Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: The Apostolic Fathers (Sixth Post)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Church History, Devotional, Discipleship, The Church

My Junior year of college I was approached by Dr. Michael Holmes to be his Teacher’s Assistant. You can’t pass an opportunity like that up, even if you have no idea why he would chose you. So I took the job. That year, perhaps the best flat-out teacher I ever had was working on his now standard apostolic fathersThe Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. The work is now several editions newer, but it still retains the same basic set of books.

Who were the Apostolic Fathers? As Holmes puts it, “The term ‘Apostolic Fathers’ is traditionally used to designate the collection of the earliest extant Christian writings outside the New Testament. These documents are a primary resource for the study of early Christianity, especially the post apostolic period (ca. AD 70-150). They provide significant and often unparalleled glimpses of and insights into the life of Christians and the Christian movement during a critical transitional stage in its history.[1] While it is possible, perhaps even probable that the OT Pseudepigrapha contains Christian redaction (editing) from this era, the Apostolic Fathers are complete books written by the very earliest Christians apart from the Apostles themselves.

The collection usually contains a bit over a dozen books/letters. These consist of:

1 Clement (c 96), 2 Clement (c100?). Written by Clement of Rome (d. 99 AD, Clement served as Bishop of the church at Rome from 92-99 AD), 1 Clement is a sermon, twice as long as Hebrews. It contains some of the very earliest thinking on how to interpret the OT, with Christ and typology being at the very forefront of his thought. It is an amazing little letter.

Eight letters of Ignatius (c35–110). This is not the famous Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) who founded the Society of the Jesuits, but a remarkable (and third) Bishop of Antioch who wrote these letters on the way to die in a Roman Colosseum at the hands of Emperor Trajan. Some of these were written to churches that Paul wrote to (Rome, Philippians, Ephesians) and that John wrote to (Philadelphia, Smyrna).

Martyrdom of Polycarp. This book is both a letter and a martyr act which contains the account of Polycarp of Smyrna (c.69–ca. 155). Irenaeus famously says, “Polycarp also was not only instructed by the apostles, and conversed with many who had seen the Lord, but was also appointed bishop by apostles in Asia and in the church in Smyrna” (against Heresies 3.3.4), Eusebius adds that Irenaeus had, as a boy, listened to “the accounts which (Polycarp) gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V. 20).

Didache. Written as early as AD 50 to the early 2nd century, this contains some of the earliest Christian instruction. If it really goes back to 50 AD, it would be far and away the oldest of all the Apostolic Fathers, and one of the very earliest of any Christian writing, including the books of the NT.

The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century). Ah, the good Shepherd. This fascinating book contains five visions, twelve mandates, and ten parables. It uses allegory (its allegory of Christian baptism is especially interesting, as it is clearly immersion), and pays special attention to the church, calling the faithful to repent of the sins that have harmed her.

Epistle to Diognetus, Fragments of Quadratus and Papias. Dating perhaps to 130 AD, the Epistle to Diognetus is one of the earliest works of Apologetics known. The other two are fragments. Papias (c. 70-163) is an important source for learning about the origin of some of the NT books.

I highly recommend these books, especially 1 Clement which is a personal favorite. It is one thing to read people talk about the Apostolic Fathers (secondary sources). But there is no substitute for knowing original sources first hand, especially sources so close to Christ himself. Ours is a religion rooted in real history, and the Apostolic Fathers get us as close to that history as we can get, outside of the Scripture itself.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 3.

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