The Apostolic Fathers were a group of early Christian leaders believed to know the Apostles personally. The term also refers to the collection of Christian writings attributed to these men from the late first century C.E. and the first half of the second century C.E.
The authors are traditionally acknowledged as leaders in the early church whose writings were not included in the New Testament biblical canon. Evidence exists that some of these works were once bound as part of the New Testament scriptures in some churches. However, several of the works are actually anonymous, and their attributions have been challenged by recent scholarship.
The term “Apostolic Fathers,” has been used since the seventeenth century to emphasize that these authors were thought of as being of the generation that had personal contact with the Apostles. Thus they provide a link between the Apostles who knew Jesus of Nazareth and the later generation of Christian apologists and defenders of orthodox authority known as the Church Fathers.
Study of the Apostolic Fathers has yielded important insights into the formation of the early Christian tradition, the emergence of the bishop's office, the development of a concept of Christian scriptures, and the emergence of "proto-orthodox" Christian theology.
The Apostolic Fathers, as persons, are distinguished from other Christian (or semi-Christian) authors of the same period in that their practices and theology largely fell within those developing traditions of orthodox Pauline Christianity that became the mainstream. They thus represent an emerging "proto-orthodoxy," as opposed to heretical writers of the same or slightly later period. By the fourth century, mainstream Nicene Christianity was in a position to use the power of the Roman state in declaring significantly different interpretations as heretical.
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are in a number of genres, some being letters, sermons, apocalyptic prophecy, a biography of a martyr, and a guide to moral and liturgy practice.
Although a few of the opinions expounded by the Apostolic Fathers are no longer considered entirely orthodox, their writings in general provide important evidence for the "proto-orthodox" strain of early Christianity, as well as its intellectual history.
Shortly after the time of the Apostolic Fathers, several Christian authors addressed their works to people beyond the Christian community (and sometimes to fellow Christians) and defended the Christian religion against paganism, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. These are considered Apologists. A number of other authors, now only known in fragments, such as Papias and Hegesippus, were more exclusively concerned with the apostolic continuity of the individual churches and their histories.
The extant writings from the early Christian tradition that are not classed in those of the Apostolic Fathers include the apocryphal gospels, much of the pseudepigrapha, and the writings of unorthodox leaders or heretics. Much of this type of literature was intentionally destroyed by church authorities, although some fragments survived in the writings of orthodox teachers who quoted heretical writers in order to refute them. Most of the apocryphal gospels and pseudepigrapha are, however, somewhat later writings than the Apostolic Fathers.
A number of the New Testament Apocrypha were discovered throughout the centuries, and a major discovery, known as the Nag Hammadi library, was unearthed in the mid-twentieth century in Egypt. One formerly lost work which was recently discovered was the Gospel of Thomas, which may be at least as early as some of the Apostolic Fathers themselves, and is thought to be quoted by the apostolic Epistle to Diognetus.
The list of Apostolic Fathers has varied. Official inclusion is based strictly on church tradition, but literary criticism resulted in the removal of some writings formerly considered as second century. Of all the writings rediscovered in the modern era, only the Didache, discovered in the 1880s, has been added to the list.
All links retrieved October 24, 2012.
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