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The “Apostolic Fathers”: Renewed Interest and Recent Publications

January 7, 2014

The term “The Apostolic Fathers” designates a body of early Christian writings that, next to the NT, include some of the earliest most important and fascinating texts from ancient Christian circles.  Most recent editions include fifteen texts, plus fragments ascribed to Papias cited in other early texts.  Although of considerable historical significance, these writings (which largely are dated to the late first and early/mid second centuries CE) have been overlooked far too much, even in scholarly circles, and certainly among the wider public.  But there are signs of a renewed interest, and these comprise a number of recent publications that offer help in becoming acquainted with these early texts.

The texts include “1 Clement” (a letter from the Roman church to the Corinthian church typically dated in the 90s CE), “2 Clement” (an early Christian homily-type text), letters of Ignatius of Antioch (early 2nd century), the “Martyrdom of Polycarp” (traditionally regarded as our earliest extant martyrdom-account), the “Didache” (a fascinating text that may include traditions/portions from the first century CE), the “Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians”, the “Epistle of Barnabas”, “The Shepherd of Hermas” (a complex text purporting to reflect visionary experiences of a Hermas of Rome), the “Epistle of Diognetus” (an early apologetic work).  These texts show early Christians working out how to live as a small and vulnerable sect in the larger Roman world.

There are now two recent hand-editions of the texts:  The Apostolic Fathers, Loeb Classical Library, ed. Bart D. Ehrman (2 vols.; Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2003); and The Apostolic Fathers:  Greek Texts and English Translations, Third edition, ed. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2007).  Both give Greek text and English translation on facing pages, with brief introductions, and some concise textual notes, plus select bibliographies.  Scholars and serious students will want to consult both, but if you have to choose a purchase, for my money, the Holmes edition is preferable.  (In price, and in being a handy one-volume format, aside from other features.)

The texts were all written in “Koine” Greek, much of the vocabulary shared with the NT.  To assist those who come to these texts via NT Greek, there is now a very helpful tool:  A Reader’s Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers, eds. Daniel B. Wallace, Brittany Burnette & Terri Darby Moore (Grand Rapids:  Kregel Academic, 2013).  For each text, this reader’s lexicon gives definitions of all words occurring fewer than thirty times in the Greek NT, or not in the Greek NT, laid out chapter-by-chapter (and, where appropriate, verse-by-verse).  Those who have begun to read in the Greek NT will find this a very useful help in reading the Apostolic Fathers, without having to look up unfamiliar words in a full Greek lexicon.  (Of course, the standard reference lexicon for the Greek NT, the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker lexicon, includes all vocabulary in the Greek NT and the Apostolic Fathers, but it’s a good bit more cumbersome to have to refer to it frequently simply in the effort to read a text.)

There are also a couple of recent simple introductions to these texts:  Clayton N. Jefford et al., Reading the Apostolic Fathers:  An Introduction (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1996), and more recently Paul Foster (ed.), The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (London:  T&T Clark, 2007). Each of these works addresses the contents and all critical questions about the texts individually, as well as helpful bibliographies for further reading/research.

Still unsurpassed, however, for all serious scholarly on these texts is the five-volume work by J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (London:  Macmillan, 1889-1890).  I have a 1981 reprint edition produced by Hendrickson, but I can’t tell whether it’s now in print by anyone.  This work is simply amazing in depth of analysis, and remains essential in advanced research on early Christianity.

For those who read German, there is also an excellent three-volume edition, Schriften des Urchristentums, published by Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (Darmstadt).  Vol. 1, ed. Joseph A. Fischer (1993), deals with 1 Clement, the letters of Ignatius, the letter of Polycarp, and fragments of Quadratus.  Vol. 2, ed.Klaus Wengst (1984), addresses Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, 2 Clement and Epistle of Diognetus.  Vol. 3, eds. Ulrich H. J. Körtner and Martin Leutzsch (1998) deals with the fragments of Papias and the Shepherd of Hermas.  A 3-volume paperback edition appeared in 2006.)  As well as introductions and textual notes, these volumes all include more extensive commentary on the writings (something not found in the Ehrman or Holmes editions).

But for anyone simply interested in seeing how early Christianity developed, especially in that crucial second century CE, “The Apostolic Fathers” make for fascinating reading, and these welcome recent publications are designed to promote and facilitate this.

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  1. Terri Moore permalink

    Dr. Hurtado: I often read your blog but had to comment today. Thank you for mentioning our new lexicon. We do hope that it will encourage students to study the AF. Thanks again!

  2. Three volumes of OUP’s Oxford Apostolic Fathers series are now out as well: Chris Tuckett on 2 Clement; Paul Hartog on Polycarp; and Clayton Jefford on The Epistle to Diognetus (with the fragment of Quadratus). The price tag is hefty, but they are definitely volumes to ask libraries to purchase!

    • Yes, but I consider the prices not simply “hefty” but outrageously high. Counterproductivly high. Stupidly high.

      • I certainly wouldn’t dispute that. Someone once urged me to publish (first, at least) in an expensive series, so there would be a motive for people to review my book in order to receive it free, rather than simply buy it cheaply. I think it’s basically cynical advice and would love to see books like these published at more accessible prices, or at least with a paperback option, and think that would only lead to a broader readership. But OUP probably isn’t the worst offender – just think about Brill!

  3. Just curious–do you think the older Loeb version with the Kirsopp Lake translation is appreciably better or worse than the current Bart Ehrman Loeb?

    • The Ehrman edition has updated bibliography, and takes account of scholarly work subsequent to the Lake edition. But I’ve noted one or two curious omissions of cases where there are variants that should have been listed. I judge Holmes to have a better edition.

  4. Don Wilkinson permalink

    I too have the 5 volume set by Lightfoot, being the 2nd edition, published in 1981. However, the publisher was Baker Book House, not Hendrickson. Odd that there would be 2 publishers publishing the same set in the same year.

    • Ooops! My mistake. My reprint copy of the 5-vol Lightfoot work was published by Baker, not Hendrickson.

  5. Could someone share an opinion on the translation found in the 10 volume, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, published by HENDRICKSON and edited by Arthur Cleveland Coxe, which was a revision of the original series by Alexander Roberts and Sir James Donaldson? Thanks.

    • The translation is dated somewhat, and relied on then-available Greek & Latin editions of the Fathers. But it’s still a good and handy set to have on the shelves for quick/initial consultation.

  6. egwpisteuw permalink

    I am currently reading through the Apostolic Fathers in Greek using Wallace’s Lexicon which is excellent. Kirsopp Lake’s Greek text can be found here:

    Click to access fathers2.pdf

    English translations and commentaries can be found here:

    I am also concurrently reading Jefford’s book “The Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament” which is also excellent.

    It is a shame that most Protestants ignore the Apostolic Fathers as they are very interesting in their own right and provide much insight into the New Testament and Church History.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      No wonder Protestants don’t like the letters of Ignatius for example, because it’s full of Catholic-sounding language. Plus they’ve got an improbably high Christology too, for such an early date, which surely makes them suspect, maybe even the seven genuine letters not being genuine at all, or else badly interpolated. Robert M Price reckons they could be a completely later invention, so he said when debating James White. The Didache on the other hand looks and feels authentically early, mentioning the importance of the divine name for the early Christians. Isn’t it ironic that some writings of the Apostolic Fathers are earlier and written by their stated author, compared with NT books that are later and pseudonymous? So much for the integrity of the canon. I can’t bear to read books like Kruger now, where the assumption of inspiration lurks in the background like a panting dog. At least Metzger stuck to the facts. Not that I believe in fact of course.

      • Donald: I’m impressed (not to say puzzled) that you can cram so many dubious assumptions into one comment! First, what “Protestant” do you have in mind who supposedly don’t like Ignatius? In fact, many of the foremost scholars on the Apostolic Fathers have been scholars who happen also to be Protestant Christians (e.g., Lightfoot, Holmes, et al.).
        Second, nothing in the Christology in Ignatius’ letters is “improbably high”. In fact, it’s pretty much the sort of Christological stance reflected in a number of texts, including earlier ones (e.g., Gospel of John). Some of Ignatius emphases are distinctive, to some degree because of the issues he’s dealing with (e.g., apparently an early form of “docetic” Christianity). As for Price, whenever he may actually make a contribution to the field, he may justify attention. Till then, I’d go with those who have proven their expertise in the subject.
        Third, you seem to work with a simplistic and unilinear notion that Christology developed slowly and uniformly, and so “high” equals late. But that assumption in fact begs the question. There is good evidence that renders it fallacious. “High” Christology erupted early and quickly, and the Christological thought of earliest Christianity was diverse and didn’t follow a unilinear development-track.
        As for what you find “ironic”, a few of the Apostolic Fathers texts appear to be authentic to their stated authors (e.g., epistles of Ignatius, 1 Clement), but others aren’t (e.g.,2 Clement, Diognetus, Barnabas). I fail to see any point in your flip statement “so much for the integrity of the NT canon”. The NT canon was formed over time and by increasing support from churches.
        Your own slurs and snideness and silly “village-sceptic” posturing is tiresome. When you’ve done anything like the kind of solid work Kruger has, then you can pretend to know something.
        Oh, and since you don’t “believe in fact” perhaps you should simply cease commenting, as there would be no point.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Didn’t John Calvin, other reformers, and many later Presbyterians judge all the letters of Ignatius to be spurious? Those are the Protestants I had in mind.

        As for improbably high Christology, I should think the phrase “blood of God” in reference to Jesus’ death certainly qualifies, as it goes beyond anything even later Nicene orthodoxy would claim. While the gospel of John calls Jesus God in a very deliberate and specific way (anarthrous 1:1, “only begotten” 1:18, and as the culmination of the gospel in 20:28), Ignatius appears to do so unreflectively and with abandon, as exemplified in the careless phrase “blood of God”. In reality Ignatius’ Christology is nothing like “John’s apologetic Christology” to use McGrath’s phrase.

        On early low Christology, I believe passages such as Mark 10:18 demonstrate that the first Christians did not believe Jesus was God or anything near it. That’s a verse you hardly ever interact with (no mention at all in LJC!) from a book that some (Crossley) date even earlier than Paul’s letters: a pretty large hole in your thesis. Plus there is the embedded language of Acts, that hints at an early adoptionist-type Christology, again you hardly discuss. (As far as I am aware) You are certainly correct about Christological development being neither unilinear nor smooth, I agree very much with you there, but differ very much on the particulars.

        What I thought was ironic was that many genuine writings (written by the claimed author) were excluded from the canon while other pseudonymous works were included. It doesn’t seem very providential.

        A well written and thorough review of Kruger’s book on Amazon makes the following complaint:

        “That the Bible is the final authority is something that is assumed throughout the book, but never once does Kruger try to defend this doctrine. Considering it’s a key reason for his rejection of the community and historically determined canon models, Kruger should have laid out his argument for why the New Testament is, as he put it, an “ultimate authority” (pg. 91).”

        Assuming that’s a fair representation, as other reviews also appear to bear out: I am sure Kruger knows a ton on the subject and worked really hard on his thesis, but with those sorts of undisclosed assumptions I wouldn’t want to waste too much time ploughing through it.

        I am really sorry if I came across as snide, I didn’t mean to. I don’t believe in facts because as Nietzsche said, there are no facts only interpretations. Which is to say there is no final “truth of the matter” just different ways of looking at things that are more or less useful in different contexts. I hope that doesn’t exclude me from commenting here, but if so, so be it.

      • Donald: Now we get to some particulars, a welcome change! I set aside Calvin et al., as on this blog site we’re concerned with current scholarly issues, approaches, etc. So your “Protestants” nervous about Ignatius are beside the point.
        As for Ignatius’ Christological rhetoric (e.g., “blood of my god”), this is exactly what I referred to as an emphasis that seems rhetorically aimed at the “docetic” stance that Ignatius attacks. He’s simply rubbing their faces in the physicality of Jesus as embodiment of the divine, over against those he perceives as thinking that “divine” isn’t compatible with fleshly, physical, etc. But the basic underlying Christological claim THAT the historical figure, Jesus, is the unique embodiment and historical expression of God has its rather clear roots and anticipations in Paul (e.g., 2 Cor 5:19; Philip 2:6-11) and other predecessors of Ignatius. You exaggerate colossally in claiming Ignatius’ Christology “nothing like” GJohn’s.
        You also seem to labor under the simplistic notion that a “high” Christology must mean that Jesus is treated as “God”, with no account of him as fully, really human, as if Jesus’ messianic status is in conflict with treating him also as divine. The simple fact is that the NT and Ignatius, and Justin, and pretty much all those who came to form what we call “proto-orthodox” Christianity of the early centuries both ascribed to Jesus a divine status and significance (expressed most clearly in including him as co-recipient of their devotion with God) and also maintained a distinction between him and “God” (the “Father” to use a frequent epithet). For Ignatius, see, e.g., the salutation to Ephesians (and 1:1; 2:1; 3:2; and passim in his letters.
        As for Kruger’s book, I’d hardly take a comment on Amazon as a real scholarly review. Let’s wait and see what the real reviews say. In any case, Kruger’s argument hardly requires a doctrine of “inspiration”. He simply notes indications within NT texts that the authors wrote with a concern to order belief and practice, and that the subsequent canonization of these writings wasn’t an imposition on them of something strange to their originating character.
        As for your understanding of the fact/interpretation matter, it is again simplistic. There are first facts. These, of course, require interpretation. But the latter doesn’t involve the absence of the former.
        As to your tone, if you want to address issues and data (“facts”), you’re welcome to do so. But I do ask that you drop the sneer and ad hominem tone. If you can’t, then fare thee well.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        James Dunn says about Mark 10:18 on page 97 of “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?”:

        “The implication is clear that for Jesus God alone is worthy of worship and such devotion, because God alone is the source and definition of all goodness.”

        It’s hard to argue with that, which is perhaps why you haven’t. I mean to say, I can’t find any discussion of this passage in LJC, ATOCW, or OGOL. Have I missed it? If not, is that not an extraordinary omission of this early example of low Christology, contrasted, for example, with a dozen or more pages devoted to the seven claimed genuine letters of Ignatius in LJC? It’s by no means alone: where is the serious consideration of Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8, Mark 13:32, and so on.

        When you do consider the synoptic gospels it is often to make the dubious insinuation that somehow the miracles Jesus is described as having performed show that he was viewed as being in the divine category and to be worshipped. This despite the extensive work of Vermes on similar actions of figures in Charismatic Judaism. As Crossley says:

        “There is nothing in the Synoptic Gospels that pushes Jesus’ status beyond the boundaries of Jewish monotheism in the sense that Jesus was made God. It is sometimes believed that miracles, such as the stilling of the storm, the walking on water and feeding miracles, somehow show Jesus to be ‘divine’ in the strongest possible sense and that he is to be worshipped as the God of Israel was/is to be worshipped. The problem with such views is that, in these miracles, Jesus is not portrayed as doing anything unparalleled by figures in early Judaism.” “How did Christianity begin? A believer and non-believer examine the evidence” (SPCK: 2008), pp. 124-125.

      • Donald: Let’s keep a firm grip on the facts: From the earliest Christian texts we possess (Paul’s letters), it’s clear that the risen/exalted Jesus was treated as recipient of cultic devotion. (Dunn quibbles over the meaning of the word “proskynein” etc., and fails to take account of the list of specific devotional actions that I’ve itemized for over 25 years.)
        As for Mark 10:18, it fits perfectly with all that I’ve argued: The pre-resurrection Jesus affirms a traditional Jewish religious stance, and we shouldn’t expect anything else of Mark, who presents Jesus’ transcendent significance as known only to demons, and to be revealed openly only after Jesus’ resurrection (9:2-9). The other Gospel texts are to the same effect: The reverence given to Jesus by earliest Christians in their view in no way eroded their commitment to the one God. In their view, Jesus had been given uniquely to share in the divine glory, not at God’s expense, and not at all as God’s rival. Get that clear, please, or you’ll forever be shooting at straw men!
        Of course the Synoptic gospels present Jesus as Messiah, prophet, miracle-worker (at least to the human characters in the narratives). They intend to present the story of the earthly Jesus, whose higher significance is disclosed in God’s resurrection of him, not in Jesus’ own self-claims. But in the epiphanic scenes and in the demonic acclamations, for example, the writers (esp. Mark) also allow Christian readers to perceive forehints of their own view of Jesus.
        It is Crossley’s failure (and yours, and that of others such as Vermes) to take account of the genre and purposes of the Synoptic Gospels: They seek to present a bios of the earthly Jesus, respecting that his cultic status was conferred and disclosed only in the resurrection. GJohn departs a bit from this, in placing in Jesus’ mouth claims that in fact the author (and intended readers) know first appeared in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection and “glorification”.
        So, to repeat: A remarkable and unique status, unlike that of any messiah/prophet/holyman figure in ancient Judaism, is accorded Jesus within the first few years after his execution and is presumed already in Paul’s letters. That the Synoptics give an account of the earthly Jesus and don’t blur the distinction between the pre and post-resurrection status of Jesus (and the awareness of his status by his followers) is remarkable, but seems to have been their intention. It’s a fundamental category mistake to take this as expressive of some alternate view of Jesus held by their authors and intended readers.

      • egwpisteuw permalink

        It is certainly possible to reconcile these three statements by Jesus:

        1. ‘Good teacher…And Jesus said to him, ‘Why me dost thou call good? no one [is] good except One — God; Mark 10:17-18 (Youngs Literal Translation)

        2. I am the Good Shepherd John 10:11

        3. Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? John 20:28-29

        The solution is that in #1, Jesus is confronting the man’s unbelief. He is certainly not saying that He is not good (see #2) or that He is not God (see #3). Like many other statements in scripture, what seems to say one thing on the surface (Jesus is not good and not God) really says exactly the opposite.

      • Yes, but my own point is that the Gospel writers share the notion that the divine status accorded to Jesus is based on God’s actions (resurrection/exaltation), not primarily on what Jesus demanded, and that the pre-resurrection Jesus is shown not making divine claims that would have been premature and inappropriate.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Is it really the case that you’ve never discussed the implications of Mark 10:18 anywhere at length in your work? I was sure you would point out somewhere I had missed!

        You have certainly (repeatedly) given a list of devotional actions that you describe as “Jesus devotion”, that you claim mark a clear break with Jewish practise and single out Jesus as divine, but where is the proof? How do you know that’s what these actions meant to the first Christians themselves? The Synoptics present Jesus as saying only God should receive worship, but your best answer seems to be that they didn’t really mean it. (And you describe Dunn as quibbling!) Nothing in Mark 9 contradicts that; the passage places Jesus in the line charismatic Jewish prophets as Vermes has shown. And Mark 13:32 presents Jesus as less than divine after the resurrection while in power in heaven, so that seems to shoot the rationalisation that only the earthy Jesus is given a low Christology in the Synoptics in the foot. As for Paul, his main designation of Jesus is “Lord”, thus placing him in the category of angels in first century Judaism. (See also Gal 4:4) The language he used is important as well as the cultic practices indicated. These are among the methodological errors you have consistently made in your work. There are others I will elaborate as time allows.

      • Donald: I’ve dealt with Mark 10:18 in my commentary on Mark, not in my works on earliest cultic devotion to Jesus because it isn’t relevant to that. To reiterate (as you seem so slow in grasping things), the NT texts rather tend to make the cultic worship of Jesus a “post-resurrection” thing, and based/justified by their claim that God raised Jesus and installed him now as the “Kyrios” to whom all should give reverence. So, in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ “pre-resurrection” ministry, they show Jesus expressing a typical Jewish “monotheistic” stance. Before God’s resurrection/exaltation of him, it was inappropriate to offer Jesus worship, and the NT authors are concerned to avoid the charge that Jesus demanded worship. Only God can do this in their view. Mark 13:32 is NOT a statement of the post-resurrection Jesus, but is presented as a statement by the pre-resurrection Jesus in answer to the question posed in 13:4). You got that wrong (among other things). Do you get it now??
        As to the devotional actions that I’ve consistently listed and described over 25 years (beginning with my 1988 book, One God, One Lord), I’ve shown that they are unparalleled, that they most closely resemble the sort of actions that are offered to deities in the Roman period, that they are otherwise restricted to the one God by Jews, and that the language used for these actions is directly taken from biblical (OT) speech for cultic worship. THAT’S how we can say what these actions represent.
        As for Paul, he DOESN’T simply place Jesus among the angels but far above them, uniquely “at God’s right hand” (e.g., Rom 8:34), there above all things (e.g., the powers listed in Rom 8:37ff). Most significantly, I repeat (it gets tiresome after a while, though!), in Paul’s letters we have reflected the cultic invocation of Jesus (e.g., 1 Cor1:2; 16:22; Rom 10:9-13), and other cultic practices that are not given to angels in ancient Jewish devotional practice. No methodological errors, Donald, just careful historical comparison and analysis. Something I’d recommend seriously to you, instead of taking your amateur potshots via blog comments.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      I meant to say “earthly” not earthy.

      And you seem to apply the glory language of John 17 to the context of Mark 9. Surely that is a gross anachronism.

      • Donald: I have no idea what you mean. I don’t recall relating John 17 to Mark 9. My point about the latter passage is that it posits the distinction between the pre-resurrection and post-resurrection confessional claims about Jesus. I.e., the passage implies that only after his resurrection is it licit to declare him as divine Son who shares the glory of God.
        If you could simply patiently follow things, and get off your “high-horse” attitude, you might learn something.

  7. Note that within the past two years Baker Academic published a second edition (light revisions including openness to an early pre-70AD dating of 1 Clement, plus a new chapter on Papias, I believe) of Jefford’s book.

    Also in 2010, Baylor University Press published an English translation of Pratscher’s introduction to the Apostolic Fathers.

  8. Digital versions of Lightfoot may be downloaded from the Internet Archive; the following link points to all the volumes.

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