Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Greetings in Ignatius and Polycarp

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

Ignatius’s Epistle to Polycarp 8.2-3[1]

ἀσπάζομαι πάντας ἐξ ὀνόματος καὶ τὴν τοῦ Ἐπιτρόπου σὺν ὅλῳ τῷ οἴκῳ αὐτῆς καὶ τῶν τέκνων. ἀσπάζομαι Ἄτταλον τὸν ἀγαπητόν μου. ἀσπάζομαι τὸν μέλλοντα καταξιοῦσθαι τοῦ εἰς Συρίαν πορεύεσθαι. ἔσται ἡ χάρις μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ διὰ παντὸς καὶ τοῦ πέμποντος αὐτὸν Πολυκάρπου. 3. ἐρρῶσθαι ὑμᾶς διὰ παντὸς ἐν θεῷ ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ εὔχομαι, ἐν ᾧ διαμείνητε ἐν ἑνότητι θεοῦ καὶ ἐπισκοπῇ. ἀσπάζομαι Ἄλκην, τὸ ποθητόν μοι ὄνομα. ἔρρωσθε ἐν κυρίῳ. I greet all by name, and the wife of Epitropus, along with the entire household of her and her children. I greet Attalus, my beloved. I greet the one who is about to be deemed worthy to go to Syria. God’s grace will be with him constantly, and with Polycarp who sends him. 3. I bid you constant farewell in our God Jesus Christ. May you remain in him, in the unity and care that comes from God. I greet Alce, a name dear to me. Farewell in the Lord.

Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius’s letter to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, may provide information which coordinates with the greetings from his letter to the general Smyrnaean congregation. Certainly Alce is mentioned again, reinforcing the possibility of her social standing, Ignatius’s friendship with her, or both. Grant suggests that the wife of Epitropus serves as the head of her household and may be separated from her husband.[2] Given Ignatius’s apparent closeness with the Smyrnaean community and propensity to use proper names, this designation is indeed curious. It could be that this woman is the aforementioned Tavia, which would accord with Smyrnaeans, although still leave unanswered the question of why Ignatius does not refer to her by name here. Regardless, this letter confirms what was seen in Smyrnaeans, that women held a place of importance and honor in the church of Smyrna.

Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians 14.1[3]

Haec vobis scripsi per Crescentem, quem in praesenti commendavi vobis et nunc commendo. conversatus est enim nobiscum inculpabiliter; credo quia et vobiscum similiter. sororem autem eius habebitis commendatam, cum venerit ad vos. incolumes estote in domino Iesu Christo in gratia cum omnibus vestris. Amen. I am writing these things to you through Crescens, whom I commended to you recently [Or: when I was with you] and now commend again. For he has conducted himself blamelessly among us; and I believe that he will do the same among you. And his sister will be commended to you when she comes to you. Farewell in the Lord Jesus Christ in grace, with all who are yours. Amen.
Martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna
Martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna

Little can be said about this passage with certainty, other than the fact that Crescens, who bears this letter to Philippi and his unnamed sister, are commended to the church there.[4] It could be that Crescens and his sister were from Philippi and were returning home, that they were joint-messengers from Smyrna, that she will bring a second message to Philippi, or something else entirely. Given that she is unnamed and of secondary importance in this greeting, it may be that her purposes in traveling to Philippi were not directly concerned with the contents of this letter.

The letters of Ignatius and Polycarp were written employing fairly standard Greco-Roman epistolary conventions. Even more so, however, they were influenced by Pauline-modes of letter writing and communication, employing even Pauline sounding formulae and ways of talking about particular persons. In terms of what may be said about these letters’ insights into the role and conception of women among the Apostolic Father, it may safely be said that certain women held positions of some standing (in at least Smyrna), including a group of “virgins called widows”, households apparently run by women, and individual women, perhaps of some social standing. Polycarp offers less information than that, simply confirming the fact that women traveled in the ancient world (Acts 18) and could serve as messengers (Rom. 16:1-2).


[1] Ehrman Apostolic Fathers I, 320-1.

[2] Grant, Volume 4, 137.

[3] Ehrman Apostolic Fathers I, 350-3.

[4] Hartog, 160.


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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