Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Introductions (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch

While many Apostolic Fathers remain shrouded by history, Ignatius of Antioch has long been viewed as a vibrant and important character of the early Church. Written on the road to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius’s seven authentic Epistles were written to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and to Smyrnaean bishop Polycarp.[1] The precise dating of Ignatius’s writing remains a mystery, although many scholars suggest his composition and death to have occurred between 108 and 117 CE.[2] The specific purposes of these letters vary somewhat due to the fact that they are written to different churches. Spanning each of his letters, however, are Ignatius’s calls Christians to eschew Gnostic logic and Jewish exegesis, and to combat heresy and disorder through church order and obedience to the bishop.[3]

Although portrayed in tradition as a prolific writer, the only authentic writing of Polycarp of Smyrna to have survived the viscidities of time is his Epistle to the Philippians.[4] Written from Smyrna, this letter’s combination of paranesis, advice, and admonishment was penned in response to a query (or set of queries) from the Philippian church.[5] Likely written shortly after the death of Ignatius, Polycarp’s letter remains extant in a number of manuscripts.[6] In all, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians remains an immanently practical and pastoral letter, intent on providing answers to the Philippians’ questions and showing the Smyrnaean bishop to be deeply involved in the central issues and challenges of his day.

Shepherd Early ChristianityPerhaps the most peculiar writing in the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers, the Shepherd of Hermas was highly popular among early Christians.[7] Composed of five visions, twelve mandates, and ten similitudes, the author of this treatise remains unknown apart from their visionary character and likely location in Rome.[8] Extant in numerous copies—a testament to its popularity—the dating of Hermas remains uncertain, with Osiek’s judgment the most sound: “The best assignment of date is an expanded duration of time beginning perhaps from the very last years of the first century, but stretching through most of the first half of the second century.”[9] Many commentators have viewed Hermas as something of an apocalyptic writing, with Hermas’s visionary character, attendant responses to crisis, and strategic reshaping of the church supporting this view.[10] Perhaps most interesting is Hermas’s use of female characters as revelatory agents, women who speak with, guide, encourage, and admonish Hermas.[11]

These literary historical introductions to First Clement, Second Clement, the Epistles of Ignatius, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians, and the Shepherd of Hermas in hand, this study now turns to consideration of references in these works to women and the conceptions therein.[12]


[1] Milton Perry Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius: A Study of Linguistic Criteria (Durham: Duke University Press, 1963), xi. Christine Trevett, “A Study of Ignatius of Antioch in Syria and Asia” (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 10-5. William R. Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermenia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 5. Contemporary considerations of Ignatius typically view his letters in their totality, the notable exception being Mikael Isacson, To Each Their Own Letter: Structure, Themes, and Rhetorical Strategies in the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2004),11. See also H.E. 3.36. On Ignatius’ spurious letters, see Kirsopp Lake, The Apostolic Fathers: With English Translations: Volume I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912). Of interest to readers of this paper may be the reference to women of Holy Orders in Letter to the Inhabitants of Antioch 12:2-3. See Patres Apostolici: Volume II, ed. Franz Diekamp and F.X. von Funk (Tubingen: Henrici Lauppe, 1913), 222.

[2] Rankin, 82. Robinson, 4, 182.

[3] Norris, 32-4. Importantly, Thomas A. Robinson notes that “the evidence from Ignatius’s letters suggests that he does not think in terms of a number of neatly distinguishable groups of opponents. There is one church and there is one opposition. The opposition is not defined as much by precise aspects of their distinctive beliefs as by their independence of, or separation from, the bishop.” Thomas A. Robinson, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations. Peabody (MA): Hendrickson Publishers, 2009. 126.

[4] Michael Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Paul Foster (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 109-10. See Holmes’ discussion of Irenaeus’ possible reliance on his mentor, either through oral teaching and/or the catalog of heresies.

[5] PolyPhil. 3.1; 13.1. Holmes, 111. Paul A. Hartog, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp: Introduction, Text, and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 23, 45. The differences between chapters 9 and 13 concerning Ignatius have led to a number of theories regarding this letter’s literary unity, which in the end does seem to be a single, unified letter interrupted by news of Ignatius’ death. See Hartog’s discussion, 27-40. Holmes, 120-3. See also P.N. Harrison, Polycarp’s Two Epistles to the Philippians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936), esp. 140, 151-2.

[6] On the dating of the letter, see Holmes, 123-4. Hartog rightly notes that “internal evidence might seem to push the date of Pol. Phil. into the 120s or beyond.” Hartog, 43-4. This leads him to posit a range of dates anywhere between 110 and 140. There are a number of extant manuscripts of PolyPhil., including Vaticanus gr. 859; Neapolitanus Bibl. Naz. Borbonicus II.A.17; Florentinus Laurentianus plut. 7.21; Vaticanus Reginensis gr. Pii II.11; Romanus Bibl. Casanatensis G.V.14; Vaticanus Ottobonianus gr. 348; Parisinus Bibl. Nat. gr. 937; and Andros Hagias 64. Unfortunately, none of these Greek manuscripts are earlier than the 11th century or are complete. There are also numerous Latin translations, as well as some Syriac and Armenian fragments. See Hartog, 26-7. Ferdinand R. Prostmeier, “Zur Handschriftlichen Uberlieferung des Polykarp- und des Barnabasbriefes. Zwei nicht beachtete Deszendenten des Cod. Vat. Gr. 859”, Vigilae Christianae 48, 1 (1994), 48-64, esp. 61n22.

[7] Carolyn Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 1. Joseph Verheyden, “The Shepherd of Hermas,” in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Paul Foster (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 63.

[8] Osiek, Hermas, 18. Cx. Vis. 1.1-2; 4.1.2; Sim. 2. In response to theories of Hermas as autobiography, Snyder correctly writes that, “it is impossible to distinguish history from fiction in the apocalyptic or visionary form.” Graydon F. Snyder, The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary: Volume 6: The Shepherd of Hermas (Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson, 1964), 29.

[9] Osiek, Hermas, 20. Hermas remains only partially extant in Codex Athous (15th c.), Codex Sinaiticus (4th c.), Michigan Papyrus 129 (c. 250 CE), Bodmer Papyrus 39 (late 4th/early 5th c.) and 21 later Greek fragments. Two complete Latin manuscripts exist, as well as Ethioic, Akhmimic and Sahidic Coptic, Middle Persian, and Georgian fragments. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers: Volume II (Cambridge, M.A.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 169-72. Osiek, Hermas, 1-3. On the dating of Hermas, three factors are particularly relevant: tthe mention of Hermas in Rom. 16.14, the reference to Clement in Vis. 2.4.3, and the Muratorian Fragment’s assignment of authorship to the brother of Pius, in the fourth decade of the second century. For more discussion of these issues, see Osiek, Hermas, 18 and Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers II, 165-9.

[10] Osiek, Hermas, 10-2.  Compare Hermas with the SBL’s definition of Apocalypse: ‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” John J. Collins, “Apocalypse: An Overview,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, Volume One (Online: Gale Virtual Reference Library, 2005), 409.

[11] Vis. 2.2.6, 4.3; 3.8.11; 4.3.6. Cx. 4 Ezra 9.38-10.57. Osiek notes that, “This female guide has no true precedent in Western literature.” Osiek, Hermas, 16.

[12] These pericopes are selective and this study does not intended to consider the entirety of how the Apostolic Fathers conceived of and portrayed women. Other notable interactions which are not examined here include 2 Clement 2.1-7 (Interpretation of “Rejoice Oh Barren Woman”); IgnEph 19.1, IgnTral 9.1, and IgnSmyr 1.1 on the Blessed Virgin Mary; Hermas, M 9.10-16; Hermas V 3.1-2; and Hermas V 4.1-3.


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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