Archive for the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ Category

Many of you are probably aware of a set of early Christian documents collectively called “The Apostolic Fathers” all of which were likely written in the first or second centuries of the common era. However, if your seminary/bible undergrad experience was anything like mine, these documents were only occasionally mentioned and never discussed in detail. This is a terrible shame, because the documents that comprise the Apostolic Fathers are not only really cool, but they also give you an idea of the unity and diversity of the earliest Christians. Since you may not have had any detailed instruction on the AF, I thought it might be useful to the people out there to have a quick guide to some resources available out there.

First Things First: Choosing a Greek Text and Translation

There are basically two good texts/translations of the Apostolic Fathers that have been done recently. One is by Michael Holmes and now is in its third edition called: “The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations.” Holmes’ Greek text is a revision of Lightfoot’s text, but his English translation is purely original. The introductions are clear and helpful, but the reader should be aware that they skew very conservative. Holmes’ emphasizes the continuity of these texts with the New Testament to the point of sounding quasi-apologetic. The other is by Bart Ehrman (who just started blogging) and is published as part of the Loeb Classical Library in two volumes: “The Apostolic Fathers, Volume I: I Clement. II Clement. Ignatius. Polycarp. Didache.” and “Apostolic Fathers: Volume II. Epistle of Barnabas. Papias and Quadratus. Epistle to Diognetus. The Shepherd of Hermas.” Ehrman’s Greek text was done from scratch, and the translations are, of course, also completely fresh. The introductions are far more in line with scholarship on the Apostolic Fathers, especially the more recent stuff. I’d recommend the Ehrman volumes, but the choice isn’t particularly essential as both are solid pieces of work. Holmes’ is by far the cheaper of the two.  If funds are tight and you can’t spring for a newer text, the Loeb volumes which Ehrman’s two volumes replaced are available for free. They are by Kirsopp Lake and are still perfectly usable today. Volume One and Two are available for free through Google Books. I do not recommend buying an English translation without a Greek text.

Where to Begin?

Assuming you now have one of the three Greek-English editions listed above, you’ll quickly find out that the introductions to the various texts are very brief, usually not spanning more than a handful of pages. If you want more in depth background, you’ll have to purchase or borrow an introduction to the AF. Unlike the New Testament, where there are as many introductions as there are scholars, there are only a few introductions to the AF in English. My least favorite is put out by T&T Clark and edited by Paul Foster, and is titled “The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers.” There is nothing terribly wrong with this volume, but the introductions are not as well-rounded as others out there. This is probably because the volume is really a series of brief introductory articles which appeared in Expository Times (if I remember correctly) that were later gathered together and published. The articles are easy to read and entertaining, so if you can get them for free via your library they are worth reading. Otherwise, I’d skip it. The volume I’d recommend starting with is “Reading the Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction” by Clayton Jefford. One of the great strengths of the book is that it makes no assumptions about the background knowledge of the reader, but this can also be a source of irritation if you are generally familiar with the time period involved. Each chapter breaks the texts down with discussions of organization, theology, notable features, etc. It is very nicely organized, and if there is a section you don’t find helpful, you can easily pass over it. After you’ve read that work, I’d recommend the new and utterly fantastic volume edited by Wilhelm Pratscher called “The Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction.” The great strength of this volume is that it makes German scholarship on the AF accessible to English speakers in a concise and helpful format. Each chapter is written by a different expert on the particular text and is organized into subsections like structure, date, theology, etc. I can’t recommend the book enough. I suggest acquiring both the Jefford and the Pratscher books, if you can.  Between the two of them, you can’t go wrong.

Update: Fixed link to Lake’s Volume II.


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A while back I was reading Peter Lampe’s fantastic book From Paul to Valentinus, when I came across a rather curious claim about the Shepherd of Hermas. Before I say more, let me first reproduce the text of one of the passages in question. The following is Lake’s translation of the first two verses of Vision 1:

1:1 He who brought me up sold me to a certain Rhoda at Rome. After many years I made her acquaintance again, and began to love her as a sister.
2 After some time I saw her bathing in the river Tiber, and gave her my hand and helped her out of the river. When I saw her beauty I reflected in my heart and said: “I should be happy if I had a wife of such beauty and character.” This was my only thought, and no other, no, not one. (Herm. 1:1-2)

While the oddity of the introduction is plain to all (the visions literally open with Hermas ogling a naked woman while insisting he was not thinking untoward thoughts), the supposed source for the image is anything but obvious. Lampe proposes that this juicy bit of plotting is ripped straight from the pages of pagan erotica. According to Lampe (pages 218-219 for the curious), the protagonist’s chance encounter with the bathing damsel is a staple trope for the Attic equivalent of a lad mag. Imagine some cheesy 70s music and read verse 2 again. Seems plausible to me. Perhaps you are not convinced, but I have saved the best example for last.

5 But I took him by his wallet, and began to adjure him by the Lord to explain to me what he had shown me. He said to me: “I am busy for a little and then I will explain everything to you. Wait for me here till I come.”
6 I said to him: “Sir, what shall I do here alone?” “You are not alone,” he said, “for these maidens are here with you.” “Give me then,” said I, “into their charge.” The shepherd called them and said to them: “I entrust him to you till I come,” and he went away.
7 And I was alone with the maidens, and they were merry and gracious towards me, especially the four more glorious of them.

88:1 The maidens said to me: “To-day the shepherd is not coming here.” “What then,” said I, “shall I do?” ” Wait for him,” said they, “until the evening, and if he come he will speak with you; and if he come not you shall remain here with us until he come.”
2 I said to them: “I will wait for him till evening, but if he come not I will go away home and return in the morning.” But they answered and said to me: “You were given to our charge; you cannot go away from us.”
3 “Where shall I stay then?” said I. “You shall sleep with us,” said they, “as a brother and not as a husband, for you are our brother and for the future we are going to live with you, for we love you greatly.” But I was ashamed to stay with them.
4 And she who seemed to be the first of them began to kiss and embrace me, and the others seeing her embracing me began to kiss me themselves, and to lead me round the tower, and to play with me.
5 I, too, had, as it were, become young again, and began to play with them myself, for some were dancing, others were gavotting, others were singing, and I walked in silence with them round the tower, and was merry with them.
6 But when evening came I wished to go home but they did not let me go, but kept me, and I stayed the night with them and slept by the tower.
7 For the maidens spread their linen tunics on the ground, and they made me lie down in the midst of them, and they did nothing else but pray, and I also prayed withthem unceasingly and not less than they, and the maidens rejoiced when I was praying thus, and I stayed there until the morrow until the second hour with the maidens. (Herm. 87:4-88:7)

Again this is Lake’s translation. It should be noted that here maidens means virgins. So, Hermas spends the night with a bunch of virgin ladies who make out with him all night.  They all get naked and won’t let him leave, but it’s ok because they spend the whole night praying together. Apparently the gaggle of game virgins is another plot device borrowed from the sultry pages of pagan erotica. If Lampe is right, there are at least two examples of this shocking appropriation of literary smut. I very much doubt that we are viewing something like intentional literary dependence. It seems much more likely that Hermas fell victim in his composition to those floating bits of narrative that seem to imbue cultures. Perhaps, however, the most shocking thing about the Shepherd of Hermas is not its questionable source material, but rather that such an extraordinarily long text filled with bizarre images and containing such obviously adoptionist Christology was read and used by Christians for hundreds of years and almost made it into the canon.

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While studying the Apostolic Fathers last semester I came across a non-literal reading of Genesis in 2 Clement. Just as background, 2 Clement, which is not written by Clement, is an early Christian homily that probably dates to around the mid-to-late second century. It is interesting in large part because it is evidence of allegorical interpretation of the Genesis story occurring very early on in Christian history. Here is the passage (Ehrman’s Translation):

But I cannot imagine you do not realize that the living church is the body of Christ. For the Scripture says, “God made the human male and female.” The male is Christ, the female the church. And, as you know, the Bible and the apostles indicate that the church has not come into being just now, but has existed from the beginning. (2 Clem. 14:2)

There are similar comments sprinkled throughout the passage. The church “was created before the sun and moon” and the author exhorts the reader to be apart of the “first church, the spiritual church.” Interesting stuff. I noticed similar ideas in other Apostolic Fathers texts, but none of them made use of Genesis.

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