In his impressive edition and translation of the Apostolic Fathers Bart Ehrman (henceforth E.) has done more than simply bring Kirsopp Lake’s 1913 Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers up to date. He has presented the Apostolic Fathers afresh to the twenty-first century. These two volumes are sure to become standard in the library of every student of early Christianity, along with Lightfoot’s 1889 edition (readily available in reprint), and the newest editions as they appear.
The great virtue of E.’s work is its accessibility and ability to serve as an introduction to the study of the Apostolic Fathers. This is first evident in the general introduction. Lake’s terse introduction is replaced by an informative and judiciously paced exposition from which both the neophyte and the seasoned scholar might profit. E. begins by discussing the preservation of the ‘proto-orthodox’ texts represented in his collection through antiquity. He then makes it clear that the formation of the corpus as we know it, as well as the use of the term ‘Apostolic Fathers’, is the outcome of a renewed interest in these writings among Western scholars beginning in the Reformation era, but really coming into its own in the seventeenth century. Here E. only touches on the various ecclesiological motives of different scholars, stressing how their endeavours shaped the collection: establishing the authenticity of some texts, demolishing that of others, and insisting on different criteria for inclusion among the Apostolic Fathers. He traces scholarly debates and discoveries up to the current general — if, inevitably, not universal — consensus on which works of different genres and perspectives should appear under the title of the Apostolic Fathers. E.’s own summing up serves as a compelling invitation to the texts he has laboured over: “The Apostolic Fathers, then, is not an authoritative collection of books, but a convenient one, which, in conjunction with these other collections, can enlighten us concerning the character of early Christianity, its external appeal and inner dynamics, its rich and significant diversity, and its developing understanding of its own self-identity, social distinctiveness, theology, ethical norms, and liturgical practices” (13-14).
The general introduction ends with a solid and thoroughly up-to-date select bibliography, as does the introduction to each of the individual works. These bibliographies are clearly not intended to be comprehensive. How could they be, on a subject which attracts so much attention? But any reader intrigued by the problems E. introduces, or troubled by the sparsity of explanatory notes may rest assured that he has been pointed in the direction of the best works on the topic.
The Greek text is what might properly be expected from a volume in the Loeb Classical Library, a tidy presentation of the best consensus reading, with the most significant problems and debates indicated, and without any novel emendations or conjectures. There is nothing with which to take issue, and the reader has the benefit of an apparatus at significant points, without being overwhelmed throughout by the minutiae of manuscript readings.
The translation is particularly commendable. Lake’s English rendering was by no means as ponderously archaizing as that of some Loeb translators, but E., by comparison, has managed to make his new translations painlessly contemporary, without stooping to vulgarity or straying from the Greek text. Much of some of the texts is a pastiche of Biblical verses, and while E.’s notes refer the reader to the sources of quotations, paraphrases, and allusions, he does not recognizably follow any particular version in his uncomplicated translation. He manages to convey, I think, the impression these works might have made on a Greek reader unfamiliar with either the Septuagint or what came to be the New Testament. The notes certainly present these writings as part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but on occasion they might have recognized them as Graeco-Roman literature as well (for example, the reference in 1 Clem. 20.8 to ‘worlds beyond the ocean’ obviously depends on the geography of Crates of Mallos, and references to some other versions of the story of the Phoenix [1 Clem. 25] might not have been out of place).
There is an introduction to each of the individual writings, which provides an overview of the works, an attempt to establish the author and date of composition, and a comment on the work’s historical significance, along with an introduction to the relevant scholarly debates. The textual tradition and previous editions are discussed, with a list of manuscripts, and (as mentioned above) a bibliography for each work.
The works in this volume include:
The First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians: a letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth, traditionally attributed to Clement, a leader of the Roman church at the end of the first century. It addresses the problems created by a change in leadership in the Corinthian church, and is concerned with church order, harmony, and obedience to established leaders. E. notes its significance to questions of the use of Scripture, the influence of the Roman church, and the claim to apostolic succession.
The Second Letter of Clement to the Corinthians: E. notes that this work is misnamed, as it is neither a letter, nor by Clement. It is, in fact, a homily exhorting its audience to repentance and a moral life in response to the debt owed to Christ. Its author and date are matters of conjecture, but its provenance might be the Alexandria of the 140s. It provides information on the development of the New Testament canon, and on the conduct of worship services.
The Letters of Ignatius: a collection of letters written by the second (or third) bishop of Antioch while he was on his way to face martyrdom in Rome. In addition to the inherent interest which the reflections of a man facing his own grisly death might have for any reader, Ignatius’ concerns reflect the state of the Church in the early second century. He warns against heretical teachings, those of judaizers and docetists. He also suggests that the doctrinal purity which he urges is best assured by church unity and submission to the ruling bishop.
The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians: Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna in the early second century. His brief letter provides some information on communications between various church bodies, the use of Scripture, and heresies. The most important scholarly debate concerning the letter is over whether it is a single composition or two letters cobbled together.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp: apart from the account of Stephen in Acts, this is the earliest Christian martyrology, and an arresting witness to the period of the Persecution of the Church. It seems to be an eye-witness account of the burning of Polycarp (author of the previous work) at the stake, with the addition of comments drawing parallels between the death of Polycarp and the Passion of Christ, and of more fabulous elements which often recur in later martyr-legends. Among other interesting points, it offers insight on the origins of the cult of the martyrs.
Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles): this was only rediscovered in its primitive form in the late nineteenth century. A document of around AD 100 (possibly from Egypt or Syria), it has three apparent parts. The first is a disquisition on ‘the two ways, of life and of death’, defining moral and immoral behaviour. The second is a church order, with instructions on baptism, fasting, the eucharist, and the reception, selection, and payment of church leaders. The third is an eschatology which appears to have been broken off in the middle.
E.’s edition of the Apostolic Fathers is useful and engaging. I can whole-heartedly advise its purchase to all those interested in the literature of the second century and the development of the Christian church, even those who already own earlier editions and translations.