An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers:  Part Three (Relevance)

What is the relevance of studying the Apostolic Fathers?  We are near the beginning of a long exploration of ancient writings that are little known by many in contemporary Christianity, and it is a fair question to ask why you would want to undertake the study of these writings.  It is also a fair question to wonder what sort of perspective I have on them and why my opinion would count for anything with regards to their study.  What importance do these texts have in the contemporary world, given that they were written almost two thousand years ago in the first two centuries of Christianity?  Although I cannot answer every question that one could have about the Apostolic Fathers–indeed, there are some very basic questions about these texts that simply cannot be answered by anyone–I will do my best to present a case [1] as to why these books are worthy of at least some of your time.  Whether or not you choose to spend time becoming familiar with these works is up to you, of course.

Let us attempt to tackle the questions of relevance in at least some kind of sensible order.  Why should we care about the writings of the Apostolic Fathers at all, given how old the writings are?  Different answers to this question will suit different audiences.  For some people, the fact that these writings are the earliest Christian writings that are available to us after the New Testament is reason enough to know the writings.  For some, the texts will be seen as authoritative in some fashion, or at least as worthwhile to read in order to help one’s understanding of Christianity.  Speaking for myself personally, I find the Apostolic Fathers to be of the greatest interest in showing what happened to turn the apostolic faith that I wish to see restored to its ancient glory into the sort of Hellenistic Christianity that we are generally familiar with nowadays.  The Apostolic Fathers show the evolution (and a great many people would use far harsher language, up to and including apostasy and corruption) of Christianity from what it originally ways to what it now is.  For many people this will be reason enough to read and study these ancient writings.

Why are these writings important?  For one, they provide evidence of concerns that would become increasingly important as time went on in Christianity.  How can the legitimacy of church authorities be preserved in the face of tendencies for the interpretation of texts to be widely spread?  What is the relationship of Christianity both to the Judaism from which it sprang and with whom its relations were increasingly hostile as well as with the philosophical elite whose support or at least acceptance was sought by many early Christian leaders?  What were the effects of the turn away from Judaism and biblical theology towards Greek and Hellenistic philosophy?  What relationship do the writings of the Apostolic Fathers have with the New Testament (or the Hebrew scriptures), and how do they serve as a witness to the antiquity and high regard for those texts?  These are all questions that are fair to ask, and in the course of the pages that follow they will be explored in a variety of ways.

In order to keep the text from being too long, what I have sought to do is to engage each text among the apostolic fathers with a few basic questions.  With the exception of the fragment of Quadratus, which very small, all of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers invite at least a few questions.  And, in general, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers inspire a fairly consistent set of questions because several of the writings deal with the same concerns.  For example, quite a few of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers inspire questions about the relationship between Christians and Jews and Greeks.  Other writings inspire questions about genre and the way that genre makes it difficult to answer some obvious questions of the identity of writers to a couple of the texts.  Several of the writings have clear if rather striking relationships to the writings of the New Testament authors–especially John and Paul.  Likewise, several of the writings serve as models for the thinking and writing of later Christian writers, which encourages us to think about the relevance of these writings for our time.

In many ways, the Apostolic Fathers were writers who established patterns for later writers to follow.  The Martyrdom of Polycarp established a template for providing a compelling narrative of martyrdom that would be copied by many writers and still serves as an example for contemporary writings on martyrdom.  The Epistle of Barnabas is an early example of the allegorical view of the Old Testament that would find a great deal of popularity among the Alexandrian church fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, which has made it difficult for many contemporary Christians who share that approach to take God’s laws seriously as something to be obeyed.  The Epistle to Diognetus and of Quadratus were early examples of apologetic writing that would become increasingly popular to this day.  The Epistle of 2 Clement, wrongly titled, serves as either the first or second surviving sermon in Christianity.  The Shepherd of Hermas was an extended allegory that would serve as a model for later and superior efforts by John Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, and others.  The fragments of Papias are the surviving pieces of perhaps the first ever commentary on the Gospels, which was originally a five volume work that Christianity is poorer for not having preserved in its entirety.  In these ways, we can see that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers provided an example of what kinds of writings Christians would continue writing for centuries, even to the present day.

Finally, why should you  care about what I have to say about these ancient texts.  I must admit not great skill in reading koine Greek, despite my best efforts to familiarize myself with the best available texts that can be found of these documents (some of which you may read about in the appendix to this work which includes the book reviews I read in preparation for my writings).  Although I am not an expert on ancient texts, perhaps I may be considered as a friendly guide to the English-language writing on the apostolic fathers that is readily available, and one who freely admits my own perspective while seeking at the same time to point out matters from other perspectives as well.  Being familiar with a broad scope of ancient and contemporary literature, I consider this work to be an introductory text that will hopefully whet your own curiosity about ancient Christianity and prompt you to ask questions you perhaps never thought to ask, while providing answers to at least some of your questions about these intriguing and influential writings.  If I am not an expert on these texts, I am a serious-minded reader of them, and can at least help you get started in becoming one yourself, if you wish, by at least pointing you to some of the right places to go to read more for yourself if you are moved to do so.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers:  Part Three (Relevance)

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers Series | Edge Induced Cohesion

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