I’ve spent the last week or so diving deeply (again) into 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? Did early Christians really have an aversion to written texts? These questions are too big to answer in a single blog post, but I think one of the Apostolic Fathers challenges this thinking head on: Papias.
Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis and wrote around 125AD (see inset picture!). He tell us plainly about the written gospels of Mark and Matthew:
The Elder used to say: Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he [Peter] remembered. . . . Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that Papias received his information directly from “the Elder” who is no doubt “John the Elder” he mentions elsewhere as a follower and disciple of Jesus himself. Thus, although Papias is writing around 125 AD he is actually referring to a much earlier time when he received this tradition, probably around 90AD.
Here, then, is the key point: Papias attests to the fact that at the end of the first century, one of the primary ways Christians were receiving Jesus tradition was through written gospels, two of which were named Matthew and Mark (!). This fact alone should challenge the notion that only oral tradition can/should explain citations in the Apostolic Fathers.
 For a discussion of what is meant by the “Hebrew language”, and how this does not mean something other than Matthew is in view, see R.T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 53-66.
 Of course, some have tried to counter this point by pointing out that Papias seems himself to prefer oral tradition (Hist. eccl. 22.214.171.124). But, a number of scholars have pointed out that this statement by Papias is widely misunderstood. But, we shall have to address that further in another post!
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
First, it seems that the overemphasis on “oral” tradition has been the purview of those who want the “written” texts to be later. For example, The Didache is usually said to be written around 100 AD. I think Will Varner is correct that The Didache was written closer to between 50-60 AD due to the quotes from Matthew. This would also cause problems with Marcan Priority, Q, and later dating of the gospels. The critics do not like the thought that a high Christology is evident so early in the history of the Church.
Second, Papias’ use of “John the Elder” fits well with respect for the Apostle John who would be the sole surviving Apostle ca. 90 AD. The critics use to refer to “another” John is disingenuous at best. This reference to “another” John is taking the argument of Eusebius quoting a Bishop of Alexandria as truth while not considering the bias’ that are prevalent in Eusebius’ own arguments against Revelation.
Third, the early church, although wanting actual eyewitnesses to the events because those eyewitnesses actually saw the resurrection and other incidents in the life of Jesus, would have used the written text as a substitute when eyewitnesses were not available.
Fourth, written texts become the sole source of the truth of the gospel and the testimony of the early church against the false doctrine of the Gnostics, Marcion, et al.
Fifth, Paul enjoined the reading of his writings to the churches.
Michael Kruger says
Good thoughts, Bryant. Appreciate your input on this.
Mike Davis says
I think 1 Clement is actually evidence against the case for a strictly oral tradition among the Apostolic Fathers–although they did all seem to have good memories! He quotes extensively from all over the Old Testament and refers to it repeatedly as Scripture, then cites a number of New Testament quotes, from both the Gospels and the Epistles. When he supports an admonition with a quote he does not distinguish between the Old or New Testament in terms of the strength of underlying authority. When he quotes from Luke 17:2 he refers to it as the “…words of our Lord Jesus…” While it is possible he makes all these Scripture quotes from memory I don’t think it convincing to assert there was not written documentation of all the Scriptures, including New Testament quotes, in possession of the Church to confirm his citations.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
What are your thoughts on Eugénia Scarvelis Constantinou (Jeannie Constantinou) dissertation on Andrew of Caesarea’s Commentary of Revelation in which she discusses the formation of the canon and also the canonicity of Revelation in Chapter 2, pp 31-39?
See http://www.revelation~resources.com. see link to ebook in pdf.format.
See partial quotes below:
“Fundamental questions must be posed to unravel the process of canonization for the Apocalypse and by extension such questions are applicable to the entire New Testament: On what basis were certain books accepted and others rejected? What criteria were used? Did the authority of the book précède its canonization or was it recognized as authoritative because of its history or a particular quality that ultimately rendered it officially canonical? Which qualities were most important? Apostolicity? Prophecy? Spirituality? Perceived inspiration of the writer? Inspired reaction in the reader? Dogmatic importance? Orthodoxy of doctrine? Use by the community of faith? Didactic usefulness? Résonance with Christian expérience?
A combination of the history of the réception of the text, the internai qualities of the text and external factors (heresy, other controversies or its acceptance by a key ecclesiastical figure) seem to hâve pushed the consensus of the Church in a particular direction for any given book. In the earliest years of the Church, no Christian writings were considered “Holy Scripture.” During this period the primary method for passing on Christian tradition, especially stories and sayings of the Lord, remained oral. In fact, a préférence for oral tradition remained even well after written gospels existed and the présence of floating logia in the second century Fathers confirais the continuing rich oral tradition of the “words of the Lord.”
Until the end of the second century, the term “Scriptures,” referred exclusively to the Jewish scriptures. Just as they had been the sole Scriptures for Christ and the apostles they remained the only Holy Scripture of the Church for many décades. Christ himself had quoted them, appealed to them, interpreted them and, most of ail, fulfilled them. The Law and the Prophets had been normative for so long that it was difficult to conceive of any other writings achieving such high status. Although it appears that Christian documents were read within the context of Christian worship services by the early second century, another hundred years passed before they were recognized as possessing a level of authority that placed them on par with the Old Testament.
Christian writings were clearly subordinate to the revered Jewish Scriptures, writings which the Church had appropriated as its own. Scripture was sacrosanct. Scripture was unalterable. Scripture was holy. Even the four gospels — while respected as “the memoirs of the apostles”99 were not truly considered Holy Scripture in this highest and most définitive sensé until the end of the second century.100 The earliest évidence supporting this conclusion can be found within the gospels themselves. The evangelists themselves and their disciples never thought of either their own writings or the earlier sources they relied upon for their gospels as Scripture. Our présent gospels are the products of a certain amount of editorialshaping. While none would dare to tamper with the text of the Jewish Scriptures, one need only look at the complex and carefully crafted structure of the gospel of Matthew,101 or read the prologue to the gospel of Luke or the appendix added to the gospel of John to recognize that in their earliest décades the gospels, and the proto-gospels upon which they were based, were not considered holy and inviolate.”