Free Online Bible Library | Apostolic Fathers

We also have classes for: provides a comprehensive biblical education from world-class professors
to encourage spiritual growth in the church, for free.

Would you do us the favor of answering this two question poll so we can know how to serve you better? You will also be given the opportunity to join our team tasked with how to make better. Thank you.  --Bill Mounce


Apostolic Fathers

A group of early Christian writers believed at one time to have had direct contact with apostles. J.B. Cotelier's edition (1672) of the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 and 2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp spoke of “the Fathers who flourished in Apostolic Times,” while L.T. Ittig published Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp as “Apostolic Fathers” in 1699. Severus of Antioch had used the phrase similarly in the sixth century. Other works have featured among later collections: the fragments of Papias and Quadratus, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Didache,* and the Martyrdoms of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp. Recent editors have generally omitted Quadratus, the Martyrdoms except for Polycarp's, and often the Epistle to Diognetus. The designation “apostolic” is problematic in every case, but is most appropriately applied, if at all, to Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp. As used today of the earliest noncanonical writings of the late first and early second centuries, it is more conventional than descriptive.

In emphasis they are broadly pastoral and practical rather than theological or speculative, concerned with the internal life of the Christian communities moving toward “early Catholicism.” Their alleged decline from apostolic Christianity (e.g., T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 1948) appears less flagrant when their limited aims and changed circumstances are taken into account, but remains inescapable. They frequently recall NT books, especially the Pauline epistles, but not always as Scripture on a par with the OT. Their access to written gospels rather than other forms of the gospel tradition is often difficult to demonstrate, but has been too readily denied by H. Koester. Some of these writings enjoyed for varying periods localized recognition on the fringe of the NT canon.

See individual entries for each writer.

Texts: J.B. Lightfoot (5 vols., 2nd ed., 1889- 90-Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp); J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer (1891); K. Lake (2 vols., 1912-13); K. Bihlmeyer and W. Schneemelcher, vol. I (3rd ed., 1970)-all except Hermas.

Translations: Lightfoot; Lightfoot-Harmer; Lake; J.A. Kleist (2 vols., 1946-48); C.C. Richardson (1953); R.M. Grant et al. (6 vols.), vol. I: Introduction (1964-68).

Studies: The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (ed. Oxford Society of Historical Theology, 1905); H. Koester, Synoptische überlieferungen bei den Apostolischen Vätern (1957); J. Lawson, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers (1961); H. Kraft, Clavis Patrum Apostolicorum (1963)-vocabulary; L.W. Barnard, Studies in the Apostolic Fathers and Their Background (1966).

APOSTOLIC FATHERS (Patres Apostolici). Post-apostolic writers of generally orthodox tenor.

Meaning of the term.

Although apparently used by Severus who was Monophysite patriarch of Antioch from 512 to 518, the modern use of the term goes back to J. B. Cotelier who published an ed. of these Fathers in Paris in 1672 and to L. T. Ittig who used the exact term in his Leipzig ed. of 1699. Cotelier included in his ed. the supposed writings of Clement of Rome, of Ignatius, and of Polycarp who belong to the group without question. He also brought into his vol. the so-called Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The place of these is not certain, for their authorship and exact date are more difficult to determine, but they may be included. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a closely contemporary document, and the fragments from Papias, who flourished about 100-130, should also be recognized as properly within the collection. Finally, the Didaché, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, recovered in the 19th cent. is, as far as present knowledge goes, rightly a member of the group. E. J. Goodspeed, in his ed. of the Apostolic Fathers (1950) included the Doctrine of the Apostles, found in a Lat. VS in 1899, as an independent document, but it is perhaps better to consider it a basically Jewish source for the Didaché, equipped with a Christian conclusion. In 1956 J. A. Fischer published a new ed. of the Apostolic Fathers limited to the Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp group but with the addition of the fragment of the Apology of Quadratus. The addition was unfortunate. Quadratus may better remain with the apologists, persons whose purpose was distinctly apologetic and who were often writing at a later date than most of the Apostolic Fathers. The Address to Diognetus has usually been included with the Apostolic Fathers since the middle of the 18th cent. It, however, is also of apologetic purpose and prob. of later date. It is best omitted from the group.

The writings of Apostolic Fathers are, then, constituted of the following documents. (a). The so-called Epistles of Clement: (1) The First Letter, written in Rome c. 95; (2) The Second Letter, which is really a sermon, perhaps originating in Rome c. 140. (b). The Letters of Ignatius, written c. 115: (1) Ephesians, (2) Magnesians, (3) Trallians, (4) Romans, (5) Philadelphians, (6) Smyrnaeans, (7) Polycarp. (c). Two documents concerned with Polycarp: (1) His letter to the Philippians, c. 115, (2) The Martyrdom of Polycarp c. 160. (d) The Didaché, prob. from Syria c. 90. (e). The so-called Epistle of Barnabas, prob. from Egypt, c. 130. (f). The Shepherd of Hermas, from Rome, c. 150. (g). The quotations from Papias, from Hierapolis, c. 125.


The only common bonds between the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are their relatively early date and their general agreement with majority opinion as it developed in the church. There are, however, certain characteristics which may be mentioned as widely applicable. (1) The writings are primarily directed to Christians rather than to outsiders. (2) They are to a considerable extent concerned with questions of a practical nature, having to do with the state, church government, morality, and the sacraments. (3) A high view of the divine person, Christ, is pervasive. (4) Eschatology is not neglected or depreciated. The common language of all is Gr.

On the other hand, the form of the writings varies widely. There are (1) letters, both official and personal, (2) revelations, (3) a formal exhortation in the form of a letter, (4) a sermon, (5) a historical account, (6) moral and practical advice, and (7) exegetical fragments.


(a). The first factor to note is that these writings follow immediately in time sequence after the writings which are included in the canon of the NT. Although some of them are found in certain MSS, such as Aleph (א) and A, which contain canonical books, there was never any widespread opinion that they were canonical writings. They help to close a gap between the NT and later writers.

(b.) The Apostolic Fathers provide information about the Christian Church in the period immediately after the apostles. The subjects to which one or another refer include the officers of the church, its form of worship, its sacramental observances, its treatment by the civil government, its system of discipline, its ethical teaching, and its ultimate source of authority. The information needs, of course, to be subjected to the usual critical tests before its value can be ascertained.

History of texts and their use.

Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp have not disappeared completely from sight at any time, though their use has varied. (a). First Clement is the only document bearing Clement’s name which we can declare with assurance to be the work of Clement of Rome in the last decade of the 1st cent. a.d. It was used by Irenaeus toward the end of the 2nd cent. and was available for centuries thereafter. Little use was made of it during the later Middle Ages, but the Reformation brought it back into wider circulation.

(b). Ignatius’ letters were referred to with some frequency until the 5th cent. The Monophysites tried to support their cause with quotations from them. By the 6th cent. forged letters and interpolations in the genuine writings had appeared. It was not until James Ussher (1581-1656) worked on their text that the genuine was distinguished once more from the spurious.

(c). Barnabas and Hermas were neglected for centuries in the medieval period, though there is a Gr. MS containing Barnabas dating from the 11th cent. A printed Lat. Hermas appeared at Paris in 1513. Barnabas was printed at Oxford and in France in the mid-17th cent.

(d). The Didaché appears to have dropped out of sight in the medieval period. Its Gr. text was first printed in 1883 and made something of a sensation at the time.

Use of the Bible.

References to the OT in the Apostolic Fathers often imply the use of a Gr. VS. Books that are not in the Heb. canon are quoted as Scripture by Clement and Barnabas. As for the NT, Clement knew some of Paul, Hebrews, and prob. Acts. Ignatius knew a collection of Pauline epistles to which he constantly referred. Polycarp used all of the thirteen Pauline epistles except Philemon, and possibly 1 Thessalonians and Titus. He referred to Ephesians as Scripture (). Material contained in all of the gospels was used or referred to by one or more of the Apostolic Fathers, but it is not always clear whether oral tradition or a written gospel is being used. Barnabas certainly used Matthew. Papias gave valuable information about Mark and Matthew.


This is not unique or distinctive. God is the Creator and the Redeemer. He will be the Judge of all men. Knowledge of God and salvation are through Christ, who is the Son of God and child of God. The strong Pauline emphasis on grace is missing. The blood of Christ was “poured out for our salvation” (1 Clement 7:4). It is “incorruptible love” (Ignatius Rom 7:3). Clement used a trinitarian form, as truly “as God lives and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives and the Holy Spirit” (1 Clement 58:2). For Clement the Holy Spirit was concerned with inspiration. The Spirit spoke in the OT, apostles were “equipped with the fullness of the Holy Spirit” (42:3) and Clement wrote “through the Holy Spirit” (63:2). Ignatius also employed a trinitarian form, “ may the Son and the Father and the Spirit” (Magnesians 13:1). Christ was born of the Virgin Mary (Ephesians 18:2; 19:1); He rose on the Lord’s Day (Magnesians 9:1).

In Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp the theology stands largely in the apostolic tradition. However, in Clement particularly the influence of classical pagan tradition is strong. The ethical tradition of paganism is visible. In Ignatius and 2 Clement Gnostic terminology is used, but this does not prove the writers to be Gnostics. The influence of Judaism is stronger in Barnabas, the Didaché and Hermas.


The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are not abstruse treatises but are closely connected with the actual problems of the Church and its members in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Two subjects appear in the foreground: (1) the government of the church, (2) the personal morality of the individual members.

In the area of government, apostles were disappearing from sight, and attention was paid particularly to bishops, elders, and deacons, to the meaning of these terms and to the duties and relationships of the individual officers. The maintenance of the unity of the church was a highly important element in this connection. There was a strong emphasis on the bond of Christian love. The teaching of Scripture was often applied in this area by allegorical methods. The author of 2 Clement interpreted Genesis 1:27 as referring to Christ and the Church (14:2). Christ is the male, the Church the female. Papias seems to share this view.

In the area of ethics, personal duties were stressed. There was little, if any, attention to social problems. In the Didaché much attention was given to worship and the sacraments, but this was not general throughout the other writings.


Editions and Translations: O. Gebhardt, A. Harnack and T. Zahn, Patrum Apostolicorum Opera 1-3 (1875-1877), 2nd ed. of 1 (1876-78), ed. min. (1894), 6th ed. of min. (1920); J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers I, 1 and 2 (1890), II, 1, 2, 3 (1889); J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (1891, repr. 1956); K. Lake, The Apostolic Fathers (Loeb Class. Lib.) 1 (1912), 2 (1913); E. J. Goodspeed, The Apostolic Fathers (1950); K. Bihlmeyer u. W. Schneemelcher, Die Apostolischen Väter 1- (1956); R. M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers 1- (1964).

Aids: The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (1905); E. J. Goodspeed, Index Patristicus (1907, repr. 1960); H. Kraft, Clavis Patrum Apostolicorum (1963).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

An appellation usually given to the writers of the 1st century who employed their pens in the cause of Christianity. See Sub-apostolic Literature.

Biblical Training

The BiblicalTraining app gives you access to 2,100 hours of instruction (129 classes and seminars). Stream the classes, or download and listen to them offline. Share classes via social media, email, and more.