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According to Britannica:

Apostolic Father, any of the Greek Christian writers, several unknown, who were authors of early Christian works dating primarily from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. Their works are the principal source for information about Christianity during the two or three generations following the Apostles....

The Apostolic Fathers include St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Hermas, St. Barnabas, Papias, and the anonymous authors of the Didachē (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), Letter to Diognetus, Letter of Barnabas, and Martyrdom of Polycarp.

In Matt. 16:18 (D-R), it is written:

And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

QUESTION: What did the (or at least some of) the Apostolic Fathers have to say about the meaning of "the gates of hell" in this verse?

Remark: I may be wrong, but Matt. 16:18 might be the only place where "gates of hell" is directly mentioned in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, however, it (or something very much like it) is found on multiple occasions e.g., (from the Douay-Rheims):

I said: In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell: I sought for the residue of my years. (Is. 38:10) --- with the gloss adding: "Hell": Sheol, or Hades, the region of the dead.

Their soul abhorred all manner of meat: and they drew nigh even to the gates of death. (Ps. 107:18; see also verses 10, 14)

Have mercy on me, O Lord: see my humiliation which I suffer from my enemies. Thou that liftest me up from the gates of death, that I may declare all thy praises in the gates of the daughter of Sion. (Ps. 9:14-15)

Thank you.

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  • It might be helpful to your readership if you were to reference your quote of 'gates of Sheol'.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 13, 2023 at 19:02
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    @NigelJ Thanks for the comment. Just did.
    – DDS
    Oct 13, 2023 at 19:31
  • @DDS - I took the liberty to correct a biblical reference in Psalm 107, and eliminate an extra "38:10". Was this an improvement? If not, go ahead and return the previous reference. You have a good question!
    – ray grant
    Mar 13 at 20:52
  • @raygrant Thank you for your comment. I apologize for the delay in my response as today is the first time I have accessed my account since it was hacked last February.
    – DDS
    Mar 27 at 21:20

3 Answers 3

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First, checking the writings at eCatholic Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, the only reference to "gates of hell" was "Hell's gates" in St. Iraneaus' (technically, not an Apostolic Father, but whom had seen and heard the Apostolic Father, St. Polycarp) Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 33:

Chapter XXXIII Whosoever confesses that one God is the author of both Testaments, and diligently reads the Scriptures in company with the presbyters of the Church, is a true spiritual disciple; and he will rightly understand and interpret all that the prophets have declared respecting Christ and the liberty of the New Testament

  1. A spiritual disciple of this sort truly receiving the Spirit of God, who was from the beginning, in all the dispensations of God, present with mankind, and announced things future, revealed things present, and narrated things past—[such a man] does indeed “judge all men, but is himself judged by no man.” For he judges the Gentiles, “who serve the creature more than the Creator,” and with a reprobate mind spend all their labour on vanity. And he also judges the Jews, who do not accept of the word of liberty, nor are willing to go forth free, although they have a Deliverer present [with them]; but they pretend, at a time unsuitable [for such conduct], to serve, [with observances] beyond [those required by] the law, God who stands in need of nothing, and do not recognise the advent of Christ, which He accomplished for the salvation of men, nor are willing to understand that all the prophets announced His two advents: the one, indeed, in which He became a man subject to stripes, and knowing what it is to bear infirmity, and sat upon the foal of an ass, and was a stone rejected by the builders, and was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and by the stretching forth of His hands destroyed Amalek; while He gathered from the ends of the earth into His Father’s fold the children who were scattered abroad, and remembered His own dead ones who had formerly fallen asleep, and came down to them that He might deliver them: but the second in which He will come on the clouds, bringing on the day which burns as a furnace, and smiting the earth with the word of His mouth, and slaying the impious with the breath of His lips, and having a fan in His hands, and cleansing His floor, and gathering the wheat indeed into His barn, but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
  2. Moreover, he shall also examine the doctrine of Marcion, [inquiring] how he holds that there are two gods, separated from each other by an infinite distance. Or how can he be good who draws away men that do not belong to him from him who made them, and calls them into his own kingdom? And why is his goodness, which does not save all [thus], defective? Also, why does he, indeed, seem to be good as respects men, but most unjust with regard to him who made men, inasmuch as he deprives him of his possessions? Moreover, how could the Lord, with any justice, if He belonged to another father, have acknowledged the bread to be His body, while He took it from that creation to which we belong, and affirmed the mixed cup to be His blood? And why did He acknowledge Himself to be the Son of man, if He had not gone through that birth which belongs to a human being? How, too, could He forgive us those sins for which we are answerable to our Maker and God? And how, again, supposing that He was not flesh, but was a man merely in appearance, could He have been crucified, and could blood and water have issued from His pierced side? What body, moreover, was it that those who buried Him consigned to the tomb? And what was that which rose again from the dead?
  3. [This spiritual man] shall also judge all the followers of Valentinus, because they do indeed confess with the tongue one God the Father, and that all things derive their existence from Him, but do at the same time maintain that He who formed all things is the fruit of an apostasy or defect. [He shall judge them, too, because] they do in like manner confess with the tongue one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but assign in their [system of] doctrine a production of his own to the Only-begotten, one of his own also to the Word, another to Christ, and yet another to the Saviour; so that, according to them, all these beings are indeed said [in Scripture to be], as it were, one; [while they maintain], notwithstanding, that each one of them should be understood [to exist] separately [from the rest], and to have [had] his own special origin, according to his peculiar conjunction. [It appears], then that their tongues alone, forsooth, have conceded the unity [of God], while their [real] opinion and their understanding (by their habit of investigating profundities) have fallen away from [this doctrine of] unity, and taken up the notion of manifold deities,-[this, I say, must appear] when they shall be examined by Christ as to the points [of doctrine] which they have invented. Him, too, they affirm to have been born at a later period than the Pleroma of the AEons, and that His production took place after [the occurrence of] a degeneracy or apostasy; and they maintain that, on account of the passion which was experienced by Sophia, they themselves were brought to the birth. But their own special prophet Homer, listening to whom they have invented such doctrines, shall himself reprove them, when he expresses himself as follows:---

“Hateful to me that man as Hades’ gates, Who one thing thinks, while he another states.” [This spiritual man] shall also judge the vain speeches of the perverse Gnostics, by showing that they are the disciples of Simon Magus.

Then, searching for available writings of the rest of the Apostolic Fathers not given on the above eCatholic site:

Didache

The Shepherd of Hermas

yielded nothing.

An aside: Consider the whole quote given above: "Hateful to me that man as Hades’ gates, who one thing thinks, while he another states." Perhaps, it was from this writing of St. Irenaeus (who was from Lyon---not far from Ars, France) that St. John Vianney (patron Saint of all priests) said in a sermon he once gave on lying: ``Nothing is more unworthy of a Christian, whose life should be an imitation of a God Who is the soul of Honor and Truth itself, than to think one thing and say another.'' (cf. Thoughts of the Curé of Ars, TAN Books, 1984, p. 43.)

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There is basically one reference from Irenaeus to gates of hell in a song in that defined group, but there is another reference that might set the stage for understanding of the term.

For David speaketh concerning Him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face; for He is on my right hand, lest I should be moved: therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also, my flesh shall rest in hope: because Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt Thou give Thy Holy One to see corruption.” Then he proceeds to speak confidently to them concerning the patriarch David, that he was dead and buried, and that his sepulchre is with them to this day. He said, “But since he was a prophet, and knew that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his body one should sit in his throne; foreseeing this, he spake of the resurrection of Christ, that He was not left in hell, neither did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus,” he said, “hath God raised up, of which we all are witnesses: who, being exalted by the right hand of God, receiving from the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, hath shed forth this gift which ye now see and hear. Irenaeus AH Book III Chapter XII

The point is the gates of hell had been closed until Christ opened them. Christ prevails, not hell. The gates will never be shut again.

Apparently, the apostles and disciples understood this. It wasn't one of them who opened the gates; they were just to proclaim the Good News. There wasn't a power struggle between Christians that early on.

Cyprian, however, writing about 50-100 years later has this to say about the growing grab for gold.

  1. If any one consider and examine these things [being "He [devil] has invented heresies and schisms, whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity."}, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, “I say unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, “Feed my sheep.” And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins ye retain, they shall be retained;” yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.” Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?”
  1. And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided.3114 Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. Cyprian Treatises I On the Unity of the Church

By that time, the power struggle had begun (see the baptism question for example) between the Church at X and the Church at Y and the Church at Z. For Cyprian yes, the Lord spoke first to Peter, but subsequently endowed all the apostles with the same authority. From the one came the unity all of whom were equal.

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Biblical Geography As any book on Biblical or Historical Geography relates, the place where Jesus made His proclamation about the "Gates of Hell" was near a deep cavern at Caesarea Philippi. This cavern surrounded by pagan temples and shrines was considered by the pagan culture as the Gates of Hell. (A temple was built there by Herod in honor of Caesar; hence the name, Caesarea Philippi.)

In contrast to this idolatry, Jesus declared that the Church should prevail over them. (Matthew 16:18)

So it would be interesting to see if the Early Apostolic Fathers, who might have referred to the Gates, were influenced by this Geography in their homilies about The Gates. Or if they ignored this situation, and relied on the Old Testament references referred to in the Question and previous Answers; Isaiah 38:10, Psalm 14-15.

Any references by the Apostolic Fathers on this subject is strangely scarce, or at lease, not directly referenced, as the previous Answers demonstrated.

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    Ray is correct as is related in encyclopedia Britanica. That cave is below the bluff of the city and used to have a spring emanating from it though now it comes up a ways in front due to techtonic activity. It was commonly believed by various pagans in Jesus's time that springs were portals to the underworld. The spirits likely retiring below for winter and emerging in spring to foster spring's regrowth.
    – iwuzic
    2 days ago

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