Chapter 16: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers

A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant

Chapter 16: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers

In our discussion of the New Testament canon (Chapter 1) we observed that several books now included in it were not included by many Christians before the fourth century, and that some of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were accepted as canonical, especially at Alexandria, at an earlier date. This fact implies that at least for completeness’ sake we should say something about these writings when we deal with New Testament literature. Furthermore, it is likely that three of these writings are as early as many New Testament documents. These three are (1) the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, (2) the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (I Clement), and (3) the ‘epistle’ of Barnabas.

The Didache consists of several chapters of moral instruction, followed by a handbook of liturgical and ministerial guidance and concluded by a brief apocalypse. The moral instruction is based on Jewish models; as are the prayers set forth for use at the Eucharist. The church situation is one in which itinerant apostles and prophets are the leaders of the community, though they are being replaced by bishops and deacons. The Didache thus clearly reflects a form of Jewish Christianity, although the date of its composition is a matter of debate. Some (especially J. P. Audet) have argued that it consists of two parts, of which one refers to the oral gospel, while the other refers to the written Gospel of Matthew; he dates both parts before the year 70. More commonly the document as a whole is placed twenty years later, though it is recognized that it reflects earlier traditions. A few scholars have set it at the end of the second century, viewing it as a pseudo-primitive (perhaps Montanist or anti-Montanist) work. Probably it comes from a time well within the first century.

The letter of Clement is a long treatise which deals with the necessity for humility and obedience to order and lawfully constituted authority. At Corinth there have been schismatic tendencies which have resulted in the deposition of some of the presbyters. Writing in the name of the Roman community, Clement not only uses Old Testament examples, and analogies both Pauline and Stoic, but speaks explicitly of the succession of presbyter-bishops which has come down from the apostles. His work is intended as a description and a defence of ecclesiastical discipline. It probably comes from the last decade of the first century.

The ‘letter’ of Barnabas is a treatise on the correct exegesis of the Old Testament, which must be understood not in reference to Jews but as pointing towards Christ and Christians. Historical allusions to the rebuilding of the temple may point to a period after 132, although they may indicate earlier events. Use of the Gospel of Matthew as ‘scripture’ suggests a time not before about 90.

Another work widely accepted as scriptural in early times is the Shepherd of Hermas, an allegory in apocalyptic form, containing five visions, twelve commandments, and ten ‘parables’. The main occasion of the work is reflected in Hermas’s insistence that in the near future one, and only one, more opportunity will be provided for post-baptismal repentance. The agent of revelation, sometimes an angel and sometimes the pre-existent Church, tells Hermas to transmit the content of the visions to two leaders of the Roman church (one named Clement) and to read it himself with ‘the elders who preside over the church’. Most of the work suggests a date early in the second century, but the author of the Muratorian fragment, in forbidding public reading of the book, states that Hermas wrote it while his brother Pius (mid-second century) was bishop of Rome. Perhaps the document was composed over a period of years.

Other writings of the Apostolic Fathers include the seven letters written about 115 by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, on his way through Asia Minor to martyrdom at Rome, and the letter or letters of his contemporary Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, to the Philippians. These documents, clearly related to their second century circumstances, were apparently never regarded as scripture.

The continuing authority of some of these documents can be seen from the fact that the Codex Sinaiticus contains Barnabas and Hermas, while the Codex Alexandrinus contains the letter of Clement as well as part of a later homily known traditionally as II Clement. For Christian writers after Eusebius, however, it was generally evident that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers belonged to the documents of early church history, not to the New Testament canon. The Didache, out of date as the liturgy and ministry of the Church developed, was rewritten and assimilated into later, larger documents of the same kind (Didascalia, Apostolic Constitutions). The authentic letter of Clement was gradually driven out of circulation by later documents ascribed to him. The ‘letter’ of Barnabas lost favour because it was too obviously a forgery. Only Hermas continued to be popular, though not among theologians.

As a clear line was drawn between the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, the latter were often used as witnesses to early orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the letters of Ignatius gave support to the views of Monophysites and others like them; for this reason the genuine letters were generally supplanted by a new collection of letters interpolated and forged. This collection was soon utilized by the many theologians who found history uninteresting.

Historically, however, the authentic letters are highly significant for the light they shed on gentile Christianity at the beginning of the second century. They reflect the Church’s growing concern for unity and doctrinal orthodoxy and, in the case of Ignatius, for the importance of the sacraments. Does this ‘development’ represent decline or advance? The answer to this question cannot be given on historical grounds but on the basis of a judgement as to the whole sweep of church history.

To a considerable extent the language and thought of Ignatius seems to have been influenced by the Fourth Evangelist, whose disciple (according to later legend) he was. On the other hand, Polycarp, whom tradition also called a disciple of John, betrays only the faintest trace of acquaintance with the Fourth Gospel. He is much closer to the Paul of the Pastoral Epistles; indeed, his (second) letter contains many parallels to the Pastorals. These show either that he knew them well (he is the first witness to their existence) or, as some scholars have speculated, that he himself wrote them. An alternative to this hypothesis would be that the same unknown author wrote both the Pastorals and the ‘second’ letter to the Philippians.(By ‘second’ letter we mean Polycarp, Phil. 1-12, which almost certainly was written later than Phil. 13-14. This point is worked out by P.N. Harrison, Polycarp’s Two Epistles to the Philippians [Cambridge, 1936] — a study of permanent value.)

The writings of the Apostolic Fathers thus reflect many of the difficulties which we have already encountered in dealing with New Testament books. Some ascriptions of authorship arc clearly wrong, as in the case of II Clement and Barnabas and, probably, the Didache. Other writings contain interpolations or, at any rate, were circulated both in genuine versions and in versions containing additions. They come from various churches and reflect various points of view. They also come from various periods in the history of the Church. As far as ecclesiastical authority goes, the writings of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp stand on a level higher than that of the other authors, though admittedly both the Didache and Barnabas were ascribed to apostles. The chief significance of all of them lies in their reflection of the life and thought of the Church in the period soon after the apostolic age.

If those scholars are right to conclude that in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers there are practically no reflections of the synoptic gospels, the Apostolic Fathers stand almost as close to the earliest traditions about Jesus as the synoptic evangelists do. This means that as authorities for his words, if not for his deeds, they are almost as valuable as the canonical writers. The question then arises whether or not historical proximity is as important as canonicity. To answer this question we should have to enter upon the difficult question of the relation of scripture to tradition. Would a saying of Jesus when reported by Clement be tradition, while the same saying found in Matthew or Luke would be scripture? We raise these questions only for the sake of discussion. An attempt to answer them lies beyond the scope of this book.