Early Christian Writings, Various, Translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Revised by Andrew Louth. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.
Summary: A collection of early, post-apostolic Christian writings concerned with the organization, leadership, worship, conduct, martyrs, and doctrinal teaching of the nascent church.
How does a movement that survives beyond its earliest leaders begin to define the structures and practices and teaching that will sustain and order its life? The canonical scriptures of the New Testament give us some account of the very early stages of that project for what would become the Christian church as it spread throughout the Roman empire, narrated in Acts. Paul’s occasional letters articulate define core beliefs and apply them to questions of Christian practice and morality, particularly in this new situation of gatherings comprised both of Jews and non-Jews. The pastoral letters address church leadership, its tasks and character. Other letters by Peter, James, and John and the writer to the Hebrews also make sense of the work of Christ arising out of its Jewish setting and how these new communities live set apart lives in the world.
These nascent churches were still very much a work in progress. The writings in this collection reflect the next stage in the church’s development. They include the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, seven epistles written by Ignatius enroute to martyrdom in Rome, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians as he faces martyrdom and an account of that martyrdom, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache.
A common concern in a number of these writings is the distinctive character Christians are to exhibit in the world in their love for each other, their abstinence from sexual and other forms of immorality, their generosity in giving and refraining from the love of money, and their faith. Clement and Ignatius and the Didache repeatedly emphasize obedience to the bishops and deacons who are to serve with diligence and care.
A number of these writings include calls to “stand firm” in the Lord. We hear how Ignatius regards his own impending martyrdom in Rome in his Epistle to the Romans:
“I must implore you to do me no such untimely kindness; pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am his wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth to be made purest bread for Christ. Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulchre for me; let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple.”
The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom includes his stirring testimony before the Governor:
“The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. ‘Take the oath and I will let you go’, he told him. ‘Revile your Christ.’ Polycarp’s reply was, ‘Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?’ “
These works taught early Christians how to face similar martyrdom, should it come. Polycarp also exemplified better sense than some, eluding captors when he could, but calmly facing them when he could not.
In the Epistle to Diognetus, we have an early example of a Christian “apologetic,” emphasizing the follies of both paganism and Judaism, the upright character of the Christian community, that functioned as the soul to the body of the world, the supernatural character of revelation, the mystery of the incarnation and a concluding section urging readers to faith. The Epistle of Barnabas gives us an early example of the allegorical reading of the Old Testament that reveals their spiritual meaning with the coming of Christ.
Finally the Didache gives us another example of Christian moral teaching defining the Two Ways (of Life and Death) and how those on each Way live. Much of these are concise exhortations, as relevant today as then. One example:
“Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.”
After this first part on the Two Ways is an early example of a “Church Manual” with instructions on baptism, fast days (not on the same day as hypocrites!) and prayer, the Eucharist, welcoming itinerant Apostles and Prophets and distinguishing the genuine from the impostors, Sunday worship, local officials (bishops and deacons) and Eschatology.
There is much of profit here, in “overhearing” the order of early Christian congregational life, in understanding the early roots of practices we observe to this day, and in considering the faithfulness of these early believers and teachers. The Didache, for example, in its section on the Two Ways, offers a great rubric for personal examination of one’s life, especially, perhaps, before taking the Eucharist.
For many of us, our knowledge of the two millenia of church history is one of the biblical narrative of the earliest Christians, perhaps a bit of Reformation history, and little more. These writings give us a glimpse of those who followed the Apostles, and how they began to work out the theology, organization, and character of Christian life entrusted to them.