Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers

early-christian-writingsTranslated by Maxwell Staniforth, the book Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers is a collection of ancient manuscripts from the second century CE. It includes works by Clement of Rome (The First Epistle to the Corinthians), Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Ephesians, Epistle to the Magnesians, Epistle to the Trallians, Epistle to the Romans, Epistle to the Philadelphians, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, and Epistle to Polycarp), and Polycarp of Smyrna (Epistle to the Philippians) as well as four texts from unknown authors (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Epistle to Diognetus, Epistle of Barnabas, and The Didache). Though it is not known for sure whether or not all the authors personally knew the Apostles, these texts represent the “first trickles” of Christianity beyond the time of the Apostles who walked with Jesus.[1]

Though each of the thirteen texts included this book were written in a different context (with the exception of the seven letters from Ignatius of Antioch), two common themes emerge when reading them. The first theme is the emphasis placed on the authority of the local bishop. As Ignatius puts it, the bishops “represent the mind of Jesus Christ” and, as such, believers are to unite in a “common act of submission” and acknowledge the “authority of [their] bishop and clergy.”[2] While this emphasis on the authority of the local bishop can be hard for a 21st century Protestant in the Western world, it is understandable as these authors were trying to protect the treasure given to them by the Apostles. The New Testament, while written, had not been canonized by the church at large, leaving open the possibility that heresies and falsehoods could creep into the life of the church. The bishops, accordingly, served as a living connection back to the Apostles and Jesus, keeping the church on mission and retaining the truth entrusted to it.

The second theme that emerges from these texts is the emphasis on right living. The “Way of Life” depicted in The Epistle of Barnabas and The Didache is a perfect example of this emphasis.[3] The way of life spelled out by these two texts encourages the reader “abhor anything that is displeasing to God” while practicing “singleness of heart and a richness of the spirit.”[4] It is an encouragement to those who have decided to follow Jesus to be like Jesus and to be different than those who are not following him. In this way, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers tend to have more in common with St. James and with St. Paul., as noted by Roger Olson in his book The Story of Christian Theology.[5]

Though there were parts with which I did not agree, being a 21st century believer in a highly individualist culture, I did enjoy reading through these thirteen texts. The Martyrdom of Polycarp was, by far, my favorite text in the book having read it years prior to this class. The words that St. Polycarp spoke while on trial for being a Christian has encouraged me countless times over the years since I first read them. As Polycarp once said, “How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour” when he has done me no wrong?[6]

End-Notes

[1] Staniforth, Maxwell, trans., Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 10.

[2] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 61-62.

[3] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 179-181, 191-193.

[4] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 179.

[5] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 41.

[6] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 128.

Bibliography

Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Staniforth, Maxwell, trans., Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, London: Penguin Books, 1968.

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