The apostolic fathers are those early church leaders who knew the apostles and who lived and wrote after the apostles had died. They include Clement of Rome, Papias, Polycarp, Ignatius, and the authors of the Epistle of Barnabas and Didache. The authors of 2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Diognetus are often included among them, also. In the last half of the 1st Century, Clement wrote his letter to the Corinthians. The Didache was written c.60-100 A.D . The Letter of Barnabas was written between 70 and 130 A.D. And Papias, Polycarp and Ignatius wrote in the first decade of the 2nd Century, the decade following the death of the last living apostle, the apostle John (c. 100 A.D.).
*Clement of Rome (30-100) knew the apostles Peter, Paul, and John. See an article on Clement followed by extensive resources at EarlyChurch.org.uk.
*Papias (c.60-115) knew the apostle John and also a disciple of Jesus named Aristion. He also made an effort to seek out and inquire of those who heard the apostles Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, Matthew, and other disciples of Jesus. Furthermore, he was a friend of Polycarp. (See my blog article on Papias.)
*Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (69-155) was a disciple of the apostle John. See an article on Polycarp followed by extensive resources at EarlyChurch.org.uk.
*Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 110) was also a disciple of the apostle John and knew Polycarp. He also knew other apostles. See an article on Ignatius followed by extensive resources at EarlyChurch.org.uk.
To understand the importance of the apostolic fathers, it is important to understand who the apostles themselves were. The apostles were those whom Jesus appointed to be witnesses to his life, teaching, miracles, death, and most importantly his resurrection (cf Acts 1:21-22). They are also those whom he sent out with the authority to speak in his behalf. They are therefore the only ones with the authority to write or confirm writings claiming to speak in Christ's behalf, that is Scripture (cf Luke 10:16; John 14:25-26; 16:12-15; Matthew 28:18-20; etc.).
So the writings of the apostolic fathers serve as important witnesses to the provenance of the the New Testament, assuring its authenticity and canonicity. A summary of the evidence found in the writings of the apostolic fathers is: (1) Ephesians, James, & 2 Peter are called "Scripture" (γραφή). Matthew is cited with the Scriptural formula "It is written" (γέγραπται) in the Epistle of Barnabas. And The Didache applies Deuteronomy 4:2 to the Gospels. (2) They cited all 27 books of the New Testament canon, except Titus, Philemon, 2 & 3 John, and Jude. (3) Of the books not quoted from, they allude to all but perhaps Philemon, 2 & 3 John (though allusions are suggested). (4) They confirm the authorship and authenticity of Matthew, Mark, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Revelation. And (5) they do not quote from any of the apocryphal/gnostic writings that are so often suggested to have been candidates for the early canon.
They also serve as secondary evidence to Jesus' historicity. Yet another important role that they play is in recording the martyrdom and persecution of the church during the time of the apostles and the period immediately following their deaths.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
Click on the title links to find the great resources listed below
(an.d then check out my growing MASTER LIST OF APOLOGETIC RESOURCES)....
English Translations and Introductions
*Lightfoot, Joseph Barber and J.R. Harmer. Edited by Michael W. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers (2nd Edition). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989. A standard collection of the writings of the apostolic fathers with introductions and commentary. An older edition of this work is in the public domain and is available for FREE! many places. You can find both the text and MP3 audio files FREE! to download here (click on the book icon next to the title you want). Also available FREE! in ebook here. It may be read online or downloaded as a PDF. A nice online version is also available FREE here.
*Early Christian Writings: This website hosts translations and introductions for a nearly comprehensive collection of the writings of the early church from the time of the New Testament until 380AD. FREE!
Resources for the Greek Texts
*Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. An extensive topical selected bibliography is given at the front of this volume that can be viewed using the "Look Inside" preview at the left of its Amazon's page.
*Charteris, A.H. Canonicity: A Collection of Early Testimonies to the Canonical Books of the New Testament (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1880).
*Lake, Kirsopp. Apostolic Fathers (Loeb Classical Library). FREE!
*Lardner, Nathaniel. The Works of Nathaniel Lardner. (London: William Ball, 1838). Individual volumes may be downloaded. FREE!
*Lightfoot, Joseph Barber. The Apostolic Fathers. (London: Macmillan and Company, 1898). FREE! Also FREE here.
*Migne, Jacques Paul. Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Graeca. (1857). There are 161 volumes in this set and you can find them listed here. FREE!
Resources for Latin Texts
*Migne, Jacques Paul. Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina. (1844). FREE!
*A nice timeline of the Church Fathers 50-750 A.D. FREE!
*Berding, Kenneth. A blog series on the apostolic fathers:
(1) "How Much Should We Value the Apostolic Fathers?"
(2) "Priceless Quotes from Ignatius of Antioch"
(3) "A Powerful Prayer from Clement of Rome"
(4) "Polycarp of Smyrna Tells Us Who He Thinks Wrote 1 & 2 Timothy"
(5) "Taking Issue With the Angelic Visitations in The Shepherd of Hermas"
(6) "The So-Called Epistle of Barnabas and the Problem of Allegorical Interpretation"
(7) "How Christianity is Distinct in 'To Diognetus'"
*Links to writings of the Church Fathers "not included in the 38 volume collection of Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers" (listed in chronological order) by Roger Pearse at Tertullian.org. FREE!
*Index of Biblical Quotations and Allusions in Early Christian Literature. FREE!
*e-Catena: Compiled Allusions to the NT in the Ante-Nicene Fathers
*Bercot, David W. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998. A topical concordance to the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (church leaders who lived before the Council of Nicea). It also gives a very concise biographical entry for each early church leader (at the front of the book).
*Ferguson, Everett (editor). Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990. A large reference book (983 pages) containing articles on various issues related to the early church until about 600 A.D.
*Maier, Paul L. Eusebius--The Church History: A New Translation with Commentary. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999. Eusebius is the church's first historian and gives many details about the apostolic fathers that are preserved nowhere else in antiquity. Maier's translation and commentary are quite accessible even for those not thoroughly acquainted with the scholarship. An older translation of Eusebius by Phillip Schaff can be dowloaded or read online for FREE! here. Or you can download an MP3 audio version of it for FREE! here.
*Wace, Henry and William C. Piercy (editors). Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1911. Another large reference book (1028 pages) containing articles related to the early church until about 500 A.D. This is an older work and is in the public domain and is available for FREE! here. It may be read online or downloaded as a PDF file.
*Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
*Benedetto, Robert. The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Volume 1: The Early, Medieval and Reformation Eras. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 768 pages, nearly 1400 articles.
*Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies.
*The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, 1905, by a Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology. FREE! This is a very technical book and requires significant knowledge of New Testament Greek.
*"How the Apostolic Fathers Present a Problem for Islam" by Jonathan McLatchie
*Bartlet, J. Vernon. Early Church History: A Sketch of the First Four Centuries, 1984, 160 pages. FREE!
*An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine, by J.F. Bethune-Baker (London: Methuen, 1903). Also here and here.
*The "Apostolic Fathers": Renewed Interest and Recent Publications by Larry Hurtado
Check out these excellent Bibliographies for the Study of Early Christianity and Patristic Theology by William Harmless....
OR this excellent article on resources by Larry Hurtaodo....
OR this excellent resource on the early church hosting a vast array of articles and books and links to other excellent sites.....
OR "Apostolic Fathers" and "Early Church Fathers" at Theopedia
OR this list of links at NT Gateway. A large directory of academic internet resources, though sadly lacking in some of the best evangelical scholarship.
OR the Digital Book Index list of digitally archived books on the internet in the category: "History: Medieval: Early & Primitive Church History (30-600)"