After the New Testament:
The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers
(24 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture + a coursebook)
Taught by Bart D. Ehrman
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
M.Div., Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary
The writings that make up the New Testament stand at the very foundation of Christianity. In these 27 books that represent the earliest surviving literary works of the young church, we have what eventually came to be regarded as sacred scripture, the canon of what was to become the most powerful and influential religion in the history of Western civilization.
But while Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the other books of the New Testament are known to almost everyone, the writings that Christians produced in the decades that followed these earliest compositions remain shrouded in virtual anonymity—even though they are crucial to understanding the development of a religion that was shaped largely outside the pages of the New Testament itself.
As Professor Bart D. Ehrman points out, numerous doctrines that are familiar to Christians today, such as that of the Trinity, are not explicitly found in the New Testament. Neither are the church structures around which various Christian faiths, from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist, are organized. And the ethical positions that form such a central part of Christian life today, such as those involving premarital sex or abortion, are likewise lacking in specific scriptural reference.
A Window to How Christianity Was Shaped
Who exactly were the Apostolic Fathers? Why were they given that name? Most important, what windows into the shaping of Christianity's canon, church hierarchy, and creed are opened for us with an understanding of works that include the letters of 1 Clement or Ignatius, the Didache of the Apostles, or the Letter to Diognetus?
After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Professor Ehrman answers these and many other questions as he introduces us to what is considered the most important collection of post-New Testament writings.
"The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are extremely valuable for understanding proto-orthodox theology, practice, ethics, ritual, social structure, reaction to persecution, and [Christianity's] relationship to the outside world. Without these books, our knowledge of the early Christian church is seriously impoverished. They are precious to anyone interested in learning about the history of early Christianity."
Proto-orthodoxy is the term Professor Ehrman uses to describe the theological viewpoint that would eventually win out and become the church's position. It wouldn't be accurate, though, to refer to the views represented by the Apostolic Fathers as orthodox—literally, "right opinion"—because at the time these works were being written, the argument had not yet been settled. The positions of the Apostolic Fathers represented simply one competing version of Christianity among many, and their eventual categorization as "orthodox" would be a retroactive one.
"The Apostolic Fathers are our earliest witnesses outside the New Testament for proto-orthodoxy with respect to the development of the canon, the clergy, and the creed. This form of Christianity came to be dominant, and ended up determining the shape of the Christian religion for all time," says Professor Ehrman.
Despite this key role, though, these are works whose influence has largely gone unnoticed, not only outside the faith, but within it, as well.
Largely Unknown and Unread... Yet A Treasure Trove of Insights
"Most of these writings were unknown and unread throughout most of the history of Christianity," notes Professor Ehrman. "And, I might add, most of them are unknown and unread by most Christians today. Most Christians have never heard of these books, even though they're extremely important for understanding the development of Christianity after the New Testament period."
Professor Ehrman is the ideal candidate to rectify that situation, for Christians and non-Christians alike. A prolific author and lecturer whose previous offerings for The Teaching Company have ranged across the New Testament, the history of early Christianity—including the "lost" versions of the faith that were dismissed as the orthodox canon was being shaped—and the historical Jesus, he presents the material in a format that helps ensure that the importance of each work in the framework of Christianity's history comes through as clearly as its content.
Moreover, his gift for being able to make his material feel approachable and contemporary, with no sense of dryness or the lingering dust of antiquity, leaves little doubt as to why he has won several teaching awards, including the Bowman and Gordon Gray Award for Excellence in Teaching. Though always respectful of the religious weight of his subject matter, he is never timid in putting forth ideas and theories, and the result is both fascinating and provocative.
He has designed the course for maximum clarity, presenting the writings of the Apostolic Fathers in pairs, with the first lecture of each pair examining a specific written work and the second exploring the broader implications the work reveals for the development of Christianity.
The Apostolic Fathers bear that name because 17th-century scholars believed them to be companions or followers of the apostles—people from the next generation who had known the apostles earlier in their lives.
Some of the 10 or 11 authors (the eleventh, Quadratus, is survived by only a single sentence) traditionally included in the collection of Apostolic Fathers are well known, including Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna; others are anonymous. But each of them casts invaluable light onto the shaping of the religion that eventually converted the Roman Empire and became the major religious force of the Middle Ages.
A Struggle for Power and the Beginnings of Church Hierarchy
The Letter of 1 Clement is written from the Christian church of Rome to the church in Corinth in reaction to a power struggle. The Corinth church's elders had been deposed by new figures of authority, and the letter seeks to restore the former elders. Since the Corinthians had been the recipient of two letters from Paul that were later to be included in the New Testament, and since those letters indicated the then lack of a governing board of elders, 1 Clement is extremely valuable in revealing not only the movement toward a church hierarchy that would be in place by the Middle Ages, but also the clear movement of the church of Rome, in barely half a century, toward the pinnacle of that hierarchy.
The Letters of Ignatius, the early 2nd-century bishop of Antioch, have a completely different flavor. Ignatius has been arrested for Christian activities and sentenced to face the wild beasts of Rome's arena. As armed guards are escorting him to Rome, he sends seven letters to the churches that have sent supporters to meet with him along the way—letters that reveal his deep concerns for the church he will leave behind.
Most major among those concerns is a warning against "false teachers"—those teaching the "Judaizing" forms of Christianity that insisted that being fully Christian required first becoming a Jew. Such teaching had been prominent from the church's earliest times, even within some of Paul's own congregations, and may, in fact, have been the earliest form of Christian belief. By the time of Ignatius, however, it was considered heresy.
In a fascinating sidelight later in the course, Professor Ehrman tells the story of a furious 17th-century pamphlet war waged over the subject of Ignatius's letters. The debate featured a virtually unknown 32-year-old named John Milton—writing more than three decades before his great classic, Paradise Lost—and Archbishop James Ussher, the most famous and respected biblical scholar of his time.
Milton challenged Ussher's use of quotations from Ignatius, alleging that the collection of 13 letters then attributed to Ignatius was actually replete with so many forgeries that there was no way of telling what Ignatius had actually said. In the end, the quotations used by Ussher were confirmed as accurate, but Milton also received some vindication, as the number of letters shown actually to have been written by Ignatius was reduced to the seven accepted today.
But the coming together of the writings covered in this course didn't necessarily always involve controversy. Electrifying discoveries played a part as well. Such a discovery was made in 1873, when a Greek scholar doing research in the Library of the Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople uncovered a manuscript that some early Christians believed belonged in the New Testament itself, but which had been lost for centuries. The book, The Didache of the Apostles, contained a wealth of information, compiled from other texts that may date back as far as the year 100, about how early Christianity was actually practiced.
The word "didache" means teaching, and the teachings it contains are allegedly those of the apostles themselves. In any case, the book provides information about early Christianity about which scholars would otherwise be totally ignorant, including details about church organization, the practice of religious rituals, and rules of Christian behavior. In fact, the Didache has sometimes been called a "church manual" because of its detailed instructions.
Sometimes, though, text in the early Christian world was treated in a very different way, as Professor Ehrman brings out in his discussion of the so-called Letter of 2 Clement. Authored by neither Clement, the bishop of Rome, nor by the author of the Letter of 1 Clement, this misnamed book is really an anonymous sermon that is based on what Professor Ehrman calls a "creative" reading from the Old Testament’s Book Of Isaiah.
Dr. Ehrman shows how the allegorical mode of interpretation used in the sermon enabled the preacher of the sermon to make the words of the original text applicable to the present-day situation affecting his own congregation, even though the subject matter was dramatically different. This kind of "presentist" interpretation was not unusual then and persists to this day in the interpretations of so-called "prophecy experts." As Professor Ehrman points out, this practice of allegorical reading eventually came under fire, as church leaders came to realize that if the meaningof a text can be taken in non-literal ways, such readings can be used to support "false" teachings as well as true ones.
An understanding of how those teachings evolved—and how Christians put them into practice—is one of the great benefits these lectures provide. After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers is an extremely useful addition to the shelves of anyone interested in the history of ancient Christianity and its evolution into the dominant religion it became
01 Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers
02 The Letter of 1 Clement
03 Church Structures in Early Christianity
04 The Letters of Ignatius
05 Doctrinal Problems in the Early Church
06 Still Other Doctrinal Disputes
07 The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
08 The Use of Authorities in the Early Church
09 The First Martyrology—Polycarp
10 The Persecution of the Christians
11 A Church Manual—The Didache of the Apostles
12 Ritual in the Early Church
13 Barnabas and the Opposition to the Jews
14 The Rise of Christian Anti-Semitism
15 2 Clement—An Early Sermon
16 The Use of Scripture in the Early Church
17 Papias—An Early Christian Interpreter
18 Oral Tradition in Early Christianity
19 The Shepherd of Hermas—An Apocalypse
20 Apocalypses in Early Christianity
21 The Letter to Diognetus—An Apology
22 Apologetics in Early Christianity
23 The Apostolic Fathers as a Collection
24 The Apostolic Fathers and Proto-orthodoxy
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