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The Apostolic Fathers
An Essential Guide
By Clayton N. Jefford
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Collected Writings
The anthology of writings that we now call the Apostolic Fathers was not recognized as a unified set of texts within the early church. Much like the works that came to form our New Testament, the several letters and tractates that have been preserved in our collection circulated individually among early Christian communities where they were gathered together and used for inspiration, teaching, liturgy, and other reasons that are now lost to us. We are left, then, to explore how and why these particular texts eventually came to be placed together within a single collection.
In large part our Apostolic Fathers represent the remnants of early Christian writings that ultimately did not make it into the New Testament canon. The formation of the Christian Bible, including materials that now appear either in the Old Testament, New Testament, or Apocrypha, was certainly the product of a long and complicated history. For the moment let us simply say that there was a clear concern among second- and third-generation Christians to assemble a collection of writings that could be generally acknowledged as authoritative in matters of faith, ethics, and theology. The materials that ultimately became the Hebrew Bible of rabbinic Judaism naturally were used from the very beginning of Christianity and were considered to be a valid reflection of God's interaction with humanity. This was true for the most part because the first Christians arose from within Judaism, sharing the cultural values of the synagogue and its concern for divine laws and cultic rituals.
At the same time, however, those who came to confess a belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah found that their own writings also carried certain weight as confessional documents that were useful for instruction and worship. Early churches soon collected such "Christian" literary witnesses, cherishing their value as a testimony to the life of faith that existed among the churches and appreciating the normative standard that such documents offered for Christians as they traveled from one geographical region to another. But the process by which texts were chosen for preservation was not always well defined.
Thus, for example, the early second-century teacher Marcion of Sinope in Asia Minor made a concerted effort to gather copies of letters by the apostle Paul (Marcion's personal faith hero) and, placing them together with the Gospel of Luke, fashioned a sort of unofficial canon of authoritative writings. This feat reflected a natural tendency of the period. Unfortunately, not all Christians shared in the reasoning behind Marcion's actions, since he falsely attributed to Paul the belief that the God of Christianity was different from that deity who both appeared and acted under the name of "God" in the Old Testament. In essence, Marcion rejected the role of Judaism and its scriptures as an essential part of salvation history.
It was partially in response to the efforts of theologians like Marcion that other Christians began to gather additional texts into a usable collection that could be employed with confidence among the churches. Over a period of years a loose set of guidelines developed by which writings could be judged as suitable for use among the churches. These guidelines included principles that were related to theological suitability, broad usage among different congregations, connection with a valid apostolic witness, liturgical usefulness, and so forth. Of course, the wide expansion of early Christianity led to numerous efforts and varying results, including the incorporation of selected gospel works, letters from apostles and evangelists, collections of sayings that were attributed either to the historical Jesus or to revelations of the risen Christ, memoirs of the acts of the first missionaries, theological tractates, and other literary genres. The debate over which of these writings were suitable for the extended church continued for several centuries and remains even today as a minor disagreement among the primary Christian denominations of the world, that is, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox.
At the same time, it is clear that some uniformity of texts had begun to gain recognition toward the end of the fourth century. This is demonstrated in the famous Festal Letter 39 by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, a missive that the bishop sent to Christians of his diocese in 367 C.E. in order to indicate the appropriate date for the observance of Easter in that year. In his letter the bishop cataloged all those texts that he considered to bear the weight of canonical authority, a listing that includes today's Old Testament (except for the book of Esther) and New Testament. In addition, he offered several other writings that, while not considered to be canonical, were worthy of use for instruction. Featured here is the book of Esther, several works of the modern Apocrypha, and two writings that now are included among the Apostolic Fathers, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas.
What we learn about the Apostolic Fathers from this effort of the church to establish a canon of authoritative scriptures is at least twofold. In the first place, while the writings that are now included in our collection were not ultimately chosen to form a portion of the sacred canon of scripture, they likewise were not considered to be scandalous or "heretical" with respect to the theological mainstream of the evolving institutional church. This is significant because it means that later church authorities felt free to use these texts and the ideas of their authors as they made theological decisions and developed positions on an ethical Christian lifestyle. And secondly, 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. This is suggested by the fact that some of our writings were included alongside New Testament literature in ancient, revered versions of the Bible. Thus, the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, an important early version of the New Testament, concludes with the texts of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, while the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus concludes with the works of 1–2 Clement. The importance of this observation should not be underestimated, since the appearance of at least some of our writings among the collected sacred texts of the ancient church suggests that they too were held in very high esteem. Indeed, their value for our understanding of early Christianity and its traditions should not be swept aside because of our own ignorance either of their content or of their relevance to other early church authors.
The phrase "apostolic fathers" appears to have been used rarely in early Christian literature prior to the medieval period. Even then, it is never applied to any single, specific collection of texts. Instead, the phrase typically designated the teachings of certain authors who wrote prior to the later patristic period, the time of the great apologists, heresiologists, and theologians who dominated the first six centuries of church development.
The first "modern" usage of the phrase appears in the work of the French scholar Jean Cotelier, who issued a two-volume collection of writings by authors he believed "flourished during the apostolic times" (published in 1672). He specified that these authors either were friends or disciples of the apostles of Jesus, including the apostle Paul. Under this rubric, he chose to include a variety of works that were associated by title with the missionary Barnabas (known from Acts), the bishop Clement of Rome, the bishop Ignatius of Antioch in Syria, and the bishop Polycarp of Smyrna in Asia Minor. Each of these writings still appears in current versions of the Apostolic Fathers. But since the time of Cotelier, modern scholars have dropped his insistence that the authors of the Apostolic Fathers were necessarily "companions or disciples of the apostles." They focus instead upon the early nature of texts as an important criterion by which to include certain writings. The result of this change in orientation is that many other writings that Cotelier chose to include in the collection have been removed, primarily because they are now dated to a later period in the history of Christian literature. At the same time, several texts have been added that Cotelier either did not know or chose to omit.
It is now sufficient to say that those works that remain in the collection of the Apostolic Fathers 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. As a collection, the Apostolic Fathers have no official ecclesiastical sanction or authority. The assemblage of such writings is purely a secondary process of modern scholarship. And yet, as a combined voice they speak loudly about the origins of early Christian faith and culture.
1. Epistle of Barnabas
The text of Barnabas offers an intriguing glimpse into the vitriolic debate that often characterized early Christianity's struggle with its Jewish heritage. Now divided into twenty-one chapters by modern scholars, the work is typically viewed as the compilation of two primary sections: a main argument in which the author explains how Christianity has inherited the divine covenant that Judaism had forsaken (chapters 1–17) and a secondary collection of teachings drawn from a literary tradition known as the "two ways" (chapters 18–21).
There is little that we can know with certainty about the origins of the writing. Most scholars believe that the ascription of the work to Barnabas, presumably the same missionary companion of Paul that we recognize from the New Testament, is not authentic, but represents early Christian efforts to gain apostolic authority for the text in debates about its canonical value. Barnabas itself provides few clues with respect to the character of the author. The focus of the main argument is directed toward an exaltation of Christianity at the expense of Jewish tradition, emphasizing that the covenant that God once offered to the Jews has now been handed over to those who believe that the Messiah of Israel has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. On the surface, the hostile terminology employed in this claim may suggest that our author was a non-Jew who wished to wrestle Judaism's glory away from its moorings. At the same time, however, the careful way in which our author has made extended use of the Old Testament, both with respect to its writings and imagery, may argue more forcefully on behalf of our author's status as a "true believer," perhaps a recent Jewish convert to the Christian faith.
It is extremely difficult to place the work within a specific geographical location during any particular period of time. Suggestions for a setting have traditionally ranged from Asia Minor to Syria, and from Palestine to Egypt. The most commonly accepted view is that our author was writing from Alexandria in Egypt. With respect to date, Barnabas was composed with some knowledge of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., but its author seems unaware of the construction of a Roman temple on the same site under the emperor Hadrian a generation later (135 C.E.). This might provide a general range of some sixty years for the work (70–135 C.E.), but there is little to suggest a more specific point in time.
The original circumstances of Barnabas have been widely debated. Though identified by its title as an "epistle," it has more the look of a theological tractate or, perhaps, a homily. The brief letter elements of the text include opening greetings and a thanksgiving as well as concluding blessings, but these are the only indication that the work was ever a letter. And these traits may actually represent a secondary alteration of the text. The core of the writing is an extended argument that carefully draws upon Jewish scriptures and traditions as it illustrates the numerous ways in which God's covenant has been transferred to Christians. Scholars have sometimes suggested that our author's knowledge of quite specific Old Testament materials may indicate the use of "testimonia," or scripture references that were collected around a single theme for use in liturgical readings, devotional reflection, or theological speculation by early Christians.
Our author is concerned about three primary doctrines of thought that fulfill all Christian knowledge: hope that provides faith, righteousness that fulfills judgment, and love that reflects the joy of righteous living. The materials that follow are a continuous comment upon these principles, lavishly illustrated by renowned figures and events from scripture. As our author states, it is necessary for Christians to receive God's covenant of grace in a deserving spirit. There is no time for delay in this process since there is a great urgency for action with respect to the divine timetable for salvation. With the cross of Jesus Christ and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, all necessary signs of God's activity are now in place. The audience is encouraged to reach out for the eternal reward that has been offered through the new covenant and to live in a manner that is befitting of those who have rejected evil ways and who now seek to keep God's commandments. It is indeed a new culture of faith that our author has envisioned for the church.
2. First Clement
Unlike the text of Barnabas, it is clear that 1 Clement was originally penned as a letter. Although unusually long for such a task (having been divided into sixty-five chapters), its primary goal is to address the problems of a specific community. The text itself indicates that 1 Clement was offered by the church of Rome as a response to the situation of the church in Corinth, which had found itself in the midst of a struggle over ecclesiastical leadership. It seems that the older and respected leaders of the Corinthian faith community had been removed from office by the machinations of younger upstarts. The troublesome aspect of this transition had led some within the Corinthian church to write to Rome in an effort to remedy the situation.
Our text received its name early in the historical tradition under the assumption of later Christian writers that its author was Clement of Rome, who ultimately became a prominent bishop within the Roman church. In reality, the text makes no mention of Clement as its author and offers no appeal to any particular ecclesiastical authority. This has led certain scholars to speculate whether our author wrote from a particular vantage point that did not reflect the broader perspective of the church in Rome or, perhaps, did not have the ecclesiastical rank that would have been necessary to gain broad church approval for what is contained in the writing. It is sufficient to note for the present that tradition has assigned authorship to the figure of Clement, an important person who is known to have been a leader of the Roman church in the last half of the first century.
This raises the question of the letter's date of composition. Our author indicates that, like the Corinthians, the church in Rome had recently suffered through some troublesome times. Although it remains unclear whether this difficulty had come from outside the community or, instead, from within its ranks, scholars have traditionally been led to place 1 Clement close to some well-known persecution by civil authorities. The two most obvious choices are the persecution by the emperor Nero in the midsixties or the persecution by the emperor Domitian in the midnineties. In either case, we might still hold Clement to have been the author, though the extent of his influence would have varied greatly according to his age during this forty-year span. If the Neronian date may be accepted, then 1 Clement would be one of our oldest writings in the Apostolic Fathers. Most scholars have preferred the time of Domitian, however, with the recognition that there are arguments for either date.
Excerpted from The Apostolic Fathers by Clayton N. Jefford. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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