Introduction to the Apostolic FathersLast week I introduced that theme of seeking the face of Christ as it is reflected in the face of the Church. We see this resemblance most clearly in the faces of the fathers of the Church. The term "Apostolic Fathers" refers to a collection of texts of the earliest Christian writers to succeed the apostles. Although many of the works found in the Apostolic Fathers were revered in antiquity, some of them fell out of use and were actually lost until modern times. The full text of The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or in its Greek title the Didache, was only rediscovered in 1883. In fact the excitement surrounding the discovery of the Didache in 1883 was much like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in our era.
Geographically the writings of the Apostolic Fathers come from a region sweeping around the Mediterranean Sea. The letter of Clement to the Corinthians and the Shepherd of Hermas are from Rome, Polycarp is from Smyrna in modern-day Turkey, the Didache and Barnabas have a variety of suggested locations from Antioch to Jerusalem, to Alexandria.
The dating of the Apostolic Fathers varies considerably. Some of the materials date from the first century and are contemporary with the New Testament. The Didache is a composite document which may incorporate an earlier Jewish catechetical tract. Most to these works are dated in the early second century.
The writers of the Apostolic Fathers are not speculative theologians but most often Bishops. Clement is the bishop of Rome, Ignatius is the bishop of Antioch, Polycarp is the bishop of Smyrna, the Didache is a manual of church discipline which attempts to pass on the traditions of the apostles through the bishops as they are remembered by one community. In each case the concern is with concrete pastoral problems in the new communities founded by the apostles. Questions relating to worship, liturgy, the Eucharist, catechesis of new converts, and the authority of bishops are raised in much the same manner as the New Testament.
It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus had a community of followers and that he intended to pass down the leadership of this community to the Twelve Apostles. Jesus intended to found the Church (CCC 857). Peter and the other Apostles engaged in a missionary activity and are soon joined by the Apostle Paul. The Church expanded rapidly into the Roman Empire around the Mediterranean establishing communities in most major cities. As the Catechism reminds us;
"In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority" (DV 7). Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time" (DV 8) (CCC 77).
Initially the movement was considered Jewish but the Church rapidly became predominantly Gentile, though of course many Christian traditions have Jewish origins. The early Christians used the Greek translation of the Old Testament as their Sacred Scriptures. The early Christians pointed to the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To these Scriptures they gradually add the memoirs of the apostles, the Gospels and the later writings of the New Testament.
In antiquity some of the documents found in the Apostolic Fathers were considered to be part of Sacred Scripture by early church theologians and historians. The canon established by the Church at the time of Athanasius in AD 367, excluded these writings from full canonical status. The rejection of these documents as part of Sacred Scripture does not mean the documents were lacking in orthodoxy, but only in the judgment of the Church they are not inspired Scripture. At the time these documents were written the Church had no legal status in the Roman Empire and was subject to frequent persecutions. These persecutions lead to the martyrdom of some of the early Fathers.
The Apostles also established common patterns for worship and behavior in the churches they established and established (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33). Most Important among these beliefs and practices were the rites surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist. St. Paul notes; "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). In saying that he "received" and "delivered" this tradition the Apostle Paul is using the technical verbs of preserving the tradition. St. Paul does not give us the full Eucharistic prayers but recounts the essential story of the institution narrative. The Didache repeats some other very early prayers from this Eucharistic tradition,
And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: First concerning the Cup, "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever." And concerning the broken Bread: "We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. (Didache 9)
It is likely that these prayers are modeled on the Jewish prayers of "sanctification" or (qiddush) that were given before a meal. Normally the form begins "Blessed are you, Lord our God." The Greek equivalent of this blessing is "We give you thanks" (eucharistein). It is from this word that we get the name Eucharist. Studying the early Fathers helps us to discern the lines of continuity and the organic development between the New Testament and the later Church.