When evangelicalism turns to books, our functional motto is: “The newer, the truer.” We stir our hearts with fresh devotionals, hone our skills with modern ministry manuals, deepen our discernment with cultural exposés, and study our Bibles with contemporary commentaries. When it comes to the freshly published word, we have an embarrassment of riches.
But our functional fetish for fresh content also tends toward chronological snobbery. Certainly we’re no more snobbish than any other generation when it comes to preferring the present over the past, but that commonality leaves us in no less danger.
Enter the Apostolic Fathers, a traditional collection of ancient documents that serve as the “primary resource for the study of early Christianity, especially the postapostolic period (ca. AD 70-150). They provide significant and often unparalleled glimpses of and insights into the life of Christians and the Christian movement during a critical transitional stage in its history” (Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 3).
This traditional collection is available in both Greek and English in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd ed.) by Michael W. Holmes (Baker, 2007). Holmes serves as University Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Bethel University in St. Paul, and his text is another updated edition of the original work of J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer (1891). In addition to a critical introduction and bibliography covering the Apostolic Fathers as a whole (3-31) and a critical introduction, background, and bibliography for each text, this slim and accessible volume includes the full Greek text and English translation of the following works:
The Letters of Ignatius (7)
The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Shepherd of Hermas
The Epistle to Diognetus and the Fragment of Quadratus
Fragments of Papias
Each individual work includes a text-critical apparatus beneath the Greek text (left pages) and scriptural cross-references and explanatory notes beneath the English translation (right pages). Editorial headings over English sections help the reader follow the context or quickly drop into sections for a quick view. Numerous indices create a treasure trove of referential information at the back of the book.
But regardless of the quality of Holmes’ edition, why should these writings matter to us today? Why should a Bible college or seminary student, much less a non-academic Christian, read or translate these ancient documents? It’s not just about their precise contents but also their proximity to the earliest church:
It was a time, for example [AD 70-150], when problems could no longer be solved by seeking an authoritative answer from an apostle. As a consequence, the church had to begin to deal with the question of sources of authority and authoritative tradition at a time when new challenges and pressures, both internal and external, were confronting the new religious movement in increasingly forceful terms . . . Clearly this was a crucial time in the history of a movement (3).
It is folly to navigate the rocks and reefs of contemporary challenges without any recourse to the ancient navigators who have gone before us. If there is nothing new under the sun, then the challenges faced and the lessons learned by the first few generations of post-apostolic Christians will offer us insights unbeholden to the intellectual prejudices of our present age. These religious ancestors have their own prejudices, to be sure, but they can still tell us things that no one in our age will tell us, because no one in our age can turn back the clock and see precisely how they saw.
Thankfully, for those wishing to translate these vital documents for themselves, Kregel has recently published A Reader’s Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers (2013) assembled by Daniel Wallace, Brittany Burnette, and Terri Darby Moore. This sleek, intuitive, accessible lexicon follows the structure and text of Holmes’ Apostolic Fathers and provides glosses for every word that appears less than 30x in the Greek NT. Each verse lists its words in alphabetical order rather than the order the words appear in the verse, which takes a few minutes to get used to but actually ends up being more deeply intuitive and helpful. So you can read or reference the Apostolic Fathers in the original language (and thereby strengthen your Greek) without the kind of time commitment and lexical resources reserved for more vocational students. I’m not even a novice when it comes to the Apostolic Fathers (and I’ve been focusing on other areas in my academic studies), but I dropped into Holmes’ text and Wallace’s lexicon and was able to do basic translation right away. Even if I didn’t want to translate, I could just read through Holmes’ translation or survey the individual books to get a feel for their contents and flow.
With each passing year, I long to pursue the classics and ponder the ancients. I want to know the flow of history, to root myself in the best of tradition, to grasp those many worlds of past ages available to us through the most precious of resources — literature. I want to see through old lenses, to get a glimpse of how my ancestors saw, and therefore to see what’s now before me with that broad discernment that offers itself freely to the one who will free himself from the tyranny of the present.
* Thanks to Baker Academic and Kregel Academic for providing free copies for unbiased review.