The term "Apostolic Fathers" refers to a collection of writings which
are considered to be consistent with the general principles and theologies of an apostolic tradition that circulated among the churches from the end of the first century into the middle of the second century. These texts, only tentatively defined, are generally seen to include the following works: Epistle of Barnabas, 1-2 Clement, Didache, Epistle to Diognetus, Epistles of Ignatius, Epistle of Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Shepherd of Hermas, and the fragments of Papias.1
They were not ultimately not included in the New Testament canon but were also not viewed as scandalous or heretical, and “for some Christians at least, a few of the texts that came to form the Apostolic Fathers were viewed with a reverence that may have approached that of Scripture.”2 Their relevance to us is due not any claim that their testimony is inspired or authoritative, but because “As a combined voice they speak loudly about the origins of early Christian faith and culture.”3
Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke has implicitly affirmed the importance of these writings as a witness to early Christian faith and culture by appealing to them in support of what he calls the "Christadelphian model" of the early church as a gradually maturing community which put away belief in literal demons (and, by implication, a literal Satan).4
Burke argues that this trend can be observed in the "marginalization" of Satan and demons within the New Testament, outside the Gospels and Acts.5 As far as Satan is concerned I addressed this claim in a previous post, The Statistics of Satan.
However, Burke also claims support for the Christadelphian model in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. In the case of demons he appeals to the entire body of writings.6 However, in the case of Satan, for reasons that will become apparent, he appeals to only one text - the Didache. He calls it "significant" that this work makes no reference to Satan.7
Now, before looking at Burke's claims regarding the Didache, let us examine the rest of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Do they bear out the idea that belief in Satan was progressively being jettisoned by the early church?
Epistle of Barnabas
"We take earnest heed in these last days; for the whole [past] time of your faith will profit you nothing, unless now in this wicked time we also withstand coming sources of danger, as becometh the sons of God. That the Black One may find no means of entrance, let us flee from every vanity, let us utterly hate the works of the way of wickedness...Each will receive as he has done: if he is righteous, his righteousness will precede him; if he is wicked, the reward of wickedness is before him. Take heed, lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called [of God], we should fall asleep in our sins, and the wicked prince, acquiring power over us, should thrust us away from the kingdom of the Lord. (Barnabas 4)8
“But let us now pass to another sort of knowledge and doctrine. There are two ways of doctrine and authority, the one of light, and the other of darkness. But there is a great difference between these two ways. For over one are stationed the light-bringing angels of God, but over the other the angels of Satan. And He indeed [i.e., God] is Lord for ever and ever, but he [i.e., Satan] is prince of the time of iniquity.” (Barnabas 18)
Comment: some scholars have seen other references to the devil in Barnabas 15:5 (which translates literally as 'the lawless one' and could refer to Satan or the man of sin as in 2 Thess. 2:8); Barnabas 20:1 (which could be rendered 'the way of the Black One' or 'the way of darkness'), and Barnabas 21:3 ("For the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one].")9
“For all our transgressions which we have committed through any of the wiles of the adversary, let us entreat that we may obtain forgiveness” (1 Clement 51)
Comment: The word translated 'adversary' here is a form of the Greek verb antikeimai. This verb is used of the "man of sin" in 2 Thess. 2:4, who is closely associated with Satan (2 Thess. 2:9). It is also used in 1 Tim. 5:14, possibly of Satan, but certainly in connection with Satan (cf. 1 Tim. 5:15).
This text from 1 Clement is taken to be a reference to the devil by the best lexical authority,10 and the word clearly refers to the devil in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (see below).
"For I myself too, being an utter sinner and not yet escaped from temptation, but being still amidst the engines of the devil, do my diligence to follow after righteousness, that I may prevail so far at least as to come near unto it, while I fear the judgment to come." (2 Clement 18)
Epistle to Diognetus
This document contains no reference to the devil.
Epistles of Ignatius
There are seven epistles of Ignatius extant which are generally regarded as authentic. There is a longer and shorter version of most of these, so to be conservative we will limit ourselves to references from the shorter version. Going by the shorter version, six of the seven epistles refer to the devil. Only the epistle to Polycarp does not. In addition to "the devil" (ho diabolos) Ignatius uses the term "prince of this world" (archontos tou aionos toutou) which is close to the term used in John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4.
"Flee therefore the wicked devices and snares of the prince of this world, lest at any time being conquered by his artifices, ye grow weak in your love." (Philadelphians 6)
"...I commend the Churches, in which I pray for a union both of the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ, the constant source of our life, and of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but especially of Jesus and the Father, in whom, if we endure all the assaults of the prince of this world, and escape them, we shall enjoy God." (Magnesians 1)
"Not that I know there is anything of this kind among you; but I put you on your guard, inasmuch as I love you greatly, and foresee the snares of the devil." (Trallians 8)
"I therefore have need of meekness, by which the prince of this world is brought to nought." (Trallians 4)
"Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ." (Romans 5)
"The prince of this world would fain carry me away, and corrupt my disposition towards God. Let none of you, therefore, who are [in Rome] help him; rather be ye on my side, that is, on the side of God." (Romans 7)
"and let us seek to be followers of the Lord (who ever more unjustly treated, more destitute, more condemned? ), that so no plant of the devil may be found in you, but ye may remain in all holiness and sobriety in Jesus Christ, both with respect to the flesh and spirit." (Ephesians 10)
"For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end." (Ephesians 13)
"Be not ye anointed with the bad odour of the doctrine of the prince of this world; let him not lead you away captive from the life which is set before you." (Ephesians 17)
"Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God." (Ephesians 19)
"He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil." (Smyrnaeans 9)
Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
"For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;" and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan." (7:1)
Martyrdom of Polycarp
"For the devil did indeed invent many things against them; but thanks be to God, he could not prevail over all." (Martyrdom of Polycarp 3)
"But when the adversary of the race of the righteous, the envious, malicious, and wicked one, perceived the impressive nature of his martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the beginning, and how he was now crowned with the wreath of immortality, having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh." (Martyrdom of Polycarp 17)
Shepherd of Hermas
This document contains no less than 23 references to the devil, of which the following are a sampling:
“For the Lord, knowing the heart, and foreknowing all things, knew the weakness of men and the manifold wiles of the devil, that he would inflict some evil on the servants of God, and would act wickedly towards them. The Lord, therefore, being merciful, has had mercy on the work of His hand, and has set repentance for them; and He has entrusted to me power over this repentance. And therefore I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling. in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once.” (Fourth Commandment, chapter 3)
“For if thou art long-suffering, the Holy Spirit that abideth in thee shall be pure, not being darkened by another evil spirit, but dwelling in a large room shall rejoice and be glad with the vessel in which he dwelleth, and shall serve God with much cheerfulness, having prosperity in himself. But if any angry temper approach, forthwith the Holy Spirit, being delicate, is straitened, not having [the] place clear, and seeketh to retire from the place; for he is being choked by the evil spirit, and has no room to minister unto the Lord, as he desireth, being polluted by angry temper. For the Lord dwelleth in long-suffering, but the devil in angry temper. Thus that both the spirits then should be dwelling together is inconvenient and evil for that man in whom they dwell.” (Fifth Commandment, chapter 1)
“But fear not the devil; for, if thou fear the Lord, thou shalt be master over the devil, for there is no power in him. [For] in whom is no power, neither is there fear of him; but in whom power is glorious, of him is fear likewise. For every one that hath power hath fear, whereas he that hath no power is despised of all. But fear thou the works of the devil, for they are evil. While then thou fearest the Lord, thou wilt fear the works of the devil, and wilt not do them, but abstain from them.” (Seventh Commandment, chapter 1)
"He pointed out to me some men sitting on a seat, and one man sitting on a chair. And he says to me, "Do you see the persons sitting on the seat?" "I do, sir," said I. "These," says he, "are the faithful, and he who sits on the chair is a false prophet, ruining the minds of the servants of God. It is the doubters, not the faithful, that he ruins. These doubters then go to him as to a soothsayer, and inquire of him what will happen to them; and he, the false prophet, not having the power of a Divine Spirit in him, answers them according to their inquiries, and according to their wicked desires, and fills their souls with expectations, according to their own wishes. For being himself empty, he gives empty answers to empty inquirers; for every answer is made to the emptiness of man. Some true words he does occasionally utter; for the devil fills him with his own spirit, in the hope that he may be able to overcome some of the righteous. As many, then, as are strong in the faith of the Lord, and are clothed with truth, have no connection with such spirits, but keep away from them" (Eleventh Commandment, chapter 1)
These, then, are the evil desires which slay the servants of God. For this evil desire is the daughter of the devil. You must refrain from evil desires, that by refraining ye may live to God. But as many as are mastered by them, and do not resist them, will perish at last, for these desires are fatal. Put you on, then, the desire of righteousness; and arming yourself with the fear of the Lord," (Twelfth Commandment, chapter 2)
"I say to him, "Sir, listen to me for a moment." "Say what you wish," says he. "Man, sir," say I, "is eager to keep the commandments of God, and there is no one who does not ask of the Lord that strength may be given him for these commandments, and that he may be subject to them; but the devil is hard, and holds sway over them." "He cannot," says he, "hold sway over the servants of God, who with all their heart place their hopes in Him. The devil can wrestle against these, overthrow them he cannot. If, then, ye resist him, he will be conquered, and flee in disgrace from you. As many, therefore," says he, "as are empty, fear the devil, as possessing power. When a man has filled very suitable jars with good wine, and a few among those jars are left empty, then he comes to the jars, and does not look at the full jars, for he knows that they are full; but he looks at the empty, being afraid lest they have become sour. For empty jars quickly become sour, and the goodness of the wine is gone. So also the devil goes to all the servants of God to try them. As many, then, as are full in the faith, resist him strongly, and he withdraws from them, having no way by which he might enter them. He goes, then, to the empty, and finding a way of entrance, into them, he produces in them whatever he wishes, and they become his servants." (Twelfth Commandment, chapter 5)
Fragments of Papias
These brief fragments contain no reference to the devil.
In summary, aside from the Didache, all but three works of the Apostolic Fathers refer to the devil at least once (Epistle to Diognetus, Ignatius' epistle to Polycarp, and the fragments of Papias being the exceptions). Many of these undeniably refer to the devil as a personal being. This is far more significant in appreciating the satanology of the early post-apostolic church than the supposed absence of the devil from the Didache!
Is the devil absent from the Didache?
What of the Didache itself? The focus of this document is practical guidelines for the initiation of converts:
“As an oral tradition, the Didache encapsulated the lived practice by which non-Jews were initiated into the altered habits of perceiving, judging and acting characteristic of one branch of the Jesus movement during the mid-first century.”11
Note that in spite of the quotation above, most scholars date the Didache to the end of the first century.12
At any rate, it is plausible that the original text of the Didache did contain an explicit reference to the devil, and the extant text may contain a second implicit reference. The Didache tradition survives in only one complete manuscript dating from the 11th century.13 It is likely that the ending of the Didache is lost. The ending in chapter 16 is “abrupt and unresolved...obviously only half-complete”14 , and the way in which the scribe uncharacteristically left space at the end of the work and omitted the usual punctuation mark indicating the end of a literary work suggests that he “knew his exemplar was defective”.15
The Apostolic Constitutions are a “moderately edited version of the Didache included in a larger church manual compiled around 380 C.E.” Milavec explains that “The longer ending found therein has been widely accepted as providing a ‘very loose reproduction’ (Niederwimmer 1998: 227) of the ‘lost ending’ of the Didache.”16 Aldridge states, “There is good evidence that this is the Didache’s true ending (approximately).”17
Aldridge renders what he believes to be the proximate true ending of the Didache as follows:
“8 Then the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven with the angels of His power, in the throne of His kingdom, 9 to condemn the devil, the deceiver of the world, and to render to every one according to his deeds. 10 Then shall the wicked go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous shall enter eternal life, 11 to inherit those things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, such things as God hath prepared for them that love Him. 12 And they shall rejoice in the kingdom of God, which is in Christ Jesus.”18
Since the Apostolic Constitutions contain interpolations in its version of the Didache, even if Aldridge is correct that it preserves the Didache’s true ending it cannot be said with certainty that the devil was mentioned in the original. On the other hand, the possibility cannot be discounted.
Moreover, the full 11th century manuscript of the Didache contains a reference to the “world-deceiver” at 16:4: "and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands". There is an apparent link between the tradition recalled here and that of 2 Thess. 2:3-10, where the person so described is likened to Satan. Milavec observes that the Didache does not endorse this link,19 but Jenks states that “the description seems to be a clear allusion to the satanic connections of this figure.”20 Verheyden concurs that “This character calls forth associations with traditions on the Antichrist and Satan.”21 Peerbolte even argues on the basis of linguistic similarity with Rev. 12:9 that Didache 16:4 refers to Satan himself: “it is best to regard the title ‘deceiver of the world’ as a description of Satan.”22
In summary, it is at least plausible that the original text of the Didache contained one or two references to the devil. As such, Burke's argument from silence rests on very thin ice.
The reality, as we have seen, is that the Apostolic Fathers witness to a robust doctrine of the devil and Satan in the post-apostolic church of the late first and early second century. This is not surprising given that a robust doctrine of the devil and Satan is also found within the New Testament; but it is exceedingly difficult for the Christadelphian model of the early church to explain.
1 Jefford, Clayton N. 2005. The Apostolic Fathers: An Essential Guide. Abingdon Press, pp. 7-8.↩
2 Jefford, Clayton N. op. cit., p. 7.↩
3 Jefford, Clayton N. op. cit., p. 8.↩
4 The correspondence between myself and Burke can be viewed here. The claim in question is from Burke's correspondence of 13/05/2013, p. 12.↩
5 Burke, Jonathan. Correspondence of 10/10/2012, p. 1.↩
6 Burke, Jonathan. Correspondence of 13/05/2013, p. 10.↩
7 Burke, Jonathan. Correspondence of 10/10/2012, p. 2.↩
8 All translations are taken from Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, Sir James. 1867. Ante-Nicene Christian Library: The Apostolic fathers. T&T Clark.↩
9 See Russell, Jeffrey B. 1987. Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Cornell University Press, p. 38ff; Boyd, James W. 1975. Satan and Mara: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil. Brill Archive, p. 15; Byron, Gay. 2003. Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature. Routledge, p. 60ff.↩
10 Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., and Bauer, W. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. University of Chicago Press, p. 88.↩
11 Milavec, Aaron. 2003. The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis and Commentary. Liturgical Press, p. ix.↩
12 Draper, Jonathan. 1996. The Didache in Modern Research. BRILL, pp. 244-245.↩
13 Milavec, Aaron. op. cit., p. xiv.↩
14 Aldridge, Robert E. 1999. The Lost Ending of the Didache. Vigiliae Christianae 53(1), p. 3.↩
15 Aldridge. op. cit., p. 4.↩
16 Milavec, Aaron. 2003. The Didache: Faith, Hope and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities. Paulist Press, p. 833.↩
17 Aldridge. op. cit., p. 5.↩
18 Aldridge. op. cit., pp. 12-13. Emphasis added.↩
19 Milavec, Aaron. 2003. The Didache: Faith, Hope and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, p. 648.↩
20 Jenks, Gregory C. 1988. The Origins and Development of the Antichrist Myth. University of Queensland, p. 310.↩
21 Verheyden, J. 2005. Eschatology in the Didache and the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew and the Didache, ed. H. van de Sandt. Uitgeverij Van Gorcum, p. 204.↩
22 Peerbolte, L.J. Lietaert. 1996. The Antecedents of Antichrist: A Traditio-Historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents. Brill, p. 181.↩