Abstract: Both secular and Christian scholars (and apologists) regularly refer to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna) as early, reliable witnesses to Christianity in the late 1st and early 2nd century. Hence the texts considered authentic that bare their names are used as external witnesses to the existence of various Christian texts, doctrines and practices prior to the 2nd half of the 2nd century.
The problem is that the entire corpus bearing the name of Ignatius is suspect, to the point that no one should be relying upon it for anything. Likewise, it has long been noted by Christians themselves that the authenticity of the lone Epistle of Polycarp is dependent upon the authenticity of the Ignatian corpus, in which case it likewise should not be relied upon. As for Clements solitary “authentic” epistle, it doesn’t so much bear obvious signs of forgery, but rather the dating and origin of the epistle are highly questionable, leaving us with a very wide date range that should preclude its use as a reliable witness prior to the mid-2nd century CE.
Hence, whilst these texts are not without value for the study of Christian origins, they should not be called upon as external witnesses as if their authenticity and early dating were firmly established. Whilst this case that I am making here has been made many times before by others dating at least 100 years back, the field of religious studies is unfortunately flooded with apologetic works masquerading as scholarship, and even secular scholars have to deal with consensus views formed largely by those entering the study to defend certain presuppositions, rather than objectively consider the evidence as it stands.
Whilst Clement of Rome is usually placed first sequentially out of the three Apostolic Fathers, I believe that the best place to start is with Ignatius and the letters that bear his name. Christian legends tell us that Ignatius was a prominent Bishop in Antioch in the late 1st century CE, and that in the year 107 CE he brought himself before the Roman Emperor Trajan at Antioch and confessed himself a Christian, for which he was sentenced to death. The story continues to tell of Ignatius being chained up and led by an entire legion of troops to Rome by foot, where he was eventually fed to the lions as a martyr in the Colosseum. Also, the story tells that along the way he was permitted to stop at various places along the way to converse with other Christians and compose the epistles that bear his name.
So, before we even get to the letters, there are a number of problems to be dealt with here. Firstly, the account of Ignatius being sentenced to death merely for confessing himself a Christian doesn’t gel with the evidence for the reality of early Christian persecution (note the letter of Pliny the Younger), but rather lines up with the way that Christian legends speak of immediate and widespread persecution of Christians merely for the sake of their faith. Secondly, if Trajan had indeed sentenced Ignatius to death, would he have really gone to the effort and expense of escorting him all the way to Rome with an entire legion of troops, rather then merely executing him at Antioch and leaving his body out on display for those that actually knew him? Furthermore, can we really believe that Ignatius would have been allowed to stop along the way and converse with other Christians (who were not arrested or killed?), and compose theological treatises partially disguised as letters to further his cause?
Of course all this sounds like the stuff of legends, and many scholars over the years have indeed come to this conclusion and rightfully rejected the tale of his martyrdom as a result. However, the tendency persists to assume that there was a historical core behind the legend, simply due to the existence of the letters and testimony from later Church fathers. However, there is no external, contemporary evidence for Ignatius and his letters, and thus it remains highly plausible that the entire tale is myth. This possibility becomes quite likely once we examine the actual state of the letters themselves.
There are 16 letters in total that bare the name Ignatius, though most scholars only consider seven of these to be authentic (they being the epistles to Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrnaeans and Polycarp). Furthermore, there are multiple versions of these epistles of varying length in Greek and Syriac manuscripts, meaning that even if we accepted the consensus view, we would still be accepting that there were many forgeries written in Ignatius’s name, and that even the authentic letters had suffered interpolation and redaction. The primary reason for the acceptance of the above seven letters is that Eusebius only mentioned the existence of seven epistles in his day (the 4th century CE), along with the fact that the remaining nine letters bare evidence of coming from a later age then the first seven.
However, it is a curious fact that prior to Eusebius only three epistles were mentioned by other church fathers (that being Ephesians, Romans and Polycarp), quite a coincidence when considered alongside a Syriac manuscript discovered by Dr. William Cureton that just so happened to feature those three same epistles. If we were to apply the same reasoning that is applied to the testimony of Eusebius it would thus be natural to come to the conclusion that these three are the earliest epistles written in the name of Ignatius. Furthermore, whilst the short Greek versions of the seven accepted epistles differ greatly from the longer Greek versions of the same text, the Syriac manuscript found by Dr. Cureton preserves an ultra-short version of the three epistles.
These Syriac versions are missing most of the primary theological themes of the Greek letters (which themselves can be used to argue for post 150 CE origins), and one can even make the case that the theology contained within is supportive of a form of early heterodox Christianity[i]. Obviously the various Ignatian texts were originally written by someone at sometime, and it would not be surprising if some form of them were floating around by the middle of the 2nd century CE. However, the point here is simply that the Ignatian corpus is one giant mess, and accepting the short Greek versions as authentic and using it as reliable external witness for various things is simply poor scholarship (or apologetics). All we can really say with any certainty is that some form of the three epistles mentioned at the end of the 2nd century were circulating by that time, and the rest of the letters (including the other letters from the short Greek recension), could potentially all post-date them. It would perhaps be safer to simply posit a date range of <170 CE for the earliest form of Ephesian, Romans and Polycarp), and forget about definitively dating any of the other epistles to the 2nd century CE.
In this manner we are in the unfortunate situation of having to deal with the apologetic works of various conservative Christians who have entered NT studies simply for the purpose of defending their prior beliefs, rather than considering evidence on its own merits. The work of Joseph Lightfoot is largely responsible for keeping the myth of Ignatius alive, showing that in the field of religious studies apologetics frequently passes for scholarship. It is akin to having large numbers of medical studies being published allegedly showing positive health benefits from smoking, whereby the studies were conducted by shareholders in tobacco companies.
Moving on, the figure of Polycarp is closely related to Ignatius, particularly as one of the Ignatian epistles is addressed to Polycarp, and the epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians references an Ignatius. Likewise, Polycarp is credited with an equally implausible martyrdom in which the Romans attempted to burn him at the stake, and then resorted to stabbing him when the fire did not harm him. There is a single epistle bearing Polycarp’s name, which is usually dated 110-140 CE, though I will argue that it couldn’t have been written before 144 CE, in which case it again should be relegated to the 2nd half of the 2nd century CE, rather then the 1st.
In chapter 7 of this epistle we find a verbatim quote from 1st John: “For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;[ii]”, followed by a passage that states that anybody who denies the testimony of the cross and perverts the oracles of the Lord to their own lusts, and denies the resurrection and judgment is the “first-born of Satan”. The General epistles (John and Peter in particular) are well known to be responding to 2nd century heterodox Christianity. However, the specific passage which indicated that Polycarp’s epistle post-dates 144 CE is the quip about the “first-born of Satan”, as to the best of my knowledge that title was only ever used by Church Fathers to refer to Marcion, and Marcion didn’t fall out of favour with the orthodox church until 144 CE.
Again, this was pointed out some time ago by a previous generation of scholars, however Joseph Lightfoot argued in response that it could not have been referring to Marcion, due to the reference to those who “pervert the oracles of the Lord to their own lusts”, due to Marcion being celibate. However, this argument fails to acknowledge another tradition that Marcion had seduced a virgin, along with the fact that the aforementioned passage could be referencing other lusts aside from sexual urges (as Marcion was described by the Church Fathers as being extraordinarily wicked: See Tertullian’s Against Marcion, particularly the opening chapter). Hence, on this ground alone we can see that Polycarp’s epistle should not be relied upon as a reliable witness to Christianity prior to the 2nd half of the 2nd century.
Furthermore, many orthodox Christians themselves have long admitted that the reliability of Polycarp’s epistle depends precariously upon the reliability of the Ignatian epistles, and given the utter mess of the Ignatian corpus, Polycarp’s epistle can likewise be held in suspicion on the same grounds. And again, there are multiple incomplete manuscripts of Polycarp’s epistle, meaning we likewise have possible issues with interpolation and redaction. So, one could argue that we should be dating the earliest form of the epistle 144 CE >, and considering the possibility of later modification. Even if we are to take a more cautious approach and consider early dating, we still have the case that we cannot be sure. Hence, a dating of perhaps <170 CE is fairly safe, but achieves nothing in terms of validating early Christian beliefs, practices and the distribution and acceptance of the NT canon.
Returning now to the first Apostolic Father in sequence, there are two epistles that commonly bear the name of Clement of Rome (though the first does not state so directly in the text), though scholars only accept the first one as authentic. In this case we do not face the same problems as encountered for Ignatius. The narrative of his martyrdom does not contain the same obvious legendary features (though it may still be legendary), nor do the manuscripts contain the same inherent textual issues. Rather, we have a very, very long theological treatise again presented as a letter, written apparently to settle a dispute in the Church at Corinth in which several presbyters had been dismissed. The letter goes on to argue that the righteous should submit to God’s authority, and that the presbyters had been given their authority through the wise appointment of the apostles and their successors (though the letter primarily uses examples from the Old Testament to make its case).
Different scholars accept a variety of dates and/or date-ranges for 1st Clement, and if we honour the extreme ends we have a range from 60-140 CE. Richard Carrier for one has presented his case that the epistle displays an unusual silence regarding the gospels and the typical earthly narrative for Jesus (in a similar manner to the argument that Wells, Doherty and Carrier present for the Pauline epistles), and hence has argued for a date in the 60’s. Other scholars have sought to identify the author with a Clement mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas, which would move the date closer to the other end of the range, whilst most scholars seem to be arguing for 80-100 CE.
The issue here is not so much explicit evidence for forgery or late dating, but rather significant uncertainty. There is no exact way of determining the date of composition of the text; hence it would be wise to approach the issue with significant caution. In regards to Carrier’s argument I would point out that just because 1st Clement doesn’t quote and cite the gospels for authority (but rather chooses the OT – Septuagint) it doesn’t necessarily mean that the gospels didn’t exist at the time of composition, but rather that the gospels weren’t seen as authoritative at that time (note Justin Martyr’s use of the Septuagint and at least one gospel in the mid-2nd century CE). We don’t have definitive evidence of the use of the gospels as authoritative texts until the late 2nd century CE (with Irenaeus); hence Carrier’s argument (if respected) does not preclude dating 1st Clement into the middle of the 2nd century CE.
Likewise, the references to repeated calamities and persecutions as found in the introduction could refer to pretty much any time within the date range, and hence the text cannot be dated on those grounds. Furthermore, chapter 44 makes reference to several generations passing, growing old and passing away (though the wording is vague enough to leave significant room for debate as to its intended meaning). Clement is usually presented as one of the earliest successors of Peter as Bishop of Rome, but there are multiple mutually exclusive lineages for this from different sources (hence they may all be legendary). It can certainly be argued that chapter 44 itself presents a significant period of time passing from the time of the Apostles, in which case we can easily find ourselves well into the 2nd century CE. So, on these grounds I am happy to concede the general range of 60-140CE for 1st Clement (see further discussion in the comments section). However, due to the significant uncertainty surrounding its dating, we should again be cautious about depending upon it for external witness, as there is no hard evidence precluding it from originating close to the middle of the 2nd century CE.
In light of all this, we can see that Justin Martyr is in many ways the earliest Church Father of which we can be somewhat confident about dating. Hence we have no surviving, reliable extra-Biblical witness to Christian doctrine and the existence of (and use of) the NT texts prior to the mid-2nd century CE. Hence, scholars and apologists alike should refrain from citing the Apostolic Fathers as witnesses for the historicity of Jesus, the early acceptance of various orthodox Christian doctrines or the existence of and widespread acceptance of the NT canon[iii].
In light of this situation we can see that the late date ranges for various NT texts as suggested by radical scholars and hobbyists are actually far more plausible than is frequently acknowledged. Whilst I don’t agree with all the claims and theories presented by hobbyists and radical (or fringe) scholars, I believe that early dating of the NT texts is frequently and erroneously believed to be grounded upon the early witness of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp. Hence, perhaps mainstream NT scholars can afford to be more open-minded in considering theories of Christian origins that currently fall outside the general consensus view.
[i] Though this is an entirely separate kettle of fish, which I will deal with independently in due time. There is a very important textual variant of a Pauline epistle referenced within both the Greek and Syriac versions of Romans (though some English translations of the Greek epistles seek to align it with our versions of the Pauline epistle in question, in essence mistranslating the text) that supports this case, though it is rarely discussed.
[ii] 1 John 4:3.
[iii] And this is even before we look at the differences between vague allusions within such texts to gospel passages, and verbatim citations (as found in the writings of later Christian authors), on top of which the question of oral tradition must also be considered.