Who were the Apostolic Fathers?

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Image: Ancient Christian Studies, Shawn White, 2017

The Apostolic Fathers were members of the early church who bridged the New Testament era with the beginning of the Christian era following the lives of the apostles. Some are known by name while others are anonymous. Their works date to the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, and provide valuable historical insight into the Christian movement, heretical teachings, and persecutions facing the Christian community during the period. Some of them were acquainted and taught by the apostles of Christ, notably the three principle Apostolic Fathers: Clement of Rome (30-100 AD), Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD), and Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155 AD).

Clement of Rome was the third bishop of the church in Rome thought to be consecrated by the disciple Peter. It is possible, although not certain, that he is the Clement mentioned in the New Testament text of Philippians 4:3 (if this text refers to him then Clement would have been around the age of 30 at the time the Apostle Paul mentioned him). He penned a letter to the church in Corinth in 95 AD because of issues relating to leadership. Younger men in the church were seeking to replace those within the leadership they deemed too old to lead. Clement opposed such actions and penned a lengthy letter in which he quotes texts from the Old and New Testaments commanding the younger men to have respect for their leaders. That he quotes the New Testament (i.e. Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrews) suggests that Christians might have had some notion of scripture before the New Testament was canonized, although this is not certain. The text 2 Clement is not considered an authentic letter of Clement of Rome.

“Charity unites us to God… There is nothing mean in charity, nothing arrogant. Charity knows no schism, does not rebel, does all things in concord. In charity all the elect of God have been made perfect.”

Ignatius of Antioch was the bishop of the church in Antioch likely personally acquainted with the Apostle John. He is well-known for the letters he wrote while on voyage as a prisoner to Rome as a prisoner awaiting execution. By all accounts he was looking forward to his martyrdom, likely as a result of his desire to imitate Christ’s Passion and suffering, and therefore be united with him in suffering. As he traveled he was joined by Christians who followed him and he left letters in the cities he visited. These letters encouraged people in the faith while some were critical of the Judaizers (those who identified as Christians yet taught that Jewish customs and practices needed to be embraced in order to attain salvation) who rejected the authority of New Testament texts, as well as those who promoted heretical beliefs such as the Docetists. Ignatius criticized the Docetists for teaching that Christ did not have a natural, human body while on Earth but a phantom one, and that Christ had suffered and died only in appearance. Ignatius contended that Christ’s body was a human one.

“I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way… Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God.”

Polycarp of Smyrna was born in Asia Minor (western Turkey). He met Ignatius when he passed through Smyrna as a prisoner, and was taught by the Apostle John. He was elevated fairly rapidly in the church of Smyrna. It is also the church addressed in the New Testament book Revelation 2:8-11 foretelling that it would suffer persecution. Polycarp penned the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (the same church the Apostle Paul had written to earlier in the New Testament) in which he shows concern for disorder within the church body, those leaving the church, and those holding to heretical beliefs (such as the Marcionites who rejected the Old Testament portrayal of God). He urged Christians to do good works, and to look to the examples of faith exercised through the martyrdom suffered by Ignatius and others. The letter approvingly refers to and quotes many New Testament texts, including the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). Polycarp was martyred under the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (86—161 AD) after being arrested and brought into the arena. The account of his martyrdom is worth noting in some detail,

“Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say. Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

Following this remark the elderly Polycarp was taken to the stake.

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