The Apostolic Fathers—Truly Apostolic?
BY THE start of the second century C.E., false teachings had begun to muddy the clear waters of Christian truth. Just as inspired prophecy had foretold, after the death of the apostles, certain ones abandoned the truth and turned instead to “myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3, 4, footnote) About 98 C.E., John, the last surviving apostle, warned of such erroneous teachings and of people “who [were] trying to mislead” faithful Christians.—1 John 2:26; 4:1, 6.
Soon, men who came to be known as the Apostolic Fathers arrived on the scene. What stand did they take in the face of religious deception? Did they heed the apostle John’s divinely inspired warning?
Who Were They?
The expression “Apostolic Fathers” has been applied to religious writers who may have known one of Jesus’ apostles or may have been taught by disciples who learned from the apostles. Generally, these men lived from the close of the first century C.E. on into the middle of the second century.* Among them were Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Papias of Hierapolis, and Polycarp of Smyrna. Writing during the same period were the unnamed authors of works known as The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and the second letter of Clement.
Today, it is difficult to judge just how closely the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers corresponded to Jesus’ teachings. The aim of these men was undoubtedly to preserve or else promote a certain brand of Christianity. They condemned idolatry and loose morals. They held that Jesus is the Son of God and that he was resurrected. However, they were unable to restrain the rising tide of apostasy. On the contrary, some of them added to its swell.
Certain currents of early “Christian” thought actually deviated from the teachings of Christ and his apostles. For example, contrary to the practice instituted by Jesus at the Lord’s Evening Meal, known also as the Last Supper, the author of The Didache advised the passing of the wine before the bread. (Matthew 26:26, 27) This writer also stated that if no body of water was available to perform baptism by immersion, pouring water on the head of the baptism candidate would suffice. (Mark 1:9, 10; Acts 8:36, 38) The same text encouraged Christians to observe such rituals as obligatory fasting twice a week and recitation of the Our Father exactly three times a day.—Matthew 6:5-13; Luke 18:12.
For his part, Ignatius envisioned a new organization of the Christian congregation, with just one bishop presiding “in the place of God.” This bishop would hold authority over many priests. Such inventions opened the way for further waves of unscriptural teaching.—Matthew 23:8, 9.
Exaggeration, Martyrdom, and Idolatry
Exaggeration carried some Apostolic Fathers adrift. Papias thirsted for truth and referred to the Christian Greek Scriptures. At the same time, he believed that during the foretold Thousand Year Reign of Christ, grape vines will produce 10,000 branches, each branch 10,000 twigs, each twig 10,000 shoots, each shoot 10,000 clusters, each cluster 10,000 grapes, and each grape the equivalent of 1,000 quarts [1,000 l] of wine.
Polycarp was willing to die a martyr’s death rather than renounce his Christian faith. It is reported that he was instructed by the apostles and others who knew Jesus. He quoted from the Bible, and it appears that he strove to live by Christian principles.
The devotion that some had to Polycarp, however, verged on idolatry. The Martyrdom of Polycarp states that after his death, the “faithful” were eager to claim his remains. They considered his bones “more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold.” Clearly, the poisoned waters of error were surging.
Some Apostolic Fathers accepted extra-Biblical texts as if they were inspired. Clement of Rome, for one, cites the apocryphal works Wisdom and Judith. The writer of The Epistle of Polycarp refers to Tobit to give credence to the idea that the giving of alms has power to deliver the giver from death.
In the second century C.E., false gospels spread spurious accounts of Jesus’ life, and the Fathers frequently lent credence to them. Ignatius, for instance, quoted from the so-called Gospel of the Hebrews. And regarding Clement of Rome, one source says: “Clement seems to know Christ, not through the Gospels, but through noncanonical writings.”
A Tidal Wave of Error
By resorting to myth, mystic ideas, and philosophy to explain the Christian faith, these men opened the way for a tide of error. Clement, for example, referred to the mythological story of the phoenix as proof of the resurrection. The phoenix, a legendary bird said to rise from its own ashes, was associated with sun worship in Egyptian mythology.
Another writer who demeaned Scriptural truth was the author of the Epistle of Barnabas. He interpreted the Mosaic Law as if it were mere allegory. According to him, clean animals—chewers of the cud with split (cleft) hooves—represented people who meditate on, or chew over, God’s Word. The split hoof, said the writer, symbolized that the righteous man “walks in this world” while at the same time looking forward to life in heaven. Such interpretations are not based on Scripture.—Leviticus 11:1-3.
The Witness of the Apostle John
During the first century, the apostle John warned: “Beloved ones, do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world.” (1 John 4:1) How appropriate these words were!
By the end of the first century, many so-called Christians had already abandoned the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Far from resisting the rising tide of apostasy, the Apostolic Fathers rode its waves. They adulterated truth with poison. The apostle John said of such individuals: “Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God.” (2 John 9) For all sincere seekers of Scriptural truth, this divinely inspired warning was—and remains—crystal clear.
The writers, theologians, and philosophers generally referred to as the Church Fathers lived between the second and the fifth centuries C.E.
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Some Apostolic Fathers, including Clement, referred to myth, mystic ideas, and philosophy in their writings
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Polycarp was willing to die a martyr’s death
The Granger Collection, New York