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More on Early Christian Texts

October 7, 2010

I’m intrigued at what appear to be signs of a (re)discovery of extra-canonical Christian texts of the first two/three centuries, particularly among Protestant-Evangelical circles.  Our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here at the University of Edinburgh represents our approach of linking NT studies and early Christianity, and we get a goodly number of applicants for graduate studies drawn to this.

Perhaps one of the early signs of a growing interest in extra-canonical early Christian texts in Evangelical circles was the new edition of the Lightfoot one-volume edition of The Apostolic Fathers (ed. by Michael Holmes) published by Baker Book House in 1992.  This edition provided Greek and English of these texts on facing pages and updated introductions by Holmes.  It obviously sold well, and in 1999 an “updated” edition appeared (mainly involving some corrections to the 1992 edition). 

But it’s the third edition published in 2007 that still further signals a striking interest in these texts.  First, the publisher (still Baker) invited Holmes to prepare a more thorough-going revision of the Lightfoot textual notes and decisions and the English translation as well.  But it is also very interesting to note the new format chosen.  Instead of the previous, somewhat larger-page format of previous editions, this third edition happens to be almost exactly the size of the standard Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek NT, with similar paper and even a marker-ribbon too!  As a physical artifact, this third edition seems to format The Apostolic Fathers as deutero-canonical texts! 

We wouldn’t be so suprised to find a Roman Catholic publishing house doing this, but it’s very interesting semiotically that we have this project from a publishing house long associated with a conservative Evangelical constituency.  I take this as a particularly physical signal that today’s Christians, even Protestant Evangelicals who prize the Bible above all, are re-discovering texts such as those included in The Apostolic Fathers.  Perhaps there is a growing recognition that these and other texts of the second and third centuries are invaluable remnants of the earliest expansion and consolidation of the Christian movement in the “post-apostolic” period, and are also very fruitful case-studies for modern Christians seeking to work out life in a “post-Christendom” world.  (Reference:  Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers:  Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2007.)

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  1. Dan Reid permalink

    Interesting observations here. It brings to mind our intention expressed in the title Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments–to break open the time frame NT students are accustomed to dealing with in their studies, taking it out to the mid-second century. As I recall, this was Ralph Martin’s idea. We included articles on the apostolic fathers and other related topics (e.g., flight to Pella), and those writing on theological motifs were asked to extend their coverage to include the apostolic fathers. It’s hard to know whether this effort contributed in any significant way to what you are describing here, but I hope it did.

  2. Did you hear that Wallace’s updated grammar will contain numerous syntactical examples from the apostolic fathers?

    • And, of course, the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker lexicon always covered the NT and “Apostolic Fathers” too.

  3. Melissa Fitzpatrick permalink

    I recently purchased Holmes’ third edition and was struck by the similarity in size as well. Sadly enough, my edition does not have the marker ribbon. I started to call it “The Green Brick” but the smoothness of the cover threw me off. Maybe the fourth edition will add the textured eggshell looking cover and it will reach true authoritative status like Metzger’s Textual Commentary of the New Testament. I love the Holmes’ edition and I hope at some point they add marginal notes to call attention to parallel texts like the ones they have in Nestle-Aland.

    • Yes, the Baker editor tells me that production costs dictated (sadly) removal of the marker-ribbon from more recent printings of the 2007 edition.

  4. Wonderful post. I was reared in a conservative Protestant atmosphere that viewed any deutero-canonical writings as only good for validating NT authorship. I have been exposed to some of these works in my studies and have gained a newfound respect for them. Like the last comment stated, there is something refreshing about reading these works.

  5. Kathryn permalink

    In comparison to the riches of the second century, practically nothing was produced by Christian authors (the Didache?) apart from the contents of the New Testament itself during the latter part of the first century. How can this be accounted for?

    • Hmm. 1 Clement?? But also, we don’t really know what was produced during this period. All we know is what survived. And we know that a number of 2nd-century texts referred to didn’t survive, so it’s quite likely that some late lst century texts simply disappeared also.

  6. I loved the post! It’s a very interesting sign. Lightfoot’s stuff is excellent, and the revision by Holmes is also a very good idea. And what an interesting point, that the physical appearance is like Nestlé-Aland.

    A point of detail on the comments: the Philocalian calendar is part 6 of the Chronography of 354, which I placed online here. But I think the reference to Christmas is elsewhere in the Chronography, rather than in the calendar. Part 6 is where the reference to the Natalis Invicti on 25 Dec. is found.

  7. Looking at the early church and the fights they had, the theology they theologized and the arguments they made is a keen reminder that the NT church didn’t have everything “worked out.” I think studying the early church is a helpful impetus to continue theologizing and a necessary Christian activity.

    It seems to me evangelicals are recognizing the poverty of an “inerrancy” approach to scripture and are looking for more resources from which to draw that still represent early tradition. Do you think studying the Apostolic Fathers represents a move away from inerrancy?

    I’m currently working my way through Ehrman’s Loeb translation at What are your thoughts on his work on the Apostolic Fathers in comparison to Holmes?

    • I personally prefer the Holmes 3rd edition. For one thing, it’s better in conveying the textual variants.

  8. Yes I had noticed that an interest in eary Christian texts amongst evangelicals too and wondered what was behind it. I think your line of thought has merit. I have personally thought for a long time that the early Christian apologists have much to teach us today and I have recently returned to the apologists for that reason. It always amuses me when I read them just how often the same questions that occupied them come up again today and how their approach is still applicable today even if one does wonder about their exegesis from time to time. (On that note there are also gems in later writers like Origen and suprisingly even Eusebius (his exegetical and apologetic writings) that I have found useful.

    Personally though, I don’t care why this interest. May the interest continue and extend to the whole treasure trove which our forefathers in the faith have left us.

    On a related note have you read Chrestou’s patrology? An English translation of the first half of the first volume is available – at good price. Very succint and not your standard ‘review of early Christian literature’. In the English volume (which is all I have), he makes a couple of observations on how patristic texts are treated in academic circles including those in the west (he taught for years at Aristotle Uni in Thessaloniki) and I have often wondered how say, those in the West would respond.

    • I’m not a patrologist and didn’t know of the Chrestou patrology. I over-run my competence much past 300 CE.

  9. Prof. Hurtado, I was wondering if you could recommend some resources on the oral traditions. In Historical Jesus : Five Views J.D.G. Dunn suggest we should give more attention and seriousness to this aspect of the Gospels esp in their early formation. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • No. I don’t really have anything to offer that isn’t already referred to in the literature. I do think that some of the current fascination with orality is a one-sided view of earliest Christianity, which was (in comparison with most religious groups of the Roman era) in fact amazingly given to writing, copying, sharing texts.

  10. I am very curious about early celebrations of Christ’s birth. We had quite a discussion on last month–I called the post “Christmas? Bah Humbug!” Some of my Christian acquaintances are skipping celebrations of Christmas because they say it was too tied into Roman Catholic practices and for other reasons.

    Granted Christmas can become too commercial, but what did the early Christians do? Did they celebrate a Christian calendar that included Epiphany and Lent, or was that a Roman Catholic development centuries later?

    Thanks for answering my question on that Swedish scholar earlier.

    Carol Noren Johnson

    • As reflected in the entry in The Oxford Dictionry of the Christian Church (ed. F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone–an excellent reference tool for ooodles of topics), the earliest reference to observances of the 25th Dec as Jesus’ birthday comes in the Philocalian Calendar (ca. 336 CE), reflecting Roman Christian practices. The birth stories in the Gospels show that interest in Jesus’ birth goes back to the first century, of course. But there is no indication of a church celebration of the event on any particular date before the fourth century. Eastern Christians tended to favor 6 January over 25 December, again earliest evidence from the fourth century and thereafter.
      The death and resurrection of Jesus was liturgically celebrated from the earliest observable moments of the Christian movement in every “Lord’s Supper”/Eucharist, of course. Every Sunday was a commemoration of the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s thought that 4th-5th centuries controversies over the incarnation and the nature of the person of Jesus (divine/human issues) may have contributed to the rising interest then in liturgical observance of a birth day.

  11. It was only after I read Clement and Ignatius in Holmes’ third edition of the Apostolic Fathers, that I became interested in studying the Early Church. While my main studies are not on the second and third centuries, I still find it refreshing to go back and read them again.

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