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The apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers : Greek Texts and English Translations  Edited and Revised by Michael W Holmes.    Baker Books  Grand Rapids, Michigan   (c) 1992, 1999  613 pages

The Apostolic Fathers is a name given to the authors of Christian documents from about the period 70-135 AD – in other words, the earliest Christian writers we have after the New Testament books were written.   This book is a translation, with commentary, of those documents, and it is an excellent introduction for anyone who wishes to learn about the subject.  The editor provides a general introduction, dealing with the historical setting, the nature of Christianity in the period, it’s relationships with Judaism and the Roman state, and their use in scholarly study of the early church.

Each work or set of works is given a brief introduction with the usual discussion of occasion, authorship and date, style, rhetoric, textual issues (ie where there are gaps or copies with variations) and any other relevant issues.

There is 1 Clement aka ‘The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians’.  Written about 95AD, the church in Rome writes to the church in Corinth offering counsel and urging proper Christian behaviour after some young men in the church there revolt and depose the leadership.

2 Clement is an anonymous Christian sermon, the earliest recorded Christian sermon we have.

Then there are the 7 letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the early 2nd Century AD, written in the last few weeks of his life between his arrest in Syria and his probable martyrdom in Rome.  He writes to churches who aided him in his journey, to the church in Rome, churches he had visited and to his friend Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.

Next we have the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, a man who served as bishop for at least 40 years before his martyrdom.  He writes in response to a request for advice from the Philippians on various matters, including a greedy elder, and a discussion on ‘righteousness’.  It was probably written a short while after Ingatius’s martyrdom in the first quarter of the 2nd Century.

Next is ‘The Martyrdom of Polycarp’ a letter by his church in Smyrna to another church, describing his arrest, trial and martyrdom in the middle of the 2nd Century.  It illustrates the fundamental clash between the church and the Roman State.

Next comes my favourite, the Didache, aka ‘The Teachings of the twelve apostles to the Gentiles’.  Although known to be popular in much of the early church, only one copy survives, and was found in the mid 19th Century.  It was probably put together in Syria or Palestine sometime in the 2nd Century and consists of two main parts : ‘The Two ways’ is a discussion of the ways of good and evil, probably used as instruction for new converts preparing for baptism, and then a kind of church manual section, dealing with instructions on food, baptism, fasting, prayer, the Eucharist, and positions of leadership, plus dealing with visiting prophets and preachers.

Next, the Epistle of Barnabas, so called, but it was not written by the biblical Barnabas, and it’s not really a letter, more a tract or sermon in the form of a letter.  It was probably written in the late 1st or early 2nd Century, possibly in Alexandria.  Controversially it argues that only Christians can understand the Scriptures, that Israel has forfeited God’s covenant and that the church is now the true heir of the covenant.  It does this by means of rather allegorical interpretations of the bible.

The Shepherd of Hermas is a long and enigmatic document, extremely popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (many early church leaders thought that it should be counted as Scripture).  It is written in the form of a series of visions and parables.  It is concerned with two main issues, on the interplay of God’s mercy and righteousness in the case of people who live sinfully after their baptism, and the issue of the relations of the rich and poor within the church.  It is often allegorical and has a Jewish-Christian apocalyptic flavour.  It was written in Rome, sometime before AD175, possibly a lot earlier.  The author, Hermas was possibly the brother of a man who was bishop of Rome in the middle of the 2nd Century.

The Epistle to Diognetus is a letter written not to fellow Christians but for outsiders, arguing for Christianity’s superiority to Judaism and Greek religion, as well as countering false accusations that the church practiced incest, child sacrifice and cannibalism.  The end is missing – instead another work is tacked on.  The author and the time of writing of this work are unknown.

Finally we have the Fragments of Papias.  Papias was a bishop in Turkey in the early 2nd Century, who collected and commented on reports of Jesus sayings in a major 5 volume work that was well respected and quoted, but unfortunately has not survived except in fragmentary quotes and references of later Christian writers.  He was in some sense a disciple of the writer of John’s gospel, and we know he wrote about the authorship and writing of each of the four gospels.  The editor of this book includes most of the fragments that quote him or refer to him, plus a short work called ‘The Traditions of the Elders’ which may have originally come from him.

The book has an index of subjects and authors, and of biblical and extrabiblical references, plus a map of the early spread of Christianity and of Bishop Ignatius’s journey.