Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Introduction

Apostolic FathersIn the formative years between the time of the Apostles of Jesus and the Apologists of Christianity stand a number of texts which reflect the labor of early Church leaders as they attempted to outline acceptable ethics and what it meant to be the Christian Church. Long neglected, in recent decades scholars have turned to these writings—collectively called the Apostolic Fathers[1]—with increased vigor and the recognition that these sources offer valuable insights into the post-New Testament era. As Paul Foster explains, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are especially useful for investigating “the initial stages of the transformation of a collection of individual communities loosely linked by their common belief in Jesus as God’s Messiah to an organization with a structured hierarchy and empire-wide links.”[2]

A plethora of studies on the Apostolic Fathers have appeared in recent years, many of which address questions of church order and the construction of authority in these writings.[3] One realm which has received comparatively little attention, however, are the conceptions of women in the Apostolic Fathers. Studies of women in early Christianity have seen a tremendous growth since Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s publication of In Memory of Her in 1983.[4] However, studies of women in the New Testament,[5] ordained women in early Christianity,[6] and women in second through fifth century sources[7] have received far more attention than women in the Apostolic Fathers, which have been substantially considered in only Christine Trevett’s Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers.[8]

Catacomb image of Paul and (possibly) Thecla
Catacomb image of Paul and (possibly) Thecla

Several factors contribute to this relative neglect. First, other areas of study are intrinsically more interesting for those studying women or early Christianity, such as what the New Testament says about women. Second, the relative lack of source materials for this period necessarily limits studies of women in the Apostolic Fathers. As Trevett writes, “The process of writing this study of Christian women and the time of the Apostolic Fathers has involved collating and commenting on fragments of evidence from disparate sources.”[9] Third, other areas of study contain more interesting materials for those seeking to understand the conceptions and roles of women in early Christianity. The greater attention paid to women in the “New Testament Apocrypha” may be easily explained, if only for the glaringly obvious reason that women play greater and more noteworthy roles in the various early Christian Acta than they do in the largely epistolary literature of the Apostolic Fathers.[10] Unsurprisingly, the study of women in the Apostolic Fathers lags behind other areas of research.

This study–which will run over the next several weeks–begins to address this scholarly lacuna by examining several pericopes within the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers wherein these writings address women or employ female narrative characters. Although necessarily limited in scope (due to the length of this study) and implications (due to the disparate nature of the writings being examined) this project argues that for the Apostolic Fathers women had properly ordered roles which could include familial and visionary functions. The pericopes examined to support this thesis include instances where women are utilized as paranetic examples for all Christians, models for the Church, possessing certain familial roles, serving local Church communities, and fulfilling visionary functions. In one sense, this study wrestles with historiographical concepts as well as early Christian history, for we must determine if we can speak about understandings of women in this mostly silent post-Apostolic period. In another sense, this project beings the important task of commenting on the conceptions of women during this formative period for Christian faith and practice, with the intent of eventually bringing this evidence into conversation with evidence from other periods.


[1] The designation “Apostolic Fathers” originated with Jean-Baptiste Cotelier in 1672 and William Wake in 1693. Though an artificial marker, the name finds extensive use throughout existing literature, making it pragmatically unreasonable to separate this study from its use. In this study the term “Apostolic Fathers” indicates the collection of nine writings generally categorized under this designation in modern scholarship, including First Clement, Second Clement, the Epistles of Ignatius, the Didache, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle to Diognetus, and Fragments of Papias. See Jean-Baptiste Cotelier, SS. Patrum qui temporibus apostolicis fl oruerunt: Barnabae, Clementis, Hermae, Ignatii, Polycarpi (Paris, 1672). William Wake, The Genuine Epistles of the Apostolical Fathers, S. Barnabas, S. Clement, S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp, The Shepherd of Hermas, and the Martyrdoms of St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp (London, 1693). H. J. de Jonge, “On the Origin of the Term ‘Apostolic Fathers’,” Journal of Theological Studies 29 (1978): 503-505. Helmut Koester, “The Apostolic Fathers and the Struggle for Christian Identity,” The Expository Times 117, 4 (2006): 133. Dan Batovici, “Contrasting Ecclesial Functions in the Second Century: ‘Diakonia’, Diakonoi’, Episkopoi’, and ‘Presbyteroi’ in the Shepherd of Hermas and Ignatius of Antioch’s Letters,Augustinianum 51, 2 (2011): 303. For a helpful introduction to the dissemination history of the Apostolic Fathers and the principle studies of these writings, see Clayton N. Jefford, “The Librarian’s Guide to the Apostolic Fathers,” Theological Librarianship 4,1 (2011): 59-66.

[2] Paul Foster, “Preface” in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Paul Foster (London: T&T Clark, 2007), xii-xiii. Similarly helpful for understanding the place of the AF within the development of Christian faith are Grant’s remarks on the immanently “lived” experiences of the AF. Robert M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary: Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1964), 7-8.

[3] Jefford, 59-66. Helmut Koester, “The Apostolic Fathers and the Struggle for Christian Identity” in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Paul Foster (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 7.

[4] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossway, 1983).

[5] Bonnie Thurston, Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1998). C.L. Meyers, T. Craven, and R.S. Kraemer. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

[6] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). This comprehensive resource of all textual evidence in the Greek and Roman worlds  regarding women’s ordained roles in the early church reveals only two possible references during this era of the AF, one of which comes from Pliny. See 1-2, 26-27. Cx. Pliny, Epistolae 96.

[7] Patricia Cox Miller, Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005).

[8] Christine Trevett, Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers (AD c.80-160): Corinth, Rome, and Asia Minor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006).

[9] Ibid., 1.

[10] A helpful selection of introductory essays on this topic is A Feminist Companion to the New Testament Apocrypha, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Maria Mayo Robbins (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006).


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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