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The Cinderella Century in Early Christianity?

November 7, 2012

Chatting with a colleague yesterday, the importance of the second century CE came up, and we agreed that it’s a crucial period insufficiently taken account of in scholarship, at least in comparison with the massive attention given to the NT and even to later patristic times/figures/texts.  Back in the 80s, there was a journal that ran for a number of years entitled The Second Century (which was re-founded as Journal of Early Christian Studies), apparently indicative of a certain recognition of the importance of the period.  But I think that we still don’t really give due attention to it.

For many (most?) NT scholars, it’s sort of treated almost as an afterthought.  Given that the NT includes our earliest extant Christian texts (especially Paul’s letters), for any question about “origins” of Christianity, these texts are obviously of singular importance.  Also, for many students and scholars, the NT is scripture, and so holds a unique importance, prompting the fervent attention given to probing every detail about these texts.

But the canonical line is a theological one, and there is in fact some chronological overlap between some of the NT writings and some extra-canonical ones.  1 Clement, for example, is commonly dated to the 90s, roughly contemporary with commonly posited dates for Revelation, and perhaps 2 Peter and some other NT texts. 

Indeed, among the collection of early Christian texts usually referred to as “the Apostolic Fathers”, there are at least several more that likely overlap in time with some NT writings.  One of the interesting publishing developments in recent years was the commitment of Baker Academic Press to the fine hand-edition of the Apostolic Fathers edited by Michael Holmes (developed from the earlier edition by J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer).  The 3rd edition (2007) is now the best available hand-edition of these important texts:  1 Clement, 2 Clement, Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle to Digonetus, Fragments of Papias.

For Patristics scholars, it appears that the second century is often treated as the warm-up period, before the real “game” gets going:  That “game” usually focused on the creedal developments/controversies of the 4th century and later, the emergence of imperially-backed Christianity, the explosive development of Christian architecture and art, etc.  By contrast, the writers/writings of the second century seem often to be treated as less interesting.

But one scholar who focused on the period was Eric Osborn (Professor, University of Melbourne).  Osborn was mainly interested in the theological and intellectual developments of the period, and in a series of books emphasized the significance of key figures of the second century in the formation of an impressive Christian intellectual effort.  Among his studies from which I learned much:  The Beginning of Christian Philosophy (Camabridge Univ. Press, 1981).

But the book that I found most stimulating from Osborn was The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).  Concentrating on “five creative Christian thinkers of the second century,” Justin, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, Osborn argues impressively that “Christianity, using the Bible and philosophy, made monotheism axiomatic in its response to the hostile environment in which it developed.  Christian theology argued for the one God who was the rational clue to metaphysics, ethics and logic, and in so doing laid the foundations for the European intellectual tradition.”

Here are a few of Osborn’s provocative observations:

  • “The emergence of Christian theology and the beginning of European culture are closely entwined.  Remove Christian ideas from Europe, and its philosophy, art, literature and music cannot be understood.  Yet the emergence of Christian thought was precarious, ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’ [a line originally referring to the battle of Waterloo], and its survival has been through challenge and dispute.” (p. 1)
  • “This is one of those brief periods of human invention when earlier concepts become museum pieces.  Any such expansions requires at least four things:  some thinkers to think, new resources to use, questions to answer, and an opposition to challenge.” (p. 1)
  • “Fortunately for posterity, Christian apologists [the second-century figures he studies] had to argue for their lives.” (p. 3)
  • “By the end of the second century, Christianity was on the way to dominance in the Roman empire.  At the end of the first century it did not count, yet at the end of the fourth century it reigned supreme and other religions did not count.  ‘Among all leisurely developments, de longue duree, this one of the period AD 100–400 might fairly be given pride of place in the whole of Western history’ [citing Ramsay McMullen].” (p. 9)

There is much more, but these will serve to illustrate the gain to be had in reading Osborn’s study.  The second century Christian figures, texts and developments have still not had the attention that they deserve.  The NT writings were (at least largely) written in the first century CE, but it was across the second century that they began to form what would become the NT canon.  So, “NT studies/Christian origins” must include at least the second century in its proper scope.

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18 Comments
  1. Ben Haupt permalink

    It’s a wonder that Eric Osborn has no wikipedia page! Sounds like somebody needs to write one.

  2. Mark Erickson permalink

    Might the lack of attention to the second century be because while the canon is said to have been written in the 1st C, the earliest extant texts come from the 3rd C? Meaning NT scholars, who as you say many regard the NT text as scripture, don’t want to look too closely at what they don’t know about how the texts were transmitted during this more than 100 year period?

    • Dear Mark: No, your guess isn’t correct. Scholars are intensely interested in the transmission and usage of the NT writings in the period from their initial composition to the extant copies. (And by common dating, we have some fragments of NT writings, and OT writings as well, from Christian hands as early as the mid-late second century CE.) But, beyond that, we have a number of 2nd-century writers (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, to name some “biggies”), and other texts that likely reflect 2nd century developments (e.g., Gospel of Thomas, et alia). So, in fact, there is a good deal to be investigated.

      • Mark Erickson permalink

        Well, you’re the one who called it the step-child of NT studies. But I must say, if there isn’t any textual evidence to study for decades, and then only fragments for decades more, it would create a problem for textual studies. Agreed?

      • Dear Mark. I referred to the second century as “the Cinderella century”, meaning that it is unduly/unfairly neglected both by NT scholars and by Patristics scholars. And I fear that you’re confused, so I’ll try a brief illumination. We have copies of the writings of various figures from the late first and second centuries (e.g., the “Apostolic Fathers,” Justin Martyr, et al.), and these are generally presumed to have been preserved sufficiently well that we can use them as evidence of the thought and Christian life of that period. In some cases, we have copies made within a few decades at most from the composition of the text in question (e.g., the early Oxyrhynchus fragments of Irenaeus & Shepherd of Hermas). In the case of NT writings, we have fragmentary/partial copies commonly dated as early as mid-late second century. That they are fragmentary actually enhances their importance for text-critical purposes: The extant portions are randomly preserved, and random data is actually more probative and illustrative of the larger ms. We (scholars) have lots to talk about regarding Christianity in the 2nd century, Mark. Where did you get any other idea?

      • I’ve never thought of Cinderella as neglected; she’s got an eponymous fairy tale, you know. And obviously you haven’t seen the “Princess” craze in the US these days.

        Thanks for the illumination. But how does it contradict what I said? Decades between the purported time of events and fragments, decades more until full manuscripts. Random fragments more probative than larger ms.!!! That’s preposterous. You could always take random samples of larger ms. if that’s what you’re into. Again, I’m talking NT, not Christianity. Where did you get any other idea?

      • Mark: Ok. So you want to know about the bases for views of the transmission of NT writings in the second century CE. From your tone it’s actually not clear that you do want to know . . . or prefer simply to try to badger from what sounds like some serious deficit in knowledge. But assuming simply a brisk inquiry on your part, a few comments. When I’ve time, maybe I’ll post on the topic, which will allow for more space.
        If you really want to learn and get an answer to your query, then you’ll have to read some things. Willing?? E.g., the recent volume I posted about a few weeks ago edited by Charles Hill & Michael Kruger, The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2012) provides a wide assortment of studies quite specific on individual NT writings and what the earliest evidence tells us. Or, on the “Selected Essays” tab of this blog site, see my own piece, “NT in the Second Century”, in which I survey major forces at work in the transmission of the NT then. Or my piece on “NT Papyri” in which I survey the available evidence and its import.
        Oh, and it’s not “preposterous” to take random evidence as probative of larger matters. It’s what scientific surveys and other sampling do all the time. And, indeed, it’s often done in textual criticism to use sampling methods. Or didn’t you know?
        Of course, we’d like to have full MSS from as early as they started being copied. But in the absence of that it is still perfectly appropriate to make judgements based on what we have. And it’s actually pretty encouraging. Far, far more evidence and far closer to the time of composition than for practically any other literary texts from antiquity.

      • Yeah, brisk, that’s it. I’ll check those writings out. Thanks for finally understanding what I was talking about.

        But you got the preposterous line wrong. As my next sentence shows, I have nothing against taking a random sample of a long ms. And I agree it is perfectly appropriate to make your judgements based on what we have. But stop pretending like that is very much at all. Again, say it with me: decades from the time of events to fragments and decades more to a ms. And “decades” is being generous. Something larger or smaller than a century is more accurate.

        I am so tired about the comparison to other ancient texts. What matters is the absolute case to be made that we know what was in the material the first time a given NT story was written down.

      • Mark: Say these things with me: (1) Get over your spite and brittle style (it makes you sound like you could use a bit of therapy). (2) Get acquainted with all the facts and dynamics involved in the matter: E.g., one can make inferences from later data about earlier forces shaping them. (3) What matters is how sensibly you approach historical issues, not laying down some arbitrary “absolute” demand, knowing in advance (I presume) that nothing from antiquity can meet it.
        We’re done, I think. Read up, learn some stuff. See ya.

  3. Deane permalink

    Indeed. And not only is there a false, and theological, division between first and second centuries, but there is a longstanding false division within the second century between the so-called “Apostolic Fathers’ and other works (which have often been devalued by references to them as “Jewish-Christian”, another theologically loaded term). I think the term “Apostolic Fathers” goes back at least to Jean-Baptiste Cotelier in the late 17thC, and it hasn’t been sufficiently critically challenged, at least if that 2007 Baker publication is anything to go by. Take the Ascension of Isaiah – in its current form a notable Christian work of either the second century or perhaps as early as AD 70, as Richard Bauckham dates it. Or 4 Ezra, the Apocalypse of Peter, the History of the Rechabites, and the Epistle of the Apostles. Such works continue to be treated as of secondary importance to the “Apostolic Fathers” in examining Christian origins. The basis appears to be that the “Apostolic Fathers” are judged theologically to be consistent with later “orthodox” developments – that they are “proto-orthodox” (from memory, Cotelier’s main criterion). So not only does academic study of Christian origins need to dispute the artificial theological divisions between first and second centuries, canonical and extra-canonical, but – within the second century – it must critically address the theological division between “proto-orthodox” and “unorthodox”. No doubt differences exist between all of these works, but for too long they have been examined through this anachronistic lens.

  4. gazmeister permalink

    Timely recognition for a scholar who was largely ignored in his own place and time.

  5. Daniel de Oliveira permalink

    Extremely enlightening. Thank you.

  6. Dr. Hutado, I just read the Loeb Classical Library edition of the Apostolic Fathers edited by Bart Ehrman. This edition provides background information on each work, but most of the works cited are in German. Does the Holmes edition cite books written in English? I am especially interested in works exploring the Letters of Ignatius and the Shepherd of Hermas.

    • Holmes cites works in the various main languages of scholarship on these texts, including, wherever possible, English-language ones. (I also think Holmes’s edition is superior for a few reasons.)

  7. Anna permalink

    Great stuff! Thank you for posting this.

  8. Sean permalink

    Thanks for this Prof. Hurtado. I wonder if you might list a few more books that would aid NT scholars in understanding and appreciating second century Christianity and its thinkers. As a PhD candidate I am fully aware of its importance but it is hard enough trying to master my niche so some guidance in this area would be much appreciated.

    Regards, Sean.

    • Sean: My first exhortation would be to read as many of the primary texts as possible. Nothing suffices for one’s own direct acquaintance with the data, however much we benefit from the analyses of them by others. One of the most useful resources, or “companions” to the reading of these texts is this work: Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History, eds. Claudio Moreschine & Enrico Norelli (2 vols.; trans. Matthew J. O’Connell; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005). Volume 1 is on “From Paul to the Age of Constantine”, and gives concise intros to the various texts, with some bibliographical tips.

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