Read the Fathers

Join a world-wide community in reading the church fathers daily.

Category: Blog posts (page 4 of 7)

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….”

Reading as Whim and Discipline

Hugh of Saint Victor

Hugh of Saint Victor

On a whim I read Alan Jacobs‘s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction a couple of weeks ago.1 I had secretly hoped that the book would be a screed against my inability to pay attention to anything, but on that score I was mostly disappointed. What I found was better: a discussion of the paradox between reading as discipline and reading as whim. Jacobs is of the opinion that reading should be driven by whim rather than by lists of recommended reading. I have experienced, as you likely have, a curious inability to read many books once I’ve put them on my list of books to read. But when I follow my whims I tend to do a lot of reading: to wit, reading The Pleasures of Reading led me to Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon, and Hugh led me to Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. People do and should read by Whim (with a capital W), Jacobs argues, because such reading is motivated by pleasure. But not an aimless pleasure: “In its lower-case version whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” Whim that is based on self-knowledge leads to reading that is more pleasurable.

The second meaning of Whim has room, I think, for conceiving of reading not only as whim but also as a discipline. You could scarcely decide to read seven pages of difficult prose every day for seven years without letting whim get the better of you, but you also cannot expect to read the fathers without some discipline. The way forward is to rely on both whim and discipline, to subject the flights of whim to a discipline which will yield a higher pleasure.

The discipline we’re attempting with Read the Fathers is akin to the ancient and medieval monastic disciplines (studio) in two ways. First, reading is a discipline because it involves, well, hard work. But this is hard work that leads to joy, not drudgery. The twelfth-century monk Hugh of Saint Victor, who wrote an introduction to Christian learning called the Didascalicon, described how pleasure (love) and discipline (hard work) combine to accomplish a task.

Hard work and love make you carry out a task; concern and alertness make you well advised. Through hard work you keep matters going; through love you bring them to perfection. Through concern you look ahead; though alertness you pay close attention.

Second, and more important, reading is a discipline because it requires holiness and in turn refines the soul. Here is Athanasius, describing the discipline necessary to read the Scriptures, to which the Fathers will inevitably make us turn, and in turn to know Christ, who is the fount of all joy:

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. … He that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, … and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (On the Incarnation, §57)

Get ready for seven years of whim and discipline—and pleasure.

The Apostolic Fathers

Saint Polycarp, seventeenth-century engraving by Michael Burghers

We begin our reading with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the traditional name for the authors of the oldest extant Christian literature outside the New Testament. This diverse group of writers—several of them anonymous—lived and wrote during or shortly after the time of the apostles themselves, and their writings reflect a concern for church authority after the passing of Christ’s first disciples.


The Apostolic Fathers whose names we know were all leaders in the early church, and some corresponded with one another. Clement led the church in Rome during the late first century. Origen (whom we’ll read later this year) speculated that he may have been the Clement named by Paul in Philippians 4:3, but no details of his biography are known. Polycarp was the bishop of the church in Smyrna for several decades around the start of the second century. He was a central figure who helped Christians navigate the perils of state-sponsored persecution, and he died a martyr at the age of eighty-six years old. Ignatius, a close associate of Polycarp, led the church in Antioch. In his letters Ignatius expresses an almost macabre yearning for martyrdom, perhaps attempting to steel himself for inevitable persecution or overstating his example to his flock. Ignatius was indeed martyred in the early second century during the Emperor Trajan’s reign. Finally, Papias presided as bishop of Hierapolis. A contemporary of Polycarp and reputed (by Irenaeus) to be a disciple of the Apostle John, Papias authored a popular work that exists only in small fragments today.

Places of origin and destinations of the Apostolic Fathers’ writings (Rome excluded)

Virtually nothing is known about the author or recipient of the Epistle to Diognetus or the so-called Epistle of Barnabas. The former is the earliest recorded instance of Christian apology (defense of the faith), while the latter takes up the issue of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, engaging in the sort of allegorical interpretation of scripture that became popular in Alexandria in the following centuries. Eight other letters attributed to Ignatius were not actually written by him, but because they were written in or before the sixth century, they are included in our reading as a useful example of later Christian arguments against heresy.


Clement’s sole surviving work is his Epistle to the Corinthians, which he wrote probably during the 90s to deal with many of the same problems that the Apostle Paul had addressed in the church.Likewise, only one letter of Polycarp’s survives, the Epistle to the Philippians, written apparently after the Philippians requested that Polycarp instruct them on the topic of righteousness. The letter mentions the recent death of Ignatius, thus dating it in the early 100s.

Icon of Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius wrote his seven authentic Epistles while traveling under armed guard to Rome to face martyrdom (again, in the early 100s). In the ANF edition, we recommend giving closer attention to what are called the “shorter” versions of the epistles. Modern scholars know these as the “middle recension” and regard them the authentic epistles. The “long” version is a later interpolation, perhaps by the same person who wrote the spurious epistles, while the Syriac versions reflect a later, shorter redaction (now called the “short recension”).

The fragments from Papias come from his work Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, written around 130. The Epistle of Barnabas likely comes from the first half of the second century, the Epistle to Diognetus from the second half.

Several works that properly belong to the literature of the Apostolic Fathers are not on our schedule for these first few weeks but will appear later (largely because they were discovered and translated as the ANF was being compiled in the nineteenth century). Those works include II Clement, the Didache, fragments from Quadratus, and the Shepherd of Hermas, all of which will be further introduced when we come to them in our reading.


Although the need to define themselves against the traditions of Judaism and the scrutiny of an increasingly aggressive state occupies some of their attention, a central theme running through the writings of the Apostolic Fathers is the search for church unity and authority, especially when direct appeal can no longer be made to one of Christ’s original apostles. For Clement and Ignatius, the office of the bishop is critical to resolving this problem. By apostolic appointment (in Clement’s view), or by his position as the representative of God in the church (in Ignatius’s view), the bishop is cloaked with authority to heal divisions within the assembly and to constitute the unity of the church.

A Vision of the Trinity, painted around 1735 by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Because Archbishop Clemens August commissioned the painting, Tiepolo depicted his namesake Clement of Rome as the one beholding the Trinity.

In this vein, internal strife and division within the churches attract much more attention than external threats of persecution or false philosophy. “Harmony” [ομονοια] is a key recurring term in Clement’s epistle, and Clement actually invokes the harmonious governance of Rome as a positive example for the church. Ignatius impresses on his readers that unity is the distinguishing mark of the true faith, while Polycarp instructs the Philippians that righteous belief is inseparable from righteous behavior, and the church must therefore be “joined together in the truth” as well as in “blameless conduct.”

One of the more fascinating elements in this search for authority is the light the Apostolic Fathers throw on the developing New Testament canon. In regulating Christian harmony, these writers clearly recognize and draw on the authority of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets. While none of the Apostolic Fathers explicitly discusses the possibility of new scripture, each exhibits familiarity with texts that would eventually form the New Testament canon. Clement appears to consciously follow Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as a model. Polycarp and Ignatius both appear familiar with the epistles of Paul and, in the latter case, the gospel of Matthew. The boundaries of what may constitute sacred writings are not yet at all clear, however. Papias comments on the writing of Matthew, John, and the Revelation, all the while alluding to a larger oral tradition of Christ’s acts and teachings, only a part of which was written down (cf. John 21:25). Polycarp draws equally upon Clement’s Epistle as he does the writings of Paul, and he may well have been the one who first compiled the letters of Ignatius, perhaps with the intent to preserve sacred writ. As we read the Apostolic Fathers it should, however, become clear why later Christians ultimately retreated from including their writings in the New Testament canon.

Alternate Readings

For readers looking for a more modern translation of the Apostolic Fathers, we’ve already mentioned the work of Michael W. Holmes. Holmes has produced a parallel Greek-English edition as well as a less expensive English-only text.

Another recent translation is Maxwell Staniforth’s for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Writings series.

Among the other patristics series we’ve recommended, see Bart Ehrman’s two volumes for the Loeb Classical Library, Francis Glimm’s volume for the Fathers of the Church, or volume 1 and volume 6 of the Ancient Christian Writers. These works also contain lengthier critical introductions to the Apostolic Fathers, with bibliographies.

Older posts Newer posts

© 2017 Read the Fathers

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑