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.