Conversing with the Apostolic Fathers

Michael W. Holmes

For many Protestants, the fifteen centuries between Jesus, John, and Paul on the one hand, and Luther and Calvin on the other are terra incognita, an unknown country whose existence we are scarcely aware of. Some may recognize a name or two, such as Augustine or Jerome, but many know little more than that of the innumerable faithful Christian brothers and sisters who lived during that millennium and a half. Yet for Protestants, no less than for Catholic and Orthodox, they are our spiritual forerunners in the faith, the bridge from Jesus to the Reformation, and the writings they left behind are an important part of our spiritual legacy.

The Apostolic Fathers

The term “Apostolic Fathers” designates a collection of early Christian writings composed (for the most part) during the late first or early second centuries CE. This collection comprises nearly all surviving non-canonical Christian documents written between about 70 and 160 CE (the writings of Justin Martyr being the primary exception). While the phrase “apostolic fathers” seems to have been used in antiquity, and collections of early Christian writings circulated during the Middle Ages, the linkage of the term to a specific collection of writings dates only from the late-seventeenth century, when several collections of varying length were published. Some of the documents in these early collections of writings attributed to “holy fathers who were active in apostolic times” (Cotelier, 1672) or “Apostolical Fathers” (Wake, 1693) have since been dropped for various reasons (e.g., the Martyrdom of Ignatius, the Apostolic Constitutions, or the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions), while others have been added: the Epistle to Diognetus and the fragments of Papias and of Quadratus (in 1765), and the Didache (following its discovery in 1873). Today the “Apostolic Fathers” include 1 Clement, 2 Clement, seven letters by Ignatius of Antioch, one letter by Polycarp of Smyrna to the Philippians, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle to Diognetus, the fragments of Papias, and a fragment attributed to Quadratus.

The modern form of the collection is clearly somewhat arbitrary, and its continuing existence is largely a matter of tradition and convenience. It possesses no particular unity or coherence with regard to chronology or content, or literary genre. The collection includes letters (1 Clement; Ignatius, Polycarp), a church handbook (Didache), a tract (Barnabas), a sermon or homily (2 Clement), a martyrdom, an apocalypse (Hermas), and an apology (Diognetus). Nonetheless, what does unite the collection is the circumstance that these writings represent the earliest surviving documents written by authors (some known, some anonymous) now viewed as forerunners of what would later become, in the great councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, Christian orthodoxy. Thus they are often labeled “proto-orthodox” writers, to distinguish them from representatives of other forms and expressions of Christianity that also flourished in the second century. It is this shared theological orientation, therefore, rather than genre, date, or content that unifies the collection.

Conversing with the Apostolic Fathers

Sometimes a great conversation is the result of a great question or topic—a “conversation starter,” if you will. So even if it is a bit difficult to have an actual conversation with the Apostolic Fathers, nonetheless they raise some questions that could be the start of an interesting conversation—and have something to add to the mix themselves. What might some of these discussion topics be?

Are You Willing to Die for Jesus?
Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, surely was. Indeed, one of the seven letters he wrote as he was being transported to Rome for execution was a letter to the believers in Rome, imploring them not to intervene on his behalf, “For though I am still alive, I am passionately in love with death as I write to you” (Rom. 7.2). Fearful that they might try to intervene on his behalf, he pleaded with them: “Allow me to be an imitator of the suffering of my God” (Rom. 6.3), he wrote, for “Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple” (Rom. 5.3). “Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God; …then I will truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will no longer see my body” (Rom. 4.1, 2).

The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a letter narrating the death some years later of Ignatius’s junior colleague, offers a much different portrait. Forced by circumstances to choose between acknowledging Caesar or Jesus as Lord, Polycarp (the 86-year old bishop of Smyrna) almost dispassionately goes to his death, steadfast in his hope of resurrection and life. Following the model of Jesus and motivated by a love for God and a concern for others (1.2), he models the Christian virtues of faith, love, and hope—as well as some Roman social values (such as hospitality, manliness, and courage). Indeed, the narrative subtly deconstructs Roman claims of ultimate power: Statius Quadratus may have been the Roman official in charge when Polycarp was executed, but it is Jesus Christ who reigns as Lord forever (21.2), and God, not Caesar, is ultimately in charge (2.1).

Did Ignatius and Polycarp make the right choice, or were they nuts? Did Quintus, who at first went forward to turn himself in, but later recanted and saved himself by offering a token sacrifice to Caesar (MartPol 4), display the better judgment? What are we to make of Ignatius’s almost macabre desire for death in the arena? The questions may seem a bit academic to us, but the issue is a literal matter of life and death to many Christians around the globe today.

Christianity and Culture
How ought Christianity relate to the non-Christian culture around it? This question, part of our “culture wars” today, brings up an issue as old as the Christian movement. Because Christian values and beliefs ran counter to those of Greco-Roman culture, outsiders tended to be suspicious of the movement. Rumors that Christians practiced incest, cannibalism, and infant sacrifice were common among the general populace, who viewed these “atheists” (for the Christians did not believe in the traditional gods) as a threat to their own well-being.

Apologists such as the author of the Epistle to Diognetus sought to dispel such rumors and misperceptions and to counter charges that Christianity was merely the corruption of ancient truth. He contrasts the revelation of God in Christ with the foolishness of pagan idolatry and pretentiousness of Greek philosophy, and also Judaism. He also wrestles with the degree to which Christianity is like and unlike pagan culture. They have no special language or eccentric lifestyle, and generally follow local customs—but with exceptions: for example, “they marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring; they share their food, but not their wives” (5.6-7); “they live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven” (5.9); they “dwell in the world, but are not of the world” (6.3). In short, Christians share a great deal of life with their neighbors—but not everything. Cultural conformity is less important than living out Christian values.

In 1 Clement, on the other hand, cultural conformity seems to have become a “Christian” value. Whereas in the book of Revelation Rome is presented as the great harlot whose attacks upon the church must be resisted (to the point of death, if necessary), in 1 Clement one finds a much more positive view of the Roman government (as in the prayer in 60.4–61), and the elements of peace, harmony, and order that are so important to the author (or authors) of this letter reflect some of the fundamental values of Roman society. Indeed, his central theme of “concord,” e.g., was a popular but non-scriptural norm which closely coincided with the imperial interests of the Roman state. Whereas Paul had mocked the imperial slogan of “peace and security” (1 Thess 5:3), Clement makes it his central concern; indeed, he has been charged with buying wholesale into the imperial ideology and propaganda.

Revealing are those places where Clement imports his agenda into scriptural texts. He finds “concord” in the Ark (9.4), while Lot’s wife became salt because she lacked “concord” (11.2). At 48.2-4, a key point, “without confusion,” is not in the text quoted, while in 60.2 there is the significant addition, “and in the sight of our rulers.” The scriptural citation in 50.6 does mention forgiveness, but not forgiveness “through love” (50.5), which Clement has just defined as the opposite of factionalism, the problem the letter seeks to address (50.2, 49.5 [a tendentious expansion of 1 Cor 13]).

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at some points Clement has shaped his Christianity to fit his cultural values. There is little mention of God’s kingdom or the inbreaking of a new age, which might threaten the present one; in short, it is a largely non-apocalyptic Christianity that poses no threat to Roman social order and its values. It is hard to imagine Clement coming into conflict with the Roman authorities as did Jesus, or getting arrested with Paul; he seems far more comfortable with 1 Cor 14:40 than 1 Thess 5:19.

What Do We Do When Things Change?
The document known as the Didache (or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) offers a fascinating glimpse of a church struggling with changing times and circumstances—in particular, it appears, a change from a first (founding) generation of leadership to a second (not unlike some mega churches today). A “handbook of church procedure,” it offers instruction about how to baptize (the preferred mode: immersion in a cool stream) and what to teach ahead of time to those being baptized, when to fast (Wed. and Fri., so as not to be confused with the “hypocrites,” who fast Mon. and Thurs.), prayers to use when conducting the Lord’s Supper, and advice offering hospitality, among other matters.

The Didache also reveals the tensions involved in making the transition from transient to residential models of leadership. Traveling prophets and teachers (apparently the traditional form of ministerial leadership) are still to be welcomed and offered hospitality in the name of the Lord and treated with all due respect. At the same time, the Didache makes it clear that residential leaders appointed by the congregation are also to be respected and supported, “for they too carry out the ministry of the prophets and teachers” (15.1). We see here a church struggling to deal with a real pastoral and sociological problem: how do we respond when “the way we have always done it” is no longer possible or feasible? Do we also catch a glimpse of the faithful local leader being overshadowed by the reputation of the visiting “big name”?

We also catch a glimpse of a congregation that has been “burned” by questionable appeals for support and funds: a traveling prophet is to stay for only for one night, or two if circumstances are difficult—but any “prophet” who stays three nights is unhesitatingly declared a false prophet (as is anyone who while speaking “in the Spirit” commands that a feast be set, and then partakes of it). One could argue that the solutions the Didache offers are more a matter of pragmatism than theology—which offers us something else to talk about: are we all that much different?

Is There a Meaning in This Text?
The Epistle of Barnabas represents one of the earliest contributions outside the NT to the discussion of a question that has confronted the followers of Jesus since the earliest days of his ministry: how do the followers of Jesus relate to Israel’s Scriptures? For the author of Barnabas, an allegorical method of exegesis enables him to offer a “Christian” interpretation of biblical texts that at first glance appear to have nothing to do with Jesus (cf. 9.7-8, a discussion of Abraham’s 318 servants), and to claim that only Christians understand the true meaning of the Scriptures (cf. 10.12). According to Barnabas, the Jewish people took literally what Moses spoke in a spiritual sense: e.g., when Moses forbade them to eat pork, he really meant not to associate with swinish people—who forget the Lord when things are nice, but squeal for help when in need (10.3).

2 Clement (neither a letter nor by Clement) is, with the possible exception of Hebrews, the earliest surviving Christian sermon or “word of exhortation” (cf. 19.1). Based on Isa 54:1, it offers its hearers a call to repentance, purity, and steadfastness. Notable is its quotation—as something the “Lord himself” said—of a saying also found in the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Egyptians, documents with a distinctly “gnostic” flavor. In this sermon, however, it is given a distinctly “non-gnostic” moralizing interpretation. Thus this document offers us an unusual opportunity to compare “proto-orthodox” and “gnostic” interpretations of the same “text.”

The topics sketched above hardly exhaust the possible conversations. Other topics might include: Who is Jesus, and does it matter (Ignatius)? What do you do when a church leader messes up (Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians)? Or, how does one balance the leading of the Spirit with the need for order, structure, and stability (the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas)? And then there is always Justin Martyr, reckoned among the Apologists rather than the Apostolic Fathers, but active during their time, from whose pen we have two Apologies and a Dialogue with Trypho. The first Christian philosophical theologian, whose Logos doctrine enabled him to claim Plato as a “Christian before Christ,” Justin was also a devoted churchman who attended worship weekly and whose writings offer important glimpses into early Christian liturgy and practice—more than enough here for many more conversations!

For Further Reading

An accessible English translation of the Apostolic Fathers (with introductions to and bibliography for each document) is M.W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker Academic, 2005). For those who would like the Greek text alongside the English, there are two fine editions: M.W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Baker, 1999), an affordable paperback edition; and B.D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.; LCL 24-25; Harvard University Press, 2003). For a fine basic introduction to the individual documents in the collection, consult C. Jefford, Reading the Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction (Hendrickson, 1996), and for a thematic approach to the Apostolic Fathers that surveys their views on selected topics, see C. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2005).

Posted Nov 01, 2005