Who Are the Most Important Christian Figures After the Bible?

Following the end of the New Testament period, these three key figures, known as the Apostolic Fathers, took on leadership of the Christian church.

Oct 9, 2023By Ryan Watson, MA History, BA History

most important christian figures after the bible


The general historical consensus is that the New Testament period ended around 70 CE after the Siege of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire under the general (and future emperor) Titus. Christian tradition has long held that, while the Jewish Zealots remained to try and fight the Romans, the Christian population escaped the siege to nearby Perea (also known as Pella). From here, Christianity separated more from Judaism, became more of its own religion, and dispersed throughout the world.


The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-11, in The Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, via Visit Vatican

The last book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, was written around 95 CE. It was written as an encouragement (and possible prophecy) to Christians of that time. Some have speculated that other books of the Bible were written in the early 100s CE, but those books were written about the time periods before Revelation. After the New Testament period, and the martyrdom of the Apostles of Jesus Christ (apostle is generally the term used to describe a follower of Jesus who saw Him after the resurrection), leadership of the Church passed to those taught directly by the apostles. Some of these men are known as the Apostolic Fathers.


The Apostolic Fathers

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Basilica of Saint Clement, Rome, Photo by Gustavo Kralj, via catholicmagazine.news

The Apostolic Fathers are the first three well-known Christian leaders of the period starting around 75 CE through about 155 CE. They are Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. Together, they are held to be Bishops of the early Christian church, and each was supposedly killed for their faith (martyred).


Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome, c. 1000 portrayal at St Sophia’s Cathedral, Kyiv

Clement of Rome (35 AD-99 CE) is possibly the first Bishop of Rome, leading the church in Rome directly after the apostle Peter. Though little is known about him, we do have a writing attributed to him called the First Epistle of Clement.  This epistle (letter) is possibly the earliest non-Biblical Christian writing currently on record. The Epistle of Clement is an exhortation to the church in Corinth to restore the elders of that church to their positions after they had been deposed due to some controversy. We know little else of Clement for certain, other than traditional writings done a few hundred years later, which describe of his imprisonment, miracles, and martyrdom by being thrown into the sea tied to an anchor.


Ignatius of Antioch

Icon of St Ignatius from Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia

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The Biblical leader Ignatius of Antioch (died approximately 98-117 CE or 135-140 CE) was a Patriarch of Antioch and possible disciple of the Apostle John. Ignatius is known for his early writings to various churches while being escorted to Rome by soldiers. Much of the traditional story of his life was recorded by Eusebius in the 300s, who also preserved Ignatius’s 7 writings.  These writings, however, have been a source of contention between Catholics and Protestants, as many Catholics consider them authentic and Protestants hold them to be written by someone else later in history.  Little non-traditional information is available regarding Ignatius, including details of his martyrdom (where he was supposedly thrown to wild beasts).


Polycarp of Smyrna

Icon of Polycarp of Smyrna


Polycarp of Smyrna (Born C 69 CE, died approximately C 155 CE) was also a possible disciple of the Apostle John.  He is known through his Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians and is described in the early Christian work called the Martyrdom of Polycarp. According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Polycarp refused to worship the Roman Emperor by burning incense. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Before he was martyred, Polycarp is recorded as saying, “Eighty and Six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong.” Tradition holds that flames did not burn Polycarp, and he had to be pierced with a spear.


The Christian Church of the early second century was still figuring out its structure, and was also in the midst of heavy persecution within the Roman Empire. Many of its leaders were martyred in one form or another, but the threat of death did not dissuade its followers from pursuing what they believed to be the truth.

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By Ryan WatsonMA History, BA HistoryRyan Watson is a husband, father, underwriter, writer, and reseller. He graduated with a Bachelor's and Master's in History from Louisiana Tech University in the early 2000s. He focuses on Biblical, post-Biblical, and medieval history with occasional dabblings in other arenas.