The Apostolic Fathers are those who sat underneath the teaching of the Apostles, the first generation after Paul, Peter, John, and the rest of them died. So, what can we learn from these? Quite a lot about the context of early Christianity.
Books & Writings of the Apostolic Fathers
At least a couple-hundred books (both good and bad), were written after the New Testament that we still have (for instance, the website Early Christian Writings links to about two-hundred or so of them).
So, below are some of the best written by whom we call the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ – these are substantive, wholesome books, even though we do not ascribe infallibility nor inerrancy to them. Even though we know their books aren’t Scripture, they do provide critical insight into how first-century Christians, those closest to the Apostles actually thought, understood, and built upon, the Gospel message.
For instance, Athanasius mentions, both Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas as positive books to read, but as non-canonical, in Festal Letter 39 – written around 367 A.D. A lot of the time, these texts are simply citing Scripture – if you read these in order, you will the Didache notice simply builds upon what Christians know as 1 John and the Gospel of Matthew – Clement cites plenty of texts, and sounds almost exactly the same as the Letter to the Hebrews at points.
So as follows is a list, in the order I would recommend trying to read them (though you obviously have the freedom to bounce around if you so choose).1
(10) Fragments of Papias & Fragment of Quadratus11
An Introductory List of Apostolic Fathers
- Clement (d. 99 A.D.): Clement may be the one written of at the end of Philippians. Rome
- Ignatius (35-100 A.D.): A bishop and martyr who writes seven letters at the end of his life. Antioch.
- Polycarp (69-155 A.D.): A bishop and martyr who learned from John. Smyrna.
- Papias (70-160): Irenaeus sees he too was a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp. Hieropolis.
- Linked to each of these is access to free translations, but I highly recommend Michael Holmes’ edition, of which I have the nice diglot version (English/Greek), but English only cheap copies are available too. I usually recommend people read them in the following order (partially based on length, to ease your when into them, but trying to follow chronological sensibilities as well)
- The full tittle, ‘The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, means ‘What the Apostle’s taught’, not ‘That which was written by their hand’. Loeb Didache
- Full title: the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus c. 130 A.D.
- 96 A.D. (From Rome to the Corinthians)
- Ironically, 2nd Clement is neither a letter, nor written by Clement, but is the untitled document that followed 1st Clement in manuscripts for centuries. It is the oldest recorded, Christian sermon, other than the Letter of Hebrews in the New Testament.
- Ignatius lived 35-110 A.D. All these letters were written in the last month or so of his life
- Polycarp writes this shortly after Ignatius dies, but seems to inquire if the recipients can confirm this.
- c. 70 – 155 A.D.
- After 100 A.D, but before 132 A.D. Probably not written by Barnabas, but named in his honor.
- This book is purposefully allegorical.
- Hopefully we find full copies of these texts someday