Biblical Studies Apostolic Fathers
Clayton N. Jefford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0150


The collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers forms a loosely defined group of early Christian texts widely recognized and respected within the early church. The phrase itself is traditionally attributed to Jean-Baptiste Cotelier, who in 1672 culled writings once thought to preserve the teachings of the first apostles of Jesus of Nazareth into a secondary grouping under that heading. Use of the expression as a formal title did not occur until some twenty years later, in the 1693 English translation of William Wake. The Apostolic Fathers were originally linked with the literary traditions of Clement and Hermas of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Barnabas, and Polycarp of Smyrna. But under the vision of Andreas Gallandi in 1765, the corpus grew to include the Epistle to Diognetus, fragments of Papias of Hierapolis, and Apology of Quadratus. The final text added was the Didache, included soon after its rediscovery toward the end of the 19th century. Scholars typically think of the collection as “in-between” literature, most documents appearing after the composition of the New Testament writings and concluding with the onset of 2nd-century apologists, though much debate continues for several of the writings. This period covers roughly a century (i.e., 80–180 CE). A variety of literary styles appear: letters or epistles (see Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp Tradition, and 1 Clement), homily (see 2 Clement, framed as epistle), theological tractate (see Epistle of Barnabas, framed as epistle), martyrdom (see Polycarp Tradition, framed as epistle), handbook of instruction (see Didache), apologies (see Epistle to Diognetus), moral tractate (see Shepherd of Hermas), and historical fragments (see Fragments of Papias). Included within these materials are wisdom literature, hymns, apocalyptic prophecies, teachings of Jesus, instructions for early Christian leadership, parables, reflections on biblical passages, etc. While somewhat theological in tenor, the bulk of the collection is ethical in focus, reflecting the primary concerns of an ecclesiastical movement away from its original 1st-century Jewish roots. As a collection identified secondarily by scholars, the Apostolic Fathers echo an evolving consciousness of orthodoxy within the early “catholic church” that came to exclude what is now seen as heterodox literature of the period.

General Overviews

A variety of works have appeared over the years that address the nature of the Apostolic Fathers 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 Apostolic Fathers 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 Apostolic Fathers 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 Apostolic Fathers. 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 Apostolic Fathers, 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.

  • 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.

    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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