Over the last number of years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers are an informal collection of early Christian writings, roughly 95-150 AD, which include books like the Didache, 1 & 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, and letters from Polycarp and Ignatius.
In recent years, scholars have expressed increased skepticism about whether these writings can inform our understanding of the development of the canon. What appear to be citations of and allusions to New Testament books are not that at all, we are told, but instead are best explained by these authors drawing upon oral tradition.
This preference for oral tradition is based on the belief that Christians were not really concerned about written documents yet–that doesn’t come about until the end of the second century.
Now much of this approach is certainly correct. Early Christians did use and value oral tradition well into the second century. And certainly it can explain many of the citations/allusions in the Apostolic Fathers. But, must we insist that it can explain all of them? Should we assume an author used oral tradition unless we can prove (without a shadow of doubt) that he used written tradition?
These questions are too big to answer in a single blog post, but I think there are reasons to challenge the idea that oral tradition should always be the default explanation: [Read more…]