transition from the type of teaching in the New Testament to that which meets us in the early Catholic Fathers, from the last quarter of the 2nd century onwards. The Apologists no doubt show us certain fresh factors entering into this development; but on the whole the Apostolic Fathers by themselves go a long way to explain the transition in question, so far as knowledge of this saeculum obscurum is within our reach at all. It is true that they do not include the whole even of the ecclesiastical literature of the sub-apostolic age, not to mention what remains of Gnostic and other minority types. The Preaching and Apocalypse of Peter, for instance, are quite typical of the same period, and help us to read between the lines of the Apostolic Fathers. Yet they do not really add much to what is there already, and they have the drawbacks of pseudonymity; they lack concrete and personal qualities; they are general expressions of tendencies which we cannot well locate or measure, save by means of the Apostolic Fathers themselves or of their earliest Catholic successors.
(A) In external features the group is far from homogeneous, a fact which has led to their being disintegrated as a group in certain histories of early Christian literature (e.g. those of Harnack and Krüger), and classed each under its own literary type—so sacrificing to outer form, which is quite secondary in primitive Christian writings, the more significant fact of religious affinity. Its original members, those still best entitled to their name in any strict sense, are epistles, and in this respect also most akin to Apostolic writings. Indeed Ignatius takes pleasure in saluting his readers “after the apostolic stamp” (ad Trall. inscr.), while yet disclaiming all desire to emulate the apostolic manner in other respects, being fully conscious of the gulf between himself and apostles like Peter and Paul in claim to authority (ib. in. 3, ad Rom. iv. 3). The like holds of Polycarp, who, in explaining that he writes to exhort the Philippians only at their own request, adds, “for neither am I, nor is any other like me, able to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul” (iii. 2). Clement’s epistle, indeed, conforms more to the elaborate and treatise-like form of the Epistle to the Hebrews, on which it draws so largely; and the same is true of “Barnabas.” But one and all are influenced by study of apostolic epistles, and witness to the impression which these produced on the men of the next generation. Unconsciously, too, they correspond to the apostolic type of writing in another respect, viz. their occasional and practical character. They are evoked by pressing needs of the hour among some definite body of Christians and not by any literary motive. This is a universal trait of primitive Christian writings; so that to speak of primitive Christian “literature” at all is hardly accurate, and tends to an artificial handling of their contents. These sub-apostolic epistles are veritable “human documents,” with the personal note running through them. They are after all personal expressions of Christianity, in which are discernible also specific types of local tradition. To such spontaneous actuality a large part of their interest and value is due.
Nor is this pre-literary and vital quality really absent even from the writing which is least entitled to a place among “Apostolic Fathers,” the Epistle to Diognetus. This beautiful picture of the Christian life as a realized ideal, and of Christians as “the soul” of the world, owes its inclusion to a double error: first, to the accidental attachment at the end of another fragment (§ 11), which opens with the writer’s claim to stand forth as a teacher as being “a disciple of apostles”; and next, to mistaken exegesis of this phrase as implying personal relations with apostles, rather than knowledge of their teaching, written or oral. Whether in form addressed to Diognetus, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius, as a typical cultured observer of Christianity, or to some other eminent person of the same name in the locality of its origin, or, as seems more likely, to cultured Greeks generally, personified under the significant name “Diognetus” (“Heaven-born,” cf. Acts xvii. 28 along with § iii. 4)—the epistle is in any case an “open letter” of an essentially literary type. Further, its opening seems modelled on the lines of the preface to Luke’s Gospel, to which, along with Acts, it may owe something of its very conception as a reasoned appeal to the lover of truth. But while literary in form and conception, its appeal is in spirit so personal a testimony to what the Gospel has done for the writer and his fellow Christians, that it is akin to the piety of the Apostolic Fathers as a group. It is true that it has marked affinities, e.g. in its natural theology, with the earliest Apologists, Aristides and Justin, even as it is itself in substance an apology addressed not to the State, but to thoughtful public opinion. But this only means that we cannot draw a hard and fast line between groups of early Christian writings at a time when practical religious interests overshadowed all others.
If thus related to the Apologists of the middle of the 2nd century, the Epistle to Diognetus has also points of contact with one of the most practical and least literary writings found among our Apostolic Fathers, viz. the homily originally known as the Second Epistle of Clement (for this ascription, as for other details, see Clementine Literature). The recovery of its concluding sections in the same MS. which brought the Didachē to light, proves beyond question that we have here the earliest extant sermon preached before a Christian congregation, about A.D. 120-140 (so J. B. Lightfoot). Its opening section, recalling to its hearers the passing of the mists of idolatry before the revelation in Jesus Christ, is markedly similar in tone and tenor to passages in the Epistle to Diognetus. Far closer, however, are the affinities between the homily and the Shepherd of Hermas, “the first Christian allegory,” which as a literary whole dates from about A.D. 140, but probably represents a more or less prolonged prophetic activity on the part of its author, the brother of Pius, the Roman bishop of his day (c. 139-154). In both the primary theme is repentance, as called for by serious sins, after baptism has placed the Christian on his new and higher level of responsibility. Thus both are hortatory writings, the one argumentative in form, the other prophetic, after the manner of later Old Testament prophets whose messages came in visions and similitudes. This prophetic and apocalyptic note, which characterizes Hermas among the Apostolic Fathers (though there are traces of it also in the Didachē and in Ignatius, ad Eph. xx.), is a genuinely primitive trait and goes far to explain the vogue which the Shepherd enjoyed in the generations immediately succeeding, as also the influence of its disciplinary policy, which is its prophetic “burden” (see Hermas, Shepherd of).
We come finally to the anonymous Teaching of the Twelve Apostles and Papias’s Exposition of Oracles of the Lord, so far as this is known to us. The former, besides embodying catechetical instruction in Christian conduct (the “Two Ways”), which goes back in substance to the early apostolic age and is embodied also in “Barnabas,” depicts in outline the fundamental usages of church life as practised in some conservative region (probably within Syria) about the last quarter of the 1st century and perhaps even later. The whole is put forth as substantially the apostolic teaching (Didachē) on the subjects in question. This is probably a bona fide claim. It expresses the feeling common to the Apostolic Fathers and general in the sub-apostolic age, at any rate in regions where apostles had once laboured, that local tradition, as held by the recognized church leaders, did but continue apostolic doctrine and practice. Into later developments of this feeling an increasing element of illusion entered, and all other written embodiments of it known to us take the form of literary fictions, more or less bold. It is in contrast to these that the Didachē is justly felt to be genuinely primitive and of a piece with the Apostolic Fathers. Thus while its form would by analogy tend per se to awaken suspicion, its contents remove this feeling; and we may even infer from this surviving early formulation of local ecclesiastical tradition, that others of somewhat similar character came into being in the sub-apostolic age, but failed to survive save as embodied in later local teaching, oral or written, very much as if the Didachē had perished and its literary offspring alone remained (see Didachē, The).
As regards Papias’s Exposition, which Lightfoot describes
- See G.A. Deissmann, Bible Studies, pp. 1-60, for this distinction between the genuine “letter” and the literary “epistle,” as applied to the New Testament in particular.