were thought of as being of the generation that had personal contact with the Twelve Apostles. Thus they provide a link between the Apostles—who had personal contact with Jesus—and the later generations ofChurch Fathers, which includes the Christian apologists, defenders of orthodoxy, and developers ofdoctrine.
Clement of Rome (c.a. 1 CE to 99 CE)
He is believed to have been the fourth bishop of Rome and served during the last decade of the first century. Around 96, he sent a letter from the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, a major city in northeastern Greece and the site of St. Paul's evangelization. This letter, known as Clement's First Epistle to the Corinthians, is most likely directed against immoral practices of prostitution connected with the Temple of Aphrodite. In the letter, Clement expresses his dissatisfaction with events taking place in the Corinthian Church and asks the people to repent for their unchristian ways. The letter is important because it indicates that the author was acting as the head of the Christian Church and that it was centered in Rome. Clement was allegedly put to death under Emperor Domitian.
Ignatius of Antioch (c.a. 35 or 50 CE – 98 or 117 CE)
The second Bishop of Antioch, Syria, this disciple of the beloved Disciple John was consecrated Bishop around the year 69 by the Apostle Peter, the first Pope. A holy man who was deeply loved by the Christian faithful, he always made it his special care to defend “orthodoxy” (right teaching) and “orthopraxy” (right practice) among the early Christians.
In 107, during the reign of the brutal Emperor Trajan, this holy Bishop was wrongfully sentenced to death because he refused to renounce the Christian faith. He was taken under guard to Rome where he was to be brutally devoured by wild beasts in a public spectacle. During his journey, his travels took him through Asia Minor and Greece. He made good use of the time by writing seven letters of encouragement, instruction and inspiration to the Christians in those communities. We still have these letters as a great treasure of the Church today.
The content of the letters addressed the hierarchy and structure of the Church as well as the content of the orthodox Christian faith. It was Bishop Ignatius who first used the term “catholic” to describe the whole Church. These letters connect us to the early Church and the unbroken, clear teaching of the Apostles, which was given to them directly by Jesus Christ. They also reveal the holiness of a man of God who became himself a living letter of Christ. The shedding his blood in the witness of holy martyrdom was the culmination of a life lived conformed to Jesus Christ. Ignatius sought to offer himself, in Christ, for the sake of the Church, which he loved. His holy martyrdom occurred in the year 107.
Polycarp of Smyrna (c.a. 69 CE – 155 CE)
He was the bishop of Smyrna, martyr, and one of the foremost leaders of the Church in the second century. Few details of his life are extant with any reliability beyond his famous martyrdom, which was recounted in the Martyrium Polycarpi. It is believed, however, that he was converted to the faith by St. John the Evangelist about 80 A.D. and became bishop of Smyrna about 96 A.D. He was, as was his friend St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the most important intermediary links between the apostolic and the patristic eras in the Church, especially in Christian Asia Minor. A defender of orthodoxy, he opposed such heretical groups as the Marcionites and Valentinians. He also authored a surviving epistle to the Philippians, exhorting them to remain strong in the faith. The letter is of great interest to scholars because it demonstrates the existence of New Testament texts, with quotes from Matthew and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the first letters of Peter and John. When Ignatius was being taken to Rome to be put to death, he wrote of Polycarp being clothed “with the garment of grace." Polycarp was himself arrested by Roman officials inSmyrna soon after returning from a trip to Rome to discuss the date for Easter. He refused to abjure the faith, telling his captain that he had served Christ for eighty-six years. The Romans burned him alive with twelve companions. The year of his death has been put at 155 or 156, although Eusebius of Caesarea places the year at 167 or 168, meaning it would have fallen in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. If so, changes in the year of his birth would be necessary. The most detailed account of his death was the Martyrium Polycarpi.
It is, in all probability, the oldest surviving extant piece of non-canonical literature. It is not so much a letter as a handbook for new Christian converts, consisting of instructions derived directly from the teachings of Jesus. The book can be divided into three sections. The first six chapters consist of Christian lessons; the next four give descriptions of the Christian ceremonies, including baptism, fasting and communion; and the last six outline the church organization.
The Didache claims to have been authored by the twelve apostles. While this is unlikely, the work could be a direct result of the first Apostolic Council, c.50 C.E. (Acts 15:28). Similarities to the Apostolic Decree are apparent, and the given structure of the church is quite primitive. Also, the description of the Eucharist (bread and wine) carefully avoids mention of the "body and blood of Christ," obviously being regarded as one of the secret mysteries of early Christianity. Most scholars agree that the work, in its earliest form, may have circulated as early as the 60's C.E., though additions and modifications may have taken place well into the third century. The work was never officially rejected by the Church, but was excluded from the canon for its lack of literary value.
The complete text of the Didache was discovered in the Codex Hierosolymitanus, though a number of fragments exist, most notably in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. It was originally composed in Greek, probably within a small community.
The Shepherd of Hermas
It is a text from the very early Christian church of the second century, during the period in which the New Testament was being canonized. A popular text during the second and third centuries, the Shepherd was considered scriptural by many of the theologians of the time. It is written as a call to repentance and adherence to a strict moralistic life.
As a witness to early Christianity in Rome, the Shepherd of Hermas includes a distinct Jewish witness to an early Christian form. The author, or authors, of the Shepherd are not known. A number of ancient sources attribute the identity of the author to a Hermas who was a brother of the Bishop of Rome, Pius I. Pius I was Bishop of Rome from 140 to 155. Language and theology of the work also point to earlier composition of some parts of the Shepherd. Reference in the work to Clement I of Rome suggest that at least the first two visions can be dated from his time as Bishop of Rome, from 88 to 97. Origen proposed that the Apostle Paulwas an author, as in (Romans 16:14) he sent greetings to a Hermas, a Christian in Rome. Yet, apparent familiarity in the text with Revelations and other Johannine texts supports a second century composition of the text.
In the Shepherd Hermas speaks of his life and the development of Christian virtues as he relates his life as a freed Christian slave. The teaching point of the book is thus ethical, not theological. The work is divided into three main sections. The first section describes five visions; the second section presents 12 mandates; and the last section presents ten parables, sometimes referred to as similitudes.
Hermas begins the book relating his being sold to a certain Rhoda, who later frees him, and whom he meets again. In his travels Hermas sees her again in a vision in which she relates his need to pray for forgiveness for an unchaste thought that he had had. In his vision, Hermas is aided by an aged woman who tells him to do penance and correct the sins of his children. In a later vision, an angel of repentance appears in the guise of a shepherd who delivers to Hermas the precepts, or mandates, that in that form present the development of early Christian ethics. The mandates, or similitudes, follow also in the form of visions that are explained by the angelic shepherd.
Throughout the book Hermas presents himself as a simple person who is genuinely pious and conscientious.