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The Apostolic Fathers - Times and Places

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  January 2, 2002


The Metaphorical Gospel theory states that the world-view of the Christian community at the time of gospel writing and distribution was one of metaphorical, rather than factual, understanding. Later Christians literalized the gospels.

It is time to examine the external evidence that can be brought to bear on this issue.  Do we have written evidence authored by Christians who lived during that era?  What do they have to say about how the gospel message should be understood?

Why This is Important

Since the meaning of the New Testament passages are in question, it is difficult to use them as evidence in this inquiry.  We need to find statements that are particularly clear and relevant.  Because of this, it is extremely important to try to find outside witness to the meaning of the New Testament statements.

Second, this external witness must be placed right at the scene, if possible.  Therefore, we need to first make sure we agree on the time period under question, and then produce evidence as close to that time as we can.


The earliest extant account specifically regarding the gospel composition comes from Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, who lived sometime between 70 and 160 A.D. His writings are usually dated 115-130 A.D. We know, if he is writing in good faith, that he interviewed those who had personally known the disciples. It is unclear whether the "presbyter John" mentioned by Papias refers to John the disciple or to a later elder (I have seen arguments both ways), but it's clear that Papias was in an excellent position to know how the gospels were composed and what they meant. Papias tells us of his own credentials:

"If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings, - what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice. . . . " (Papias Fragments, Ante-Nicene Fathers, I.1)

He tells us that Mark wrote a gospel, and derived his material from Peter's sermons. Note that, according to Papias, (a) Mark was careful to be accurate, not to make any mistakes; and (b) not to put anything fictitious into the statements.

"And the presbyter said this. Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.  It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings of deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him.  But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings.  Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them.  For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements." (Papias Fragments, Ante-Nicene Fathers, VI.10; preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, iii.39)

This unambiguous statement should give us a prima facie reason for believing that the Metaphorical Gospel Theory is false.  Papias had a more direct access to the minds of the New Testament writers, and to the world-view of the era in question, than we will ever have. 

However, since he says that Mark put the content of Peter's sermons into written form, wouldn't it be possible to contend that Peter himself held the MG view, and that this view was the absolutely primal kerygma message?  I'm not sure if anyone says that.

The Crucial Time Period

What is the time period in question?  We will follow the approach established earlier, and try to grant to the proponents of the MG theory everything possible.  According to their views on authorship and dating of the gospels, the time period of New Testament composition and distribution is clearly 70-110 AD. 

The commonly accepted dates and cities of origin are:

Allowing ten years for full distribution of the last gospel (which scholars typically do for each gospel, since distribution of a wide geographical area was not instantaneous), and that brings us to 110 AD. Therefore, the time period being discussed is 70-110 AD.

[Note that there is evidence which supports much earlier dating for the gospels, but I am not arguing that point here.]

It also seems clear that the really crucial time period is 100-110.  Since it is typically held that each gospel goes beyond its more primitive predecessors in its use of symbol and theological imagery, the implication is that each gospel was more theological, more metaphorical, than the one before.

And so the "Height" of the Metaphorical Gospel era ought to coincide with the full distribution of John's Gospel, 100-110 AD.  If anyone ever understood the gospel stories and claims about Jesus as metaphorical, rather than factual, it would have been the Christians in leadership living precisely during this time.

And so, remember these dates:

NT period:  70 - 110 AD
Crucial period:  100 - 110 AD

Intro to the Apostolic Fathers and their Letters

We are fortunate to have good texts of some very early Christian writings.  The text is easily available in Lightfoot's edition, or the Ante-Nice Fathers series.  You can even view these writings on the Web.

The Letters

There are writings that were done anonymously, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache ("The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles"), which are dated variously in the late first or early second century. There are also writings of the "Apologists", such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, dated 150-180 AD, in which the authors provide more elaborate explanations of the Christian faith.

And third, we have the writings of church leaders who lived during the last part of the first century A.D.  They are Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna.  These are sometimes called the "Apostolic Fathers" because they are the first well-known Christian leaders after the apostles themselves.  Thanks to the meticulous scholarship of J.B. Lightfoot and others, some of the writings of these individuals, in the form of letters to churches, are available for our examination.

(Clement of Rome is not to be confused with the somewhat later Clement of Alexandria; similarly, Ignatius of Antioch is not to be identified with Ignatius Loyola, who live centuries later.)

These letters simply cannot be trivialized as mere "tradition."  They are the actual correspondence of specific recognizable individuals at specific times to specific Christian communities.  They were not composed by unknown authors (as in the case of the Didache).  It should be stressed that these letters we will examine are universally accepted as genuine (we will ignore the letters thought to be spurious:  II Clement and some pseudo-Ignatian letters).

These letters are even acknowledged by the very scholars who hold the Metaphorical Gospel theory.  Spong appears to accept Polycarp's letter (on what other basis could he form an opinion?) when he calls him a "literalizer."  Crossan actually appeals to Clement and Ignatius to prove one of his points:

"Neither do the Twelve Apostles appear in First Clement, a letter written around 96 or 97 AD from the church at Rome to that at Corinth. Finally, they are not mentioned in the letters that Ignatius of Antioch, traveling under guard to martyrdom in Rome between 110 and 117 AD, wrote to various Christian communities along his route." (Crossan, Jesus - a Revolutionary Biography p 109)

Dr. Charles Hill, a church historian of repute, says this of the corpus of letters:

"By way of quick response to your specific questions, yes, what we have of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp is practically universally considered genuine (there is a little ongoing wrangling about the number of authentic Ignatian letters by a man named Ruis-Camps, but it is generally disregarded). . . . Some scholars still hold to P.  N. Harrison's view that Polycarp's epistle is composite, with the first part coming from a time somewhat later than the last part - but even Harrison thought the whole letter was genuine Polycarp.   (email critique of MG4)

There should be no doubts that we have the actual writings of these church leaders.

Timeline - In a Position to Know First-Hand

Take a look at this time-line, below, which graphically shows the life-spans of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp in relation to the writing of the gospels (using late dates), and the general era under discussion.  This is extremely important.  Most people think of these three only as writers, as authors of their respective letters.  And thus the dates associated with them are typically 97, 115, and 120, respectively, which gives many the (mistaken) general impression that the lived only long after the New Testament had been written.

However, consider that they wrote their letters only when they were fully adult leaders of the churches.  Note how far back in the process their lives extend!  They all lived entirely through the "NT period" of 70-110 and were leaders of their respective churches during the "Crucial period" 100-110.

We wanted to find out how the first audience of the New Testament commonly understood these writings.  Well, we have three definite, named individuals who were actually part of that audience!  Beyond that, they were truly representative of the attitudes of the churches at the time, since they were respected leaders of main Christian churches. 


The Letter

This is actually a letter from the Roman church of to the church of Corinth. The author of the letter is not mentioned by name, but since the letter is usually dated around 96-97 AD, and Clement was the leader of the Roman church at that time, it is considered obvious that he was the primary contributor, if not the actual writer. Therefore, this is not considered an "anonymous" letter.

The purpose of the letter was to settle a controversy in that church; certain members had sought to establish themselves as rulers over the appointed leadership. Therefore, most of the letter is concerned to emphasize humility and harmony. Of the seventeen pages (in my edition), he only gives us a few nuggets and scraps to give us a clue about his view on the Metaphorical vs. the Factual gospel. But what he does say is instructive.

Clement's Credentials as a Witness

I will list Clement's credentials, moving from most certain to less certain. 

1.  Adult Christian during the NT Period (70-110).  Notice first that Clement was quite probably an adult Christian during the entire period under question, if he was born around 50 AD.

2.  One of the most influential Christian leaders during the Crucial Period (100-110).  In fact, he wrote his letter in the late 90's.

3.  Connection with Mark's Gospel.   It is commonly accepted that Mark's gospel was written in Rome, which just happens to be Clement's church.  It is generally accepted that Clement had been a co-presbyter with Linus and Cletus in the 70's, and succeeded them to the leadership of the church in Rome.  (J.A.T. Robinson even places Clement's letter around 70 AD, exactly contemporaneous with Mark.  If Clement held this position, and if Mark's gospel was written in Rome, I can't see how Clement could not have known the intent of the author.

4.  Connection with the author of Mark himself.  Whether John Mark wrote the gospel, as is traditionally held, or some anonymous writer acted as final redactor of this gospel, it is usually accepted that this was something of an official or semi-official community-authorized work.  If this is true, I can't see how Clement could have avoided knowing the author or authors personally. 

5.  Connection with the Jesus' apostles.  Irenaeus (c 180) writes about Clement (emphasis mine):

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate.  Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy.  To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric.  This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles.  In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, ... (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, 3.3)

Clement himself says (emphasis mine):

"But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes.  Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death.  Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity,  compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.  Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.   (1 Clem. 5.1-4)

6.  Connection with Paul.  This Clement may have been Paul's companion "Clement" mentioned in Phil 4:3.  Whether this is true or not, it is true that Paul was imprisoned and then martyred in Rome around 64 AD.  Clement would, in this case, have been in an excellent position to personally hear Paul's preaching in Clement's own community.

7.  Connection with Peter.  Consider the fact that Peter was also martyred in Rome.  The date is typically thought to be 67 AD.  If that is the case, Peter lived and ministered and preached in Rome, presumably to Clement's own congregation (among other people).  He then would have been a primary role model for Clement during that period.


The Letter

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote seven letters to churches (dated variously at 107 or 117 AD). Ignatius was led by soldiers from Antioch, where he had been bishop for several years, to Rome, for his execution.  As he made the journey, he wrote these letters to the churches along the way.  In a very real sense, they constitute his last will and testament.  

Ignatius' connection with the rest of the Christian community is obvious. 

It is clear that he was a leader in harmony with the thought of the majority of the leading churches.  He was obviously held in high esteem by the churches in general, and he supports the church leaders at every turn.  Ignatius was clearly regarded as a spokesman for all of Christianity, both within the churches and to the outside world. 

Thus, Ignatius is actually the church leader most likely to be the representative of Christianity during the time of his leadership (from before 100 AD to 107-117 AD).

Ignatius' Credentials as a Witness

I will list Ignatius' credentials, moving from most certain to less certain. 

1.  Adult Christian during the NT Period (70-110).  Notice first that Ignatius, just like Clement, was quite probably an adult Christian during the entire period under question, if he was born around 50 AD.

2.  One of the most influential Christian leaders during the Crucial Period (100-110).  In fact, he wrote his letter somewhere 107-115 AD.  That the gospel stories were meant metaphorically, that Jesus "deity" was not factual, that his resurrection was not physical, etc., would have been exactly the view that Ignatius was steeped in, if the Metaphorical Gospel theory is true.

3.  Connection with Matthew's Gospel.   It is commonly accepted that Matthew's gospel was written in Antioch, which just happens to be Ignatius' church.  If Matthew's gospel indeed was written around 80 (accepting the dates assumes by the MG scholars),  and if Ignatius lived in Antioch at that time, he would have been an adult Christian worshipping in the same church as that hosting the Gospel of Matthew.

4.  Connection with the author of Matthew himself.  When the disciple Matthew wrote the gospel, as is traditionally held, or some anonymous writer in Antioch acted as final redactor of this gospel, it is usually accepted that this was something of an official or semi-official community-authorized work.  If this is true, I can't see how Ignatius could have avoided knowing the author or authors personally. 

5.  Connection with the Jesus' apostles.  Paul, Peter, and other apostles visited Antioch in the 50's and 60's.  Ignatius, if he lived in Antioch at the time, would have been in a good position to have met them, or at the very least, to have heard them preach.


The Letter

Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, wrote a letter to the church in Philippi (dated 110-120 AD).  I know of no one who disputes the authenticity of this letter.  Irenaeus refers to it,  

There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth. Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, 3.4)

Polycarp's Credentials as a Witness

I will list Polycarp's credentials, moving from most certain to less certain. 

1.  Lived during the NT Period (70-110).  Polycarp, born in 70 AD or earlier, learned his Christianity precisely during this N.T. era, and developed as a Christian leader as the era progressed.

2.  One of the most influential Christian leaders during the Crucial Period (100-110).  Polycarp became bishop during this period, and wrote his letter either at the end of it (110 AD) or shortly thereafter (120 AD). 

3.  Connection with Ignatius.  Judging from the epistle addressed to him from Ignatius, Polycarp as an esteemed younger associate.  It is assumed that Polycarp agreed with Ignatius on essentials.  The burden of proof is on those you wish to create a wedge between them.

4.  Connection with John's Gospel.   It is commonly accepted that John's gospel was written in Ephesus, which just happens to by Smyrna's (Polycarp's) sister church, within 50 miles.  If John's gospel indeed was written around 100 (accepting the dates assumes by the MG scholars), and if Polycarp lived in Smyrna at that time, he could have easily have known more about John's gospel, from first-hand experience, than most of us will ever know.

5.  Connection with the author of John himself.  If some Johannine group in Ephesus composed this work, it would be very unusual if Polycarp never bothered to make the 50 mile trip to Ephesus to meet them, since he was surely the head of their sister church.

6.  Connection with the apostle John.  There is good reason to think that Polycarp was the student of the apostle John.  This contention has been disputed by scholars, and is by no means certain (as Charles Hill points out below).  However, I have not seen arguments strong enough to overturn Irenaeus' statements.  Irenaeus (c 180) writes about Polycarp.

"But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and Conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. . .

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within."  (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, 3.4)

Irenaeus also wrote a letter to a man named Florinus, who had been a student of Polycarp together with him.  In this letter, Irenaeus applies to common knowledge - not trying to convince Florinus of Polycarp's connection with the John the Apostle, but appealing to his knowledge of this fact to help to draw Florinus back into the faith.

"For, while I was yet a boy, I saw thee in Lower Asia with Polycarp, distinguishing thyself in the royal court, and endeavoring to gain his approbation. For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasumuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse - his going out, too, and his coming in - his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance.

Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures."   (Irenaeus, Letter to Florinus, preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.20, who took it from the work De Ogdoade (not extant))


The most important thing to note is that all three of these church leaders stand in an ideal position to know first-hand the meaning of the New Testament, and are themselves members of that very first audience which,  we are told, understood the gospel to be metaphorically, not factually true.

This ideal position exists, especially by virtue of the fact that

  1. their lives were exactly contemporaneous with the N.T. era, thus they learned their Christianity and grew in it precisely during the time period under question; and
  2. they became leaders of their Christian communities during the "Crucial Period" 100-110 A.D.

As far as I can tell, this is simply indisputable, and anything beyond this is simply overkill.  However, there is a certain match-up of these writers with the assumed cities of gospel composition that is simply astounding.  If the dates for the gospels is anything close to that assumed by the MG scholars, we find these connections:

  Mark - Rome 70 AD   Clement - Rome 70, bishop c 90
  Matthew - Antioch 80 AD   Ignatius - Antioch 80?, bishop c 100
  John - Ephesus 100 AD   Polycarp - Smyrna bishop c 100

(Accepting a much earlier date for gospel composition, say 50-70, would change this argument significantly.  If those who advocate the MG Theory wish to reconsider authorship and dating, and settle on these dates, I will be happy to adjust the argument accordingly.  I would explore more deeply, in such a case, the connection of these Apostolic Fathers with Jesus' own Apostles; in this discussion, this connection is largely irrelevant, so I won't press it here.)

Dr. Charles Hill, critiquing an earlier version of this work, cautioned me about relying too heavily on some of my subsidiary points (and I have tried to improve my treatment by making some clear distinctions), but confirms that the "time overlap" argument is indeed valid, and goes on to say "I think your approach and overall argument is solid and powerful."

I imagine you may get some argument about whether these and other early Christian writers "must have known whether the NT writers intended these things 'metaphorically' or 'factually'", and particularly about the possibility that they may have actually known any of the apostles or any of the Gospel writers.  You don't have that direct testimony from these authors (though this does not rule it out), and more skeptical scholars usually try to discredit the testimonies of Irenaeus, Eusebius and later writers.  For instance, most critical scholars reject (wrongly, in my opinion) Irenaeus' statement that Polycarp was a disciple of (or knew at all) John the Apostle.

I think you are right in pointing out the temporal overlaps, however, between these early writers and the authors of the Gospels. If Spong, et al., won't accept that Clement might have known Paul, Peter, and the author of Mark's Gospel, they cannot dispute that, under their dating scheme, Clement was a younger contemporary (by the way, on Clement's living not long after the apostles, see 1 Clem. 5.1-4). In other words, while you might want to be tentative in pressing any assertions of actual personal contact between any of the Apostolic Fathers and any of the NT authors or Apostles, you can certainly argue, as you have, that these people for a number of reasons are in an excellent and unique position to know about and to share the metaphysical assumptions of the Evangelists.  (Charles Hill, Critique of MG4)


If we had tried to find the very best representatives of the Christian world-view in the 70-110 era, we would be hard-pressed to find three better candidates than Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  Their writings constitute excellent primary source evidence regarding the very theory we're considering. If anybody knew what the gospels meant, these three did.