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February 16, 2013 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 

During the past few weeks I have been reading the early Church Fathers and have just finished with the first generation following the Apostles.  These men knew the Apostles personally and were the bishops or pastors of some of the early strongholds of the faith.  There are only four of these men whose writings have been preserved.  They are Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, and Papias of Hierapolis.

Clement (d. 101) is mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Philippians (4:3).  He was a fellow worker with Paul and became the Bishop of Rome.  The term “bishop” in the Greek is the word “episkopos,” or overseer.  It designates the leader of the group, whether religious or secular and would be equivalent to the term “pastor” as we use it today.  We have an extensive letter of his to the church at Corinth.

Polycarp (69 – 155) was bishop of Smyrna, which is one of the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation, written by the Apostle John.  We have a letter written by Polycarp to the church at Philippi.  We also have a description of his martyrdom written by the leaders of his congregation following his being burned alive for his faith.  Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John.

Ignatius (30 – 98?) was bishop of the church at Antioch which was the Apostle Paul’s home church.  We have seven or eight of his letters which are authentic and several which probably are not.  He was a disciple of the Apostle Paul and knew the Apostle John.  His letters are written mostly from Smyrna, where Polycarp is bishop.  He is on his way to Rome under guard to be fed to the beasts in the arena.  His letter to the Roman church is a plea not to interfere with his sentence and his martyrdom.  He has served his Lord faithfully and is anxious to see Jesus in glory.  He does not want the Roman congregation, which evidently has some influential people among them, to do anything to prevent his meeting the Savior.

Regrettably we have only snippets of the writings of Papias of Hierapolis (70 – 155?).  They have been preserved in the writings of others.  What we do have is most interesting.  He informs us that the Apostle Matthew compiled a record of the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew.  We do not have this document.  What we do have is the Gospel of Luke who tells us that he consulted sources by the eye witnesses, and whose Greek text reflects a strict dependence on Hebrew word order and syntax.  Papias also informs us that the Gospel of mark is a record of the preaching of the apostle Peter whom Mark accompanied in his preaching missions.

The next early Church Father we have in chronological order is Justin Martyr (110 – 165).  His writings are extensive and he is the next generation after the Fathers who knew the Apostles personally.

I must say I really enjoyed reading these early fathers because I have been to all the locations where they ministered.  I have lectured in Smyrna, Antioch and Hierapolis.  And, I have visited Philippi often.  Christianity has a line of authoritative witness anchored to Jerusalem and the cross and the empty tomb.  It is a blessing and a privilege to be able to examine this witness even so close to the point of origin.  The writings of the Fathers are available without cost on line.  It would be a worthwhile Lenten exercise for anyone.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at