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Irenaeus’ Homeric Poem

In today’s reading (January 14), Irenaeus likened the ‘Gnostic’ use of Scripture to that of someone who takes Homeric verses and rearranges them to create a new poem on a totally different theme. This passage is strong evidence that Irenaeus was classically-educated — Homer was the backbone of ancient Greek education. Furthermore, in all likelihood, Irenaeus composed this little poem about Heracles himself.

This form of poetic composition is called the cento (not the canto) in Latin (and hence English) and κέντρων in Greek (deriving from the Latin for once). The  Latin term literally means any patchwork piece of clothing, especially a cloak (as I found it in Petronius’ bawdy Satyricon referring to a cloak). It was practised throughout antiquity to produce new poetry out of old. The cento is a demonstration of the erudition of the poet, not necessarily of his or her own originality.

Although Homeric resonances, sometimes not only half- but even full lines, are found throughout Greek poetry from the Archaic period (up to the 5th c. BC) onwards, such resonances are a different sort of composition, being either conscious or unconscious allusion/intertextuality with Homer, not a complete poem composed out of rearranged Homeric material.

The cento does not become popular until the imperial period (31 BC-476/1453) and usually uses epic (which, in Greek, invariably means Homer), such as Palatine Anthology 9.381 and Dio Chrysostom Oration 32. In Latin, the cento uses Vergil (70-19 BC) the most; Vergil was the backbone of imperial Roman education, as Homer was of Greek education. Petronius in the first century produced a Vergilian cento at Satyricon 132.11, and our earliest surviving whole cento is the 461-line Medea attributed to Hosidius Geta in the second century AD. We have eleven other pagan centos, all of them under 200 lines.

Although a Christian, Irenaeus’ cento is basically a pagan cento.

Christians do, however, take up the cento for more than apologetic or polemical purposes and use them to recast the Gospel story to convert the snobbish upper classes of Rome. Although Jerome sniffs his nose at centos, we must admit that many in antiquity sniffed their noses at the Bible, whether in Latin or Greek (recall Augustine’s admissions of his own attitude before conversion). The cento casts the Good News of Jesus in a poetic form acceptable to a pagan audience for evangelistic purposes.

The most popular Christian cento was a Latin cento of 694 Vergilian verses by Proba (mid-4th c AD) that takes the reader from the Creation to Redemption, from Adam to Christ. This text was very popular throughout the Middle Ages as a school-text, no doubt because it could teach good style and the Gospel at once. John Currans recently wrote an article about Proba’s cento,* demonstrating how not only was the style of narration affected by this recasting of the Gospel, but also its moral content. Proba gives us a Jesus who is the best of what an aristocratic Roman could hope to be but also mirrors some Irenaean themes of recapitulation.

Another cento worth mentioning is a Byzantine play of 2,610 verses drawn from Euripides, Aeschylus, and Lycophron called Christus Patiens. This tragedy retells the passion of Christ and was long attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus (late fourth century, composed his own verses in Homeric dialect and metre) but is now thought to be from the 11th or 12th century.

I don’t imagine that when Irenaeus wrote his Heraclean cento he thought that Christians would one day employ the same poetic strategy for spreading the Gospel. But they did, and he is probably the first Christian to write a cento.

*’Virgilizing Christianity in Late Antique Rome’, in Gavin Kelly and Lucy Grig, eds, Two Romes. New York: 2012, 325-344.

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyon

Irenaeus of Lyons

Our next Father is Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 200). He is a well-known figure for various reasons: until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents, he was one of our major sources for ancient ‘Gnosticism’ (and his descriptions have been largely proven accurate); he is the first clear, conscious defender of the fourfold Gospels (no more, no less); he gives us many variations on the ‘Canon (or Rule) of the Faith’ which are precursors to the later creeds; he is an early exponent of the Apostolic Succession; and, while continuing Justin the Martyr’s logos theology, he gives a vibrant and exciting account of Christus Victor atonement theory and the theology of recapitulation (anakephalaiosis).


Irenaeus hailed from Smyrna in Asia Minor, where he grew up under the authority and teaching of the Apostolic Father Polycarp. At some stage he emigrated to Gaul where he settled in Lugdunum (today’s Lyons, France). Christianity was strong in many Asian communities, but not so in Gaul. Around 177, he lived up to his name on an embassy from Lyons to Rome where he pleaded against the excommunication of Montanists (whom we’ll study in more detail when we read Tertullian). Irenaeus was elected episcopos of the community in Lyons as successor to the martyred Photinus.

During his epsicopate, he produced his theological works and also wrote a letter to a Roman episcopos named Victor, once again urging an irenic approach to disputes, this time in the dispute over the date of Easter called the Quartodeciman Controversy, the details of which we will study in our reading of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.

Irenaeus died around the year 200. Our first reference to his martyrdom is Jerome (347–420), Commentary on Isaiah 17.64. Even later is a tradition recounted by Gregory of Tours (538–594), living in Merovingian Gaul, that the Pope of Rome sent Irenaeus on an evangelistic mission to Lyons, at which he was widely successful (contrary to many of Irenaeus’ own references to the un-Christian barbarians amongst whom he lives).


Irenaeus’ greatest work is his five books Against Heresies, directed principally against Gnostic teachings. A second work by Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, was discovered in Armenian translation in 1904, after the ANF series was compiled. The latter work is thus not on our reading calendar, but we encourage anyone interested to read the Proof, found either in the public domain, or in the works referenced below.


Irenaeus is best known theologically for his views on atonement, the theory of recapitulation and Christus Victor theology (or the ‘Classic View’ of atonement, vs. the ‘Latin’ or ‘Juristic View’). Taking up Justin’s vision of the logos (inspired in turn – of course – by John 1), Irenaeus sees Christ as existing before the Incarnation as the eternal Word of the Father, who put the universe into place and governs it.

This Word took on flesh as part of God’s ongoing revelation to the human race. Had Adam and Eve not fallen, the Word would have become Incarnate anyway, for humanity was on a trajectory of development and growth into godliness (theosis) from the beginning. However, since Adam and Eve did sin through the deception of the serpent, Christ’s incarnation takes on a redemptive role. Not only does he become a human to show us more of God; he becomes a human to save us from sin, death, and the Devil.

Christ, the Incarnate Word, comes to undo what the first disobedience did. Therefore, just as sin began with a disobedient woman (Eve), the recapitulation-atonement begins with an obedient woman (Mary). Just as sin was perpetuated by a sinful man who was God’s son, so would it be stopped by a sinless Man Who is God’s Son (Jesus).

The Incarnation is a cosmic event and an irruption of the power of God into human history. By living a full, human – yet sinless – life, Jesus transforms all of human life. And when he, the only just man on earth, dies an unjust death on the cross, he destroys the power of death, as demonstrated by his triumphant resurrection and subsequent ascension. Because of the Incarnation and the drama of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, those who put their faith/trust in him with a determination to live holy lives are saved from their sins and the death that accompanies them, being given power over the devil.

This is a short recapitulation of recapitulation that does not do the theory justice. Good thing we’re going to read Irenaeus in the coming weeks!

This theology is played out against the backdrop of his battle, his polemic, against those whom he sees as having deviated from the true faith handed down from the apostles, the various groups termed ‘Gnostic’ as well as the Marcionites. At all times, we should see his statements of the Rule of Faith and Apostolic Succession and the Fourfold Gospel within their second-century, polemical context, and not to seized upon and misinterpreted with twenty-first-century assumptions.

Alternate Editions

There exists only one complete translation of Against the Heresies, and we shall be reading it (although Paul and Sara Parvis with Dennis Minns are working on a new one). However, there is a newer translation of Book 1 in the Ancient Christian Writers translated by Dominic Unger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Scandal of the Incarnation compiles a hundred pages of thematically arranged excerpts.

Proof of the Apostolic Preaching has been translated for the same series; another translation is John Behr’s for St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series.

For the keen and skilled in ancient languages, the entirety of Against the Heresies only exists in Latin translation. Two editions are worth noting: Contre les hérésies, ed. A. Rousseau, L. Doutreleau, C. Mercier, and B. Hemmerdinger, 10 vols. Paris: Cerf, 1965-1982 (with French translation); and Epideixis: Adversus haereses, ed. N. Brox. Fribourg, Switzerland: Herder, 1993-2001.

Further Reading

Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons in Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series provides a decent introduction to the material, and Dennis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction is well worth reading.

For the extra-keen, I recommend two studies that have been my matrix for Irenaeus’ theology. One is the popular-level book by Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, and the other is the classic modern work by Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor.

For those really interested in the rule of faith, do not forget J. N. D. Kelly’s classic, Early Christian Creeds. For evangelicals, see Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition.

Justin and Christian Worship

I realise this post is a bit late in coming; I point to the great Feast of Christmas getting in the way last week! On Christmas Eve and Christmas, we read one of the earliest accounts of Christian worship, in Justin’s First Apology beginning at chapter 61. From what I have read and seen, the only verifiably earlier description of any sort is the Didache (but prove me wrong if you can; it was posted by Lincoln in the run-up to this project here and here and here).

The Didache is a different sort of description of Christian worship in that it is a church manual, its successors being the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus and, eventually, the books of canon law (which, I argue, should be sexier), the missals (a fine example being the Bobbio Missal of the sixth-century), and the breviaries of the Middle Ages.

Justin, on the other hand, is giving a purely descriptive account, ostensibly for outsiders, with the goal of demonstrating the harmlessness of Christian practices — here you will find no cannibalism or incest!

Instead, Justin describes for us, in ch. 61, the process of Christian initiation, including instruction, prayer, and fasting, culminating in the act of baptism in the threefold name. Having been baptised, converts are expected to lead upright lives.

In ch. 65, Justin takes up again the more descriptive, rather than apologetic, aspect of this portion of the treatise. Immediately following the baptism comes a time for prayer, and then the newly-baptised receive bread and wine (a practice reminiscent of the Apostolic Tradition) after the prayer of thanksgiving by the president of the company — some take left-over bread and wine to those unable to be present.

In ch. 66, Justin lays out for us a very basic eucharistic theology that, in my opinion, affirms the Real Presence of Christ in the elements.

Finally, in ch. 67, we get a description of regular Christian worship. They meet on Sundays; in the assembly ‘the memoirs of the Apostles’ or the writings of the prophets are read, a sermon follows, then a time of prayer. After the time of prayer comes the Eucharist. After the Eucharist, people bring their gifts to the president who distributes them to the needy.

These are significant moments in the history of Christian worship in large part because they look so much the same as what goes on today. In 155 at Rome, Christians baptised in the threefold Name, they met on Sundays for Scripture-reading, preaching, prayer, and the Eucharist. They gave their gifts and helped the poor.

Furthermore, the description of everyone fasting together with the catechumens serves as a reminder of the roots of the Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican/Lutheran practice of Lent, for Easter became the traditional time for baptisms, and the fast extended to forty days out of commemoration of Christ’s own fast of forty days.

As far back as we can actually perceive general Christian worship practices, whether in a manual such as the Didache or a description such as Justin’s, we see the regular celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday, the public proclamation of Old and New Testaments with preaching, and baptism in the threefold Name of the Trinity.

The people who helped forge and determine which documents are our New Testament, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, worshipped in this way. Perhaps our modern worship leaders should also at least become acquainted with these forms of worship, even if they choose not to become ‘liturgical’.

An Introduction to the Septuagint, the Old Testament in Greek

[N.B. This blog has many kinds of readers, some of whom are interested in the academic side of patristics, others of whom are not. Occasionally we’ll make forays into Greek and Latin or other technical topics, but these are a sidelight to our main purpose.]

In our readings from Justin in the past and coming weeks, Justin makes a spirited case for Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament. Though Justin had access to the “memoirs of the apostles,” which likely included the Gospel of John, the Scriptures that became the New Testament had not yet been canonized and collected, so it is not surprising that Justin relies on the Old Testament. Since he was writing in Greek, Justin did not read the Old Testament in Hebrew, but in Greek. In two notable passages, which we’ll take up in a moment, Justin describes how the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the difference that made for Christian theology.

In all our reading so far, you might have noticed that when the fathers quote from the Old Testament, the wording does not quite match the text of your English Bible. Sometimes the father is only alluding to a passage, as you might in a conversation, or sometimes the father seems to be quoting from memory. But often the quotation differs because the fathers were using a Greek Old Testament, but your English Bible is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Of course you need not look to the fathers to find these differences, because the New Testament writers also often quoted from a Greek rather than a Hebrew text. Both the apostles and the fathers were using a version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.

In his First Apology (ch. 31), Justin describes how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be translated into Greek at Alexandria, a story given at greater length in the Letter of Aristeas. The legend of the Septuagint is that the Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Hellenistic king of Egypt from 283 to 246 BC, requested a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek for the library at Alexandria. On the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria, which was the site of a lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, seventy-two Jewish elders from Jerusalem met and translated the Pentateuch into Greek in seventy-two days.

This story is just a legend, of course, but sometime in the third-century BC the Pentateuch and later the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek at Alexandria. These collection of Greek texts came to be known as the Septuagint (meaning “seventy” and abbreviated LXX). The Septuagint was only the oldest of several Greek versions of the Scriptures in the two or three centuries before Christ. The church father Origen (184–254), whom we’ll read starting next September, was famous for his Hexapla, a six-column collection of a Hebrew and several Greek versions of the Old Testament, and Jerome also identified other Greek translations. But the Septuagint bears the distinction of having been the version used most often by the apostles and the fathers.

Most modern English versions of the Old Testament are translated from the Masoretic Text, a text type of the Hebrew Bible passed down with great precision by Jewish scribes. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date to the ninth century A.D., though the text preserved is older. The Septuagint is not a translation of the Masoretic Text; rather, it is a translation of Hebrew manuscripts that predate the Masoretic Text. Thus the Hebrew Masoretic Text and Greek Septuagint are independent witnesses to the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament.1

The differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint are not always easy to spot. Many English translations, especially older translations like the Authorized Version, attempt to reconcile the Hebrew Old Testament with the New Testament’s quotations in Greek, and thus with the Septuagint. Even modern English translations, like the NRSV or ESV, which are translated from the Masoretic Text rather than from the Septuagint, are translated in light of a Christological interpretation originally based on the LXX.

Comparison of the Septuagint and Masoretic Text

The most obvious difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is the list of books that comprises each. The Septuagint contains all the books that are part of the Hebrew Bible, albeit in a different combination and order, but the Septuagint also includes other books, such as Judith, Tobit, the books of the Maccabees, the Wisdom of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus). In addition, some of the books included in the Hebrew canon have longer versions in the Septuagint, including Daniel and Esther.

The various churches of Christendom disagree about the authority of these additional books. In the most general of terms: All Christians accept all of what comprises the Hebrew canon. The Eastern Orthodox churches accept all of the books in the Hebrew canon as translated in the Septuagint, and they accept all of the books in the Septuagint. The Roman Catholic church accepts most of the books in the Apocrypha (the so-called deuterocanon). Since Luther, Protestants accept only the Hebrew canon. (Luther not only denied the authority of the Apocrypha, he also doubted the canonicity of several New Testament books, most famously James, and some Old Testament books, such as Esther.) But many Protestant churches make use of the Apocrypha in liturgical readings (in the words of the Thirty-Nine Articles, “the Church doth read [those books] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”), and Protestant versions of the Bible such as the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version routinely included the Apocrypha.2

The other important difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is the wording of specific passages. Two examples will suffice:

  • Hebrews 10:5–7 is a quotation from Psalm 40:6–8. The phrase in Hebrews “a body you have prepared for me” is a quotation from the LXX version of Psalm 40:6, where the Masoretic text reads, “ears you fashioned for me.”
  • Matthew 1:23 (“the virgin shall conceive”) is a quotation from the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14. The word for “virgin” in both the Septuagint and the gospel is παρθένος, and Christian apologetics both ancient and modern have had to demonstrate that the Greek word is an accurate translation of the underlying Hebrew word.

One related textual variation that is important for understanding the fathers concerns Psalm 96:10 (=95:10 LXX). The Hebrew Bible, modern critical editions of the Septuagint, and all modern English translations render part of that verse as “The Lord reigns.” But some of the fathers had a Greek or Latin version that added the words, “ἀπο του ξύλου”—”The Lord reigns from the tree,” with obvious Christological implications. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin goes so far as to accuse Jews of removing those words from the text (ch. 73), though these words were certainly added by Christians  and not removed by Jews.3 Augustine interpreted the Psalm including those words, though Jerome disagreed that they were part of the text.4

Significance of the Septuagint

I’m not going to try to resolve the theological and apologetic questions that the differences between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments pose. Those large questions can only be answered by detailed investigation into the particulars of New Testament and patristic use of the Old Testament. But I do want to suggest several reasons to consult the Septuagint.

First, if you want to understand the theology and biblical interpretation of the fathers, then it can be helpful to have the same Old Testament text in front of you that was in front of them. This includes the books outside the Hebrew canon, which are occasionally cited by the fathers and in a few cases alluded to in the New Testament. I’m not asking anyone to reconsider his or her canon, but it’s worth at least being acquainted with all the books that have been accounted Scripture.

Second, the Septuagint was the first edition of the Old Testament in use in churches, both in the east and in the west. This heritage deserves honor. (I realize that this argument, taken to an extreme could be a fallacy—”It was good for the church fathers [3x] … and it’s good enough for me.”)

Third, using the Septuagint forces us to confront the Scriptures as they are, rather than as we assume they ought to be. In my (narrow) experience, a common error in thinking about the Scriptures is to make some a deductive claim about how the Scriptures ought to function, then to demonstrate that they do in fact function in that way, when instead we ought to first see how how God has used the Scriptures and the church has read them, then learn how we can describe them. The Septuagint makes things messier, but that’s how things really are. If the Scriptures are the Word of God in a way that is parallel to Christ being the incarnated Word of God, then we have to give full weight to the way the Scriptures take human form, without veering into whatever the equivalent of the docetist or gnostic heresies would be, even if that makes the Scriptures sometimes seem like “an untidy and leaky vehicle.”

Fourth, Christians have always interpreted the Septuagint Christologically. We must of course avoid Justin’s mistake in insisting on versions of the text that are absolutely indefensible. But it was reading the Septuagint which persuaded Christians that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Logos of God. It’s essential to learn how to read the Old Testament Christologically as the fathers did, and this can be done from the Septuagint.

The Septuagint in English

If you want an English translation of the Septuagint, there is a recent edition titled A New English Translation of the SeptuagintNETS is available for free in its entirety online in PDF proofs of the book. NETS is based on the NRSV, meaning that it amends the NRSV translation of the Hebrew Bible where the Septuagint Greek differs from the Hebrew. The reasoning is well explained in the translators’ preface “To the Readers” (PDF), which I recommend for further information on the Septuagint. The real advantage of NETS is the ability to look up Old Testament passages and have a translation of the edition that the fathers were using.

The Septuagint in Greek

Cover of Rahlfs SeptuagintaSome of our readers may know Greek, and wish to consult a Greek edition. The best complete critical edition of the Greek text of the Septuagint is Rahlfs and Hanhart’s Septuaginta, published by Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft as are the critical editions of the Greek New Testament.5 This edition includes all of the books that comprise the Septuagint. An older edition of the Greek text of the Septuagint is Lancelot C. Brenton’s The Septuagint with Apocrypha, first published in an English translation in 1844, then in a Greek-English diglot in 1870, and still in print by Hendrickson. Brenton’s edition is the cheapest, and to my knowledge it is the only diglot on the market.6 But Brenton’s text is bizarre and unreliable. Besides the progress made in Septuagint scholarship since the nineteenth century, Brenton’s translation is not really a Septuagint at all. The books are listed in the order of the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint, with the additional books of the Septuagint in the back as apocrypha. More troubling, Brenton seems to have included only the verses of the Hebrew Bible, rather than preserving the readings of the Septuagint. Since Brenton’s version is just the Hebrew Bible arranged in Greek, I can’t imagine what useful scholarly purpose it could serve.7

Further Reading

If you’d like a fuller introduction to the Septuagint, I highly recommend Karen H. Jobes and Moiesés Silva’s Invitation to the Septuagint, which discusses the history of the Septuagint, an introduction to current editions, and an explanation of some passages in the Septuagint. If you want help learning to read the Septuagint in Greek, Rodney Decker’s Koine Greek Reader: Selections from the New Testament, Septuagint, and Early Christian Writers is an introductory text, similar in format to the patristic Greek reader I recommended earlier.

Merry Christmas from Read the Fathers

Merry Christmas from Read the Fathers.* We greet you with this passage from St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word (§54):

… Let him marvel that by so ordinary a means things divine have been manifested to us, and that by death immortality has reached to all, and that by the Word becoming man, the universal Providence has been known, and its Giver and Artificer the very Word of God. For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impassible and incorruptible and very Word and God, men who were suffering, and for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained and preserved in His own impassibility. And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in. Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part, but, after mentioning one more, to leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all alike are marvellous, and wherever a man turns his glance, he may behold on that side the divinity of the Word, and be struck with exceeding great awe.

An icon of the nativity from fifteenth-century Greece

An icon of the nativity from fifteenth-century Greece

* If you’re on the Old Calendar, as some of our readers may well be, please accept this as a Christmas card that arrives a little early.

Justin the Martyr

Icon of Justin Martyr

Our next author, Justin, lived from about A.D. 100 to 165 and was thus a contemporary to most of the Apostolic Fathers from whom we just read. Justin, however, had no direct contact with apostles, and so he is often classed with Irenaeus and Athenagoras (whom we will read next) as one of the early apologists—a defender (ἀπολογία) of Christian belief to the outside world.


Most of what we know of Justin’s life comes from his own writings, so we will encounter biographic details as we read. Though Justin was born in northern Palestine, he was a Gentile who was well educated in Greek language, literature, and philosophy. After finding dissatisfaction with Stoic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophers, Justin converted to Christianity, strongly influenced by the bold and gracious witness of Christian martyrs.

Justin ever thought of himself as a philosopher, and after his conversion he continued to wear the distinctive robes of a philosopher and set up his own school of philosophy in Rome, where he defended his faith both in writing and in oral debate. After one such debate during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Justin’s opponent Crescens, a Cynic, denounced him to the Roman authorities, who beheaded him along with several of his companions. From the transcript of the trial, Justin retained the honorific appellation “the Martyr.”


Justin wrote his First Apology while in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138–161), to whom the work is addressed. The apology defends Christians against the charges of atheism (based on the Christian refusal to worship the gods of Rome) and of ritualistic brutality (based on rumors surrounding the Eucharist). Justin’s detailed explanation of Christian belief and ritual offer a fascinating glimpse of early church worship.

Justin Martyr, engraving from André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584

Justin addressed a Second Apology to the Roman Senate, from which only fragments survive.

Justin’s other major work is his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, composed in the 130s. Although the early church historian Eusebius believed the debate to be a real event with a historic rabbi from Ephesus, more recent scholars are inclined to think the dialogue is merely a literary device Justin used in order to lay out his argument that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled Messianic prophecy (although a recent work by Timothy Horner revives the argument for the historicity of Trypho).

For the other works included in our collection, Discourse to the Greeks, Address to the Greeks, On the Sole Government of God, and On the Resurrection, Justin’s authorship is highly doubtful. Only On the Resurrection has any real chance of being originally written by Justin, and only fragments of that work remain. Like the spurious epistles of Ignatius, however, these works are nevertheless examples of early Christian writings, as each was composed around the turn of the third century.


Justin’s Apologies and Dialogue neatly map out the two cultural poles through which early Christianity navigated: the philosophy of the Greeks and the religion of the Jews, and aspects of both are captured in the concept of the Logos, the foundation of Justin’s theology.

Justin Martyr stained glass from the Church of St. Mary the Great, Cambridge (Credit: Lawrence OP / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND)

Logos (λόγος) is often translated word in English versions of the New Testament, most prominently in John 1:1–14 (a cherished text during this season of Advent). The Greek term carries a much broader meaning, however, akin to the English term rationality. In Stoic strands of Greek philosophy, the Logos was understood as a rational force that ordered the universe and was present in every human being. During the time of Christ, the Alexandrian Jew Philo likewise employed the term, explaining the Logos as the “reason of God” through which the universe was created.

Justin is clearly familiar with Stoic philosophy of the Logos and with the Apostle John’s additional teaching that the Logos was personally identifiable with God himself yet also fully tabernacled in a particular human being. Justin recurs often to the doctrine of the Logos to puzzle about how Christ the Logos could be both God and yet distinct in some way from the Father. He also uses the concept to argue against the Greek philosophers that Christianity, rather than representing just the religion of the poor and ignorant, is actually the highest and greatest of all philosophies.

As the Dialogue makes clear, Christians in the second century continued to wrestle with their relationship to Judaism. In arguing for the incarnation of the Logos to Trypho, Justin quotes liberally from the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), and he argues that Moses and the prophets foretold one who would set aside the law of the Jews and replace it with a law that was superior, universal, and eternal—the law of Christ.

Justin also quotes from what he calls the “memoirs of the Apostles,” identified at one point in the Apology as the “gospels.” Justin clearly relies on John’s teaching about the Logos, and he draws at length either on the other three gospels or on a single volume that harmonizes them (similar to Tatian’s Diatessaron, which we will read). In his Dialogue, Justin assumes their authority, treating them the same as the passages he cited from the Old Testament Scriptures.

Alternate Editions

If you happen to reside near a well-endowed academic library, you may have access to the Oxford Early Christian Texts volume of Justin’s Apologies, which represents the best of recent scholarship on the Greek manuscripts and presents the Apologies in a Greek-English diglot.

For those simply seeking a more modern English translation, Thomas Falls provides a useful volume covering all of Justin’s writings, including the apocryphal works. Falls’s work on the Dialogue has recently been updated in a new volume by Thomas Halton.

Other recent translations of the Apologies are Leslie William Barnard’s for the Ancient Christian Writers series, and E.R. Hardy’s for Early Christian Fathers, a volume that includes most of the Apostolic Fathers literature and a selection from Irenaeus (our next reading) in addition to the First Apology.

Week 2 Recap

As we finish week 2 of our reading, we’ve made it two-thirds of the way through the apostolic fathers. (Because of some idiosyncrasies in ANF, in the coming months we’ll circle back to two texts often classified as part of the apostolic fathers, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas.) This next week we’ll finish the rest of the apostolic fathers, and on Saturday we’ll begin Justin Martyr. Tomorrow afternoon we’ll post an introduction to Justin.

I want to bring out two threads from our reading this week. First, Ignatius emphasizes that “you must not do anything without the bishop and the presbyters” (To the Magnesians, ch. 7, among many other places). The importance of Christian unity and harmony within the church was also a main emphasis in Clement of Rome, and we will find this point being made again and again. For Clement, the theological rationale for the unity of the church was the nature of the congregation and indeed the cosmos. For Ignatius, the theological rationale is on the Trinity as a model for the structure of the church, and so he especially emphasizes the bishop as the source of unity.

Second, in Ignatius’s epistles we read a heart-rending account of a man yearning for death so that he can bear witness to his Lord (μάρτυρος = witness), yet fearful that he will be denied martyrdom either by the maneuverings of the church in Rome, or because he will in the end deny his Lord. We will read in countless texts about the theology of martyrdom: should Christians give themselves over to death? How far should they go to avoid it? Should a bishop leave his congregation to avoid martyrdom? Should someone be excommunicated for handing over the Scriptures to save himself? We’ve already seen these questions addressed in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. One of the striking metaphors for martyrdom in the fathers’ writings, with precedent in the epistles of Paul, is the martyr as athlete. The comparison is to the gladiatorial games (which, by the way, the fathers universally condemn). We’ve seen this metaphor in Polycarp—”The most noble Germanicus strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought heroically with the wild beasts” (Martyrdom, ch. 3)—and in Ignatius—”From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, … being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers” (To the Romans, ch. 5). Whenever I encounter this metaphor, I think of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic Speech” (“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena …”), only in service not of nationalism, but of people who are “strangers and exiles on the earth.” These accounts and theologies of martyrdom are especially important in an age where perhaps 200 million Christians suffer persecution, much of it state-sponsored.1


Martyrdom of Ignatius

The martyrdom of Ignatius—an ancient Christian athlete.


A modern Christian athlete?

Several readers have been posting excerpts of the readings, including Theology for the Road and Near Emmaus (with a long, thoughtful comment thread on this post). It’s great to see people in the community writing about what they’ve been reading.

Bonus: Philip Jenkins explains that the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a translation of the ancient “O Antiphons.”

Double bonus: In the most recent issue of Church History, C. P. E. Nothaft reviews the theories and evidence behind the December 25th date for Christmas. (You’ll need a subscription, unfortunately.)

Genres of the Fathers: Epistolography

Here we stand, most of the way through the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch, over halfway through the ‘Apostolic Fathers‘. Most of what we have seen so far has been in epistolary form — that is, letters. We started with 1 Clement, a letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth; then we read Ad Diognetum, which may be a letter (however, Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings, thinks it an apology akin to Justin Martyr’s). Next we delved into the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and soon it was the letters of Ignatius, which include some pseudepigrapha, like the Epistle of Barnabas in a week — but even these pseudepigrapha are written in the form of a letter.

And these are not the last letters we’ll see, although it will be a while until more emerge after we hit Justin Martyr — although apologies tend to be addressed to someone, they are not, properly speaking, real or fictive correspondence. However, in September we will hit three letters of Origen’s, but it will not be until next Advent that we will again land upon a major corpus of Christian correspondence, that of Cyprian of Carthage. Nevertheless, the letter is an important genre in most Christian history.

After Cyprian, famous Christian epistolographers include Athanasius of Alexandria, Antony the Great (the Abbot), Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, popes from Damasus onwards, especially Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, Sidonius Apollonaris, Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, and others who escape me now, but could include famous Christians of the Middle Ages such as Alcuin and Boniface as well as of the Reformation, such as Luther and Erasmus. This is to say, as we read the Fathers, we will meet with letter-writers on many occasions, especially now and with greater frequency starting Year 2.

Two questions I shall now address: What is a letter? Why do Christians write so many? A related third question: What do we learn about the nature of early Christianity from this?

What is a letter?

This seems like a dumb question, but it’s the sort of basic question I like to ask sometimes. A letter is a piece of correspondence, written from one person to another due to a lack of immediate presence. Thus, letters are a mediated form of communication; traditionally, many have thought of letters as a poor substitute for live conversation. However, as the work of Jacques Derrida has demonstrated, even live conversation is, at some level, mediated. And, as the work of Walter J Ong, especially Orality and Literacy, there are certain thought-processes that are more easily and more fully expressed through writing, such as philosophy or certain types of story-telling.

That is to say, either everything is mediated, or a letter is as unmediated a glimpse of your friend as a conversation. It’s just a different aspect of the person’s mind.

In letters, people express their thoughts and fears, their joys and sorrows, their news. I once wrote a letter that presented a fictive account of me encountering a dragon on the streets of Nicosia, Cyprus. Another time, I wrote a letter wherein I waxed eloquent about an air freshener with an icon of Christ Pantokrator on it. In the vast epistolary corpus of Cicero (d. 43 BC), he writes letters consoling friends on the death of their children, letters lamenting the political situation, letters recommending one friend or acquaintance to another, letters about art, literature, oratory, or philosophy.

The breadth of the letter, in fact, led Derrida to say, ‘the letter, the epistle . . . is not a genre but all genres, literature itself’ (La Carte Postale, p. 48). The letter, whether from real correspondence such as the Ignatian letters we have been reading now or fictive such as Derrida’s in La Carte Postale or the upcoming Pseudo-Ignatian letters, is a short piece of literature that brings distanced minds together, usually on a single topic or theme — epitomised by the correspondence of Pliny the Younger (d. AD 112).

Why do Christians write so many letters?

The earliest Christian literature is the Pauline corpus of letters, possibly with 1 Thessalonians c. AD 51. Recently, the letters of Christian scholar C S Lewis (d. 1963) have been published for us to read. Who knows if someday the e-mails and other missives of this generation will find their way into edited volumes? I hope so, for in these e-mails much of the stuff of daily life, mission, and theology is embedded. Why has the epistolary habit been such a feature of Christian life?

I believe that it is partly because of the example of Paul’s letters. We all strive to follow Jesus in the Apostles’ footsteps. Our Scripture contains apostolic letters. So we, too, write one another letters. Another reason, I believe, is the close-knittedness of the early Christian communities. The church at Rome was distressed by goings-on in the church at Corinth — so 1 Clement was penned and sent forth. A letter, unlike a conversation, is a lasting testament to a relationship. So Ignatius sends letters not only to those he has not met but to those he has — testaments to their relationship, enduring repositories of his wisdom.

Another reason is the epistolary breadth I’ve mentioned above. In antiquity, there were no blogs. Publishing tracts and brief literature was fairly uncommon. But people sent letters to one another. The letter was a brief moment to craft what I think of as the ancient equivalent of the modern (and dying) familiar essay. It was an informal, tightly-knit, short treatment of an interesting subject that you hoped your friend would also like. And if your friend liked it, he could pass it on to others (we know that this happened from the correspondence both of Cicero and Pliny as well as explicit instructions or requests for letters in early Christian letters). Thus ideas could circulate in a brief, readable manner.

And Christians have always had a lot of ideas to share with each other, whether the importance of bishops or the truth of the general resurrection or the mystery of the Son’s union with the Father. Unlike a hefty volume such as Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, a letter could be copied and distributed widely without too much trouble. Christianity is a faith not just for learned philosophers but for common shepherds and carpenters — who might have time to read, or listen to a reading of, a letter, if not a lengthy, multi-volume philosophical treatise.

In investigating these two questions, I hope that we have seen some of the third, of what letters show us about early Christianity — its mutual love and affection, its attachment to ideas and words, its accessibility to all.

I also hope this will help us all appreciate the many Christian letters we’re going to encounter over the next seven years.

Week 1 Recap: Seven Pages a Day for Seven Days

We’re one week deep into reading the church fathers together, so I want to take a moment to reflect on our first seven days.

First, we’ve read some really great passages. Here is a brief list of some of my favorite highlights. What were yours?

Second, I have heard from a number of readers that the reading takes about 20–25 minutes per day, which lines up with my experience. Is that about right?

Third, a few people have expressed chagrin at being behind in the reading “already,” I want to suggest that there is a better way to think about the reading plan. Try thinking of each day’s reading as a new opportunity, rather than as the latest in a string of missed opportunities. In other words, feel free to do the reading for each day as you have the ability, rather than feeling obligated to read through a backlog of earlier readings. (Or, do whatever you want; this is just a suggestion.) Read with joy, rather than out of a feeling of obligation.

Fourth, many more people than we expected have joined us in the first week. It’s hard to estimate, but it seems like a minimum of 200 and probably more like 300 (and as many as 400) people have joined us. You can get an idea of the diversity from this list of countries that have had regular visitors (it’s hard to say how many of these countries have regular readers, but at least the top 10 do). I’ve also heard from several church groups who are adapting the reading program for Sunday school classes or reading groups.

Finally, thanks to all the readers who wrote blog posts recommending Read the Fathers. We appreciate your contribution. Here is as complete a list as I could compile; there were many other people who wrote things on Facebook or Twitter.


Advice on Reading

[Reader Andy Evans wishes to post this brief quotation on how to read. Someday I’d like to post about the relation between faith and Wissenschaft in reading the church fathers. —LAM]

I came across this bit of sound advice from Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Eastern Orthodox priest whose blog I enjoy reading from time to time.  I think it is very helpful for all of us as we begin our seven-year journey:

“Reading the Church Fathers is something that should be done generally for personal edification and not as a means of gaining expertise, much less authority. If they are read with one eye on God and the other on your heart, then you will have done well. But too much knowledge, unsupported by prayer and a grounded ascetical life, is not only unhealthy, it can become a positive danger to those around you….”

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