Supernatural evil in the Apostolic Fathers

The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are recognized as containing a satanology and demonology very different in character to later Christian texts. Satan is almost completely absent from the Apostolic Fathers, and neither demons, nor demon possession and exorcism, are referred to. More significant than mere absence is evidence of deliberate theological exclusion of satan and demons. A synthesis of this evidence suggests most of the writers belonged to an early Christian tradition which rejected supernatural evil as an explanation for temptation, sin, and suffering; this study can be downloaded here.


The ‘Apostolic Fathers’ is a term referring to a group of Christian texts written from the late first century to the early second century. The list of works in this group has changed over time as some of the texts have been re-dated, but generally includes the Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Ignatius, Fragments of Papias, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians, Epistle to Diognetus, and Quadratus.1

Scholarly reference works typically simply assume the Apostolic Fathers believed in a supernatural evil being which they referred to as ‘satan’ or ‘the devil’, without analyzing these texts in detail.2 In Russell’s standard work on Satan in early Christianity, 1 Clement, the letters of Ignatius, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Martyrdom of Polycarp and letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the fragments of Papias are all reviewed.

Russell finds various beliefs in supernatural evil in each of these texts (though he considers Hermas to be ambiguous in this regard),3 but does not synthesize the data. Russell consistently assumes all instances of satanas and diabolos refer to a personal supernatural evil being, and provides little commentary on each work; his entire review of the seven texts takes up just twelve pages. In addition to the lack of any comparative textual or lexical analysis, another significant weakness of his study is the fact that the Didache and the Letter to Diognetus are referred to extremely briefly, in a single footnote.4

In contrast, scholarly works examining the Apostolic Fathers in detail (especially on the subjects of satanology and demonology), observe that these texts contain little or no evidence for belief in supernatural evil, nd in a few cases even reject it. The unusual absence of references to demons, demon possession, and illness caused by demons, has been observed by both Twelftree and Ferngren,5 and rejection of supernatural evil beliefs has been noted in texts such as the Didache.6

This is even more apparent when comparisons are drawn between the Apostolic Fathers and the Christian texts from the mid-second century onwards, which demonstrate a significant development in the role of supernatural evil within Christian theology; the introduction of exorcism and repudiation of Satan at baptism,7 enlargement of Christian demonology,8 adoption of the concept of Satan as a fallen angel,9 and the identification of fallen angels with demons.10

However, such observations typically remain unsynthesized, and atomistic studies focusing merely on individual instances of satanological terminology11 without considering the broader textual and socio-historical context, remain common. An alternative approach is presented here, incorporating taxonomic analysis in a systematic examination of the satanology of the Apostolic Fathers which synthesizes the data.

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  1. ‘A complete modern edition will include the following (the order varies considerably): 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Papias, Hermas, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Diognetus, and Quadratus (cf. Bihlmeyer, Fischer).’, William R. Schoedel, “Apostolic Fathers,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (ed. David Freedman; vol. 1; The Anchor Bible Reference Library; Yale University Press, 1992), 313; ‘The phrase “Apostolic Fathers” goes back to a 1672 Paris edition prepared by J.-B. Cotelier entitled Ss. Patrum qui temporibus apostolicis floruerunt … opera. This work contained Barnabas, 1 and 2 Clement, the epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, and Hermas. Although the historicity is debatable, the phrase has secured a place in historical study. It now applies also to Didache, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Quadratus Fragment, and the fragments of Papias.’, Henning Paulsen, “Apostolic Fathers,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity (ed. Geoffrey William Fahlbusch, Erwin; Bromiley; vol. 1, 5 vols.; Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999), 112; ‘Generally included among the writings of the apostolic fathers are the works of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp, the “Shepherd of Hermas,” the “Letter to Diognetus,” the Didache, the “Epistle of Barnabas,” and the work of Papias.’, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 33. []
  2. ‘These Apostolic Fathers simply affirm the existence of Satan, seemingly as a reflection of their own inner experience.’, Bernard J. Bamberger, Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm (Jewish Publication Society, 2010), 82; ‘Among the apostolic fathers, the teaching about Satan is extended to heretics. Ignatius of Antioch warns of the “snares” and “torments” of the devil (Trall. 8; Rom. 5; 8). False teachings have a “bad odor” as “inventions of the devil” (Eph. 17; cf. Trall. 10). The devil invents falsehoods against Christian martyrs (M. Polyc.). Christians ought not to fear the devil even though doubt and lust after another man’s wife and after luxuries are “the daughters of the devil” (Hermas. Mand. 7; 9; 12,2, 6).’,  1037, James Leo Garrett, Satan, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition  edited by Everett Ferguson; ‘In the post-apost. Fathers [another term for the Apostolic Fathers] as in the NT the existence and activity of Satan are presupposed and there is no independent reflection or speculation about this.’, William Kittel, Gerhard; Friedrich, Gerhard; Bromiley, Geoffrey ed., “σατανᾶς,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. 7; Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 164. []
  3. ‘The writings of Hermas as a whole were allegorical, and the literal and figurative are often mingled. Hermas repeatedly personified the vices as spirits or demons. Sometimes these spirits seem to be taken literally as having “a personal character,” sometimes symbolically as representing a “spiritual inclination.”’, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 45. []
  4.  ‘The Didache, written about 150, taught that there is a road of life and a road of death, tou qanatou odoV and it enjoyed against double-mindedness. It forbade idolatry without equating gods with demons. On the Didache, see Quasten, pp. 29-39. A. Adam, “Erwagungen zur Herkunft der Didache,” Zetischrift für Kirchengeschitchte, 568 (1957), 1-48. J.-P. Audet, La Didachè, instruction des apôtres (Paris, 1958). The “Letter to Diognetus,” written in two sections, the earlier being about 130, speaks of the “deceit of the serpent” and of a warfare between spirit and flesh, but nowhere specifically refers to the Devil.’, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 46; note that Russell dates the Didache to about 150, whereas the scholarly consensus dates it at least 50 years earlier, to the end of the first century. []
  5. 1. Early second century: No interest in exorcism. The vicissitudes of history have left us with a limited and fragmentary witness to the life of the early Christians in the proto-orthodox church of the second century. Notwithstanding, a clear result of our examination of this material is that none of the Apostolic Fathers – the earlier writers – expressed any interest in the subject of exorcism. Of course, none of their pieces of literature of this period had purposes that would require exorcism to be a central theme. Their concern was not so much with the outside world (in relation to which an interest in exorcism could be expected) as with consolidating the little Christian communities around the rim of the Mediterranean. Their interests were the internal matters of, for example, division (1 Clement), teaching for baptismal candidates (Didache), repentance (Shepherd of Hermas), unity (Ignatius), and how the Old Testament was to be interpreted (Barnabas). Yet, in that some of them make passing reference to Jesus’ ministry or mention demons, for example, and also especially since they were most probably aware of Synoptic traditions, it remains surprising, if not a little short of astounding, that the subject found no explicit treatment – sometimes where we could have expected it – in any of the Apostolic Fathers.’, Graham H. Twelftree, In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism Among Early Christians (Baker Academic, 2007), 285; ‘The writings that are conventionally referred to as the Apostolic Fathers were composed between c. A.D. 95 and 156 and follow without interruption the writings that came to be included in the New Testament canon. They are chiefly pastoral and practical in nature, and we might expect them to address, or at least allude to, the activity of demons if demons were then regarded as afflicting Christians by means of possession or disease. Yet the writings of the Apostolic Fathers cite no case of either demonic possession or exorcism, much less of demonically induced illnesses. Of course, our evidence is small, but it is unanimous.’, Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity (JHU Press, 2009), 51. []
  6. ‘It was noted in §12.2 that Barnabas had several references to evil figures such as Satan, the Black One, etc. However, when the Didache used the same material it omitted all reference to such figures.’ , Gregory Charles Jenks, The Origins and Early Development of the Antichrist Myth (Walter de Gruyter, 1991), 308; ‘One can now note that the Greek Epistle of Barnabas, the Latin Teaching of the Apostles, and the Hebrew Manual of Discipline clearly embrace an angelic dualism when defining the Two Ways, while the framers of the Didache clearly avoid it.’, Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. (Paulist Press, 2003), 63. []
  7. ‘The formula of baptism in the second century reflected the importance of demons: before baptism, our body is a house of evil spirits; in baptism Christ expels the demons, releases us from our sins, and takes up his abode in us.’,  Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 61. []
  8. ‘It is not until the apologetic literature of the latter half of the second century that we find a new and different emphasis on demonology that is starkly different from that which we see in the Gospels.’, Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity (JHU Press, 2009), 51. []
  9. ‘In the main, this view of the fall of Satan and the fall of man was adopted by the Fathers of the Church, from the second-century apologist Justin Martyr onwards.’, Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians In Medieval Christendom (Random House, 2011), 21. []
  10. ‘Angels became demons only beginning in the second century and only then at the hands of Christians.’, Martin D.B, “When Did Angels Become Demons?,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 657. []
  11. Typically relying on Francis X. Gokey, The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers (AMS Press, 1961), without further analysis. []

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