Biblical Studies Apostolic Fathers
Clayton N. Jefford, William Varner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0150


The expression “Apostolic Fathers” refers to a collection of early Christian writings traditionally viewed as being authored by people who knew or were associated with the New Testament (NT) apostles. A modern edition usually includes the following works, although the order varies considerably: 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Papias, Hermas, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Diognetus, and Quadratus. The term Apostolic Fathers (AF) is actually an artificial one, never having been used until a collection was made by J. B. Cotelier in 1672. The expression “Apostolical Fathers” can be traced back at least as far as William Wake, who in 1693 published a translation of the above titles, minus Didache, Diognetus, Papias, and Quadratus. The expression “Apostolic Fathers” was used by Thomas Ittig in his edition of 1699 and by Jean Le Clerc in his edition of Cotelier in 1698. Additions to the number of the AF were made by Andreas Gallandi, who included also the Letter to Diognetus, the Fragments of Papias, and the fragment of Quadratus (1765). The discovery of the Didache by Bryennios (published in 1883) led to the inclusion of that document also among the AF. The Bryennios manuscript included Barnabas, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, the Didache, and the long recension of the letters of Ignatius. This collection of the books copied in the eleventh century was made when little had been mentioned about the AF and when the understanding of 2nd-century Christianity had been shaped mostly by Eusebius’s discussion of Ignatius as well as Clement of Rome, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Justin Martyr. Apart from Clement, Didache, Polycarp, and Papias, no significant link with the apostles seems likely, and Barnabas and 2 Clement are certainly pseudonymous. Diognetus includes an ambiguous reference to the author as “a disciple of apostles” (11.1), but most consider that to be a general, not a literal reflection. Patristic interest in the AF centered primarily on the Christological significance of Ignatius’s description of Jesus. Less use was made of Polycarp, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, and Hermas, and occasionally some references were made to the writings of Papias that had not survived. Eusebius placed Hermas, Barnabas, and the Didache among the antilegomena that comprised the second section of writings “not universally accepted” as scriptural. He mentioned that 1 Clement was still read in churches, but that 2 Clement was not often mentioned by the ancients. He also suggested that Hermas was useful for instruction but expressed some doubts about the intelligence of Papias. The association of the authors with the apostles provided them with credentials as valid as some of the NT writings. Irenaeus apparently viewed 1 Clement and Shepherd of Hermas as scripture, and the early Tertullian dealt with the Shepherd as scripture. Clement of Alexandria regarded 1 Clement, Hermas, Barnabas, and the Didache as inspired writings, while Origen viewed Hermas, Barnabas, and the Didache similarly. As was mentioned, Eusebius was less positive about a canonical status of these books and regarded them as spurious. Athanasius placed the Didache and Hermas outside the canon but still encouraged their reading by the faithful. The 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus included Barnabas and Hermas at its end, and the 5th-century Codex Alexandrinus contained 1 Clement and 2 Clement. A canonical list in the 6th-century Greek-Latin Codex Claromantanus lists among the books of the NT the works of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas. While 1 Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp are genuine letters, Barnabas is more like a theological tractate, the Martyrdom of Polycarp is obviously a martyrology, and Diognetus is an apology. Thus, they are letters only in their external form. The other writings approach the nature of a homily (2 Clement), a church order (Didache), and a sort of allegory/apocalypse (Hermas). Papias’s “exposition” of the “oracles” of Jesus is known to us only in a series of fragments cited by others, while only a short quotation from the apologist Quadratus has survived. While displaying a common conviction about the newly emerged Christian faith, some different forms of that faith are often exemplified in these writings. Polycarp often reflects the contents of the Pastoral Epistles. 1 Clement has possible echoes of the Letter of James, while Ignatius reflects attitudes that recall Johannine thought. Clement’s approach to church succession and Ignatius’s clear advocacy of monepiscopacy at least prepares their readers for a later view of apostolic succession and primacy. Some of the AF display a striking connection to various forms of Judaism, while others attack Jews and Judaism with language that may shock modern readers. The Didache shares many ideas and expressions with Matthew’s gospel and draws on many Jewish ethical materials. Barnabas is more negatively disposed to Judaism and indicates a serious negative awareness of Jews. 2 Clement communicates a faith that reflects a late Jewish frame of reference. Papias’s eschatology reflects themes of apocalyptic thought that were still alive in some circles. Hermas often conveys a Jewish “theology” within an apocalyptic worldview. The apologetic approaches of Diognetus and Quadratus, however, reflect a different and less Jewish-related approach. While theological in tenor, the bulk of the collection is ethical in focus, reflecting the concerns of a spiritual movement transitioning from its original 1st-century Jewish roots. These works also echo a consciousness of orthodoxy within the early “catholic church” that came to exclude what is now viewed as heterodox literature in that period.

General Overviews

A variety of works have appeared over the years that address the nature of the AF as a collection. Some of these have become classics in a sense, as with the publication of Lightfoot 1989, which became the basis for the interpretive tradition behind Holmes 2007 (see Texts and Translations), with the intermediary assistance of J. R. Harmer. Lightfoot’s concern for texts was augmented by interest in personalities and history behind each work’s context. The author’s research continues to be cited by scholars. In addition to this well-known staple of scholarship, numerous studies have appeared that focus on general aspects and the overall theology of the corpus. Some of these are restricted to specific groupings of texts, while others seek to encompass the works as a whole. Better among these are Torrance 1996, O’Hagan 1968, Jeffers 1991, Noll 1993, Maier 2002, and Young 2011, each of which has appeared as a monograph in one context or another. An important exception has been a volume of collected essays, Barnard 1966. It is acknowledged here that such essays have often been published individually elsewhere, though their ultimate impact has been achieved only through their appearance as a complete collection. It remains unclear whether future volumes that seek to classify the AF under specific themes will see much future publication, in light of the detailed explorations of the texts that have now been published, discouraging general surveys that overlook the unique nature of the individual writings. At the same time, surveys that apply the works to developing trends of thought in the early church are still applicable and undoubtedly will continue to appear. More recent works like the Goodspeed reprint (Goodspeed 2003) and Wallace “lexicon” (Wallace 2013) can help the student with the original Greek source.

  • Barnard, Leslie W. Studies in the Apostolic Fathers and Their Background. New York: Schocken, 1966.

    Broad collection of twelve essays covering a variety of topics in the field. Contributions tend to be contextual in tone, working away from texts and more toward various historical considerations. Well written and widely cited. Not always well documented. No bibliography offered. Traditional in perspective.

  • Goodspeed, Edgar J. Index Patristicus: Clavis Patrum Apostolicorum Operum. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003.

    This largely overlooked volume is a reprint of a Goodspeed work published by J. C. Buchandlung in 1907. Even with access to electronic databases today, this modest volume is extremely helpful. It includes every Greek and Latin word in the AF, even the smallest articles and pronouns! Goodspeed also lists each form of a verbal or substantive, not just its lexical entry. It is an improvement of the classic work by Heinrich Kraft in 1963, which omits Martyrdom of Polycarp, Diognetus, and Papias.

  • Jeffers, James S. Conflict at Rome: Social Order and Hierarchy in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.

    Survey of 1st-century Rome from perspective of 1 Clement and Shepherd of Hermas. Focus on social structure as foundation of institutional formation. Heavy application of sociological model of Bryan R. Wilson. Well written; easily read. Few notes, but extensive bibliography. Copies readily available on market.

  • Lightfoot, J. B., ed. and trans. The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp: Revised Texts with Introductions, Notes, Dissertations, and Translations. 2d ed. 5 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989.

    Originally published in 1889–1890 (New York: Macmillan). Features texts (with photographic plates) and excurses on Lightfoot’s proposed context for each figure and writing. Readily available in current format and widely cited. The translation tradition has continued (edited and amended) through the efforts of Michael Holmes and thus have become a popular standard.

  • Maier, Harry O. The Social Setting of the Ministry as Reflected in the Writings of Hermas, Clement and Ignatius. Studies in Christianity and Judaism 11. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002.

    Exhaustive study on ministerial setting of specific works in the collection. Reminiscent of Lightfoot 1989. Incorporates research into household associations, Greek and Jewish domestic settings, community ethos, and institutional orders. Well documented and broadly appreciative of divergent views. Well written; easily obtained; useful in the classroom. Originally published in 1991.

  • Noll, Ray Robert. Christian Ministerial Priesthood: A Search for Its Beginnings in the Primary Documents of the Apostolic Fathers. San Francisco and London: Catholic Scholars, 1993.

    Discussion of the roots of modern ministerial offices, on the basis of doctoral dissertation. Well documented from a variety of texts within corpus. Extensive bibliography. Employs the categories of the AF and their use of Old Testament imagery as the framework for understanding Christian ecclesiastical offices. Moves text by text.

  • O’Hagan, Angelo P. Material Re-creation in the Apostolic Fathers. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Altchristlichen Literatur 100. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1968.

    In-depth discussion of a singular theme (“material re-creation”) throughout AF. Focuses on individual aspects of the works and the central themes that define them, including connections with certain New Testament traditions. Makes use of older sources, especially German traditions of interpretation.

  • Torrance, Thomas F. The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996.

    First published in 1948 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd), this slim volume is typical of approaches to specific themes among the AF, in this case “grace.” Once more, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Diognetus and Quadratus, and Papias are omitted. Torrance holds the centrality of “grace” to be the backbone of faith both here and in the New Testament.

  • Wallace, Daniel B., ed. A Reader’s Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2013.

    Designed like popular readers’ lexicons of the New Testament, this helpful volume aids the beginning reader of the AF. It lists every word that appears less than thirty times in the New Testament. The definitions are those that appear in Danker’s Lexicon of the NT and Early Christian Literature (BDAG).

  • Young, Stephen E. Jesus Tradition in the Apostolic Fathers: Their Explicit Appeals to the Words of Jesus in Light of Orality Studies. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.311. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1628/978-3-16-151811-9

    Consideration of oral traditions based on Koester 1957 (cited under Relationship with New Testament) and Birger Gerhardsson. Exhaustive discussions of seventeen passages from scattered texts, with majority of citations from 2 Clement. Well documented; typical dissertation style. Useful summary of current thought on orality and application to specific sayings.

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