1. A wide distinction should be made between the writings of the apostolic fathers
which are acknowledged to be genuine, or the genuineness of which may be maintained on more or less probable grounds, and the large mass of spurious works afterwards palmed upon the Christian world as the productions of apostles or their contemporaries. The latter constitute properly the New Testament Apocrypha
, though the term is sometimes applied in a loose way to both classes of writings. The writings of the apostolic fathers, though possessing no divine authority, are valuable as showing the state of the Christian churches at the time when they were composed in respect to both doctrine and discipline, as well as the various errors and divisions by which they were troubled. Their testimonies to the genuineness of the New Testament have been already considered. Chap.2, No.10. Some of the apocryphal works also, worthless as they are for instruction in the doctrines and duties of Christianity, throw much light on the religious spirit, tendencies, and heretical sects of the times to which they belong. Others of these writings are unutterably absurd and puerile, worthy of notice only as showing the type of the puerilities current in the age of their composition.
I. WRITINGS OF CLEMENT.
2. Appended to the Alexandrine manuscript (Chap.26, No.5) is an epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, followed by part of a so-called second epistle to the same church. The first of these epistles is acknowledged to be genuine. It was known to the ancient fathers as the work of Clement of Rome, and highly commended by them. Their quotations from it agree with the contents of the epistle as we now have it, nor does it exhibit any marks of a later age; for the author's reference to the well-known fable of the phoenix as a type of the resurrection (chap.25), constitutes no real difficulty. It may prove that he was credulous, but not that he belonged to a later than the apostolic age. The ancients represent this Clement to have been identical with Clement bishop of Rome. Whether he was also identical with the Clement named by the apostle Paul (Phil.4:3), is a question that we may well leave undecided. The epistle was written shortly after some persecution (chap.1), which Grabe, Hefele, and others suppose to have been that under Nero; Lardner, Cotelerius, and others, that under Domitian. Upon the former supposition it was written about A.D.68 -- a supposition apparently favored by the way in which he refers to the temple and service at Jerusalem as still in existence (chaps.40, 41); upon the latter, about A.D.96 or 97.
3. The occasion of the epistle, which Clement writes in the name of the church at Rome, is easily gathered from its contents. As in the days of Paul, so now, the Corinthian church was troubled by a |wicked and unholy sedition,| fomented by |a few rash and self-willed men,| who had proceeded so far as to thrust out of their ministry some worthy men. Chap.44. It would seem, also, from chaps.24-27 that there were among them those who denied the doctrine of the resurrection. To restore in the Corinthian church the spirit of love and unity is the grand scope of the epistle. The author commends them for their orderly and holy deportment before their present quarrel arose, traces it to its true source in the pride gendered by the honor and enlargement granted them by God, and urges them to lay aside their contentions by every motive that the gospel offers -- the mischiefs that strife occasions, the rules of their religion, the example of the Saviour and holy men of all ages, the relation of believers to God, his high value of the spirit of love and unity, the reward of obedience and punishment of disobedience, etc. Comparing the church to an army, he insists earnestly on the necessity of different ranks and orders, and the spirit of obedience. Comparing it again to the human body, he shows that all the particular members, each in his place, should conspire together for the preservation of the whole.
Clement's style has not the merit of compactness and conciseness. He is, on the contrary, diffuse and repetitious. But a thoroughly evangelical spirit pervades the present epistle, and it is, moreover, characterized by a noble fervor and simplicity. |It evinces the calm dignity and the practical executive wisdom of the Roman church in her original apostolic simplicity, without the slightest infusion of hierarchical arrogance.| Schaff, Hist. Christ. Church, vol.1, p.460. In its internal character, as in the time of its composition, it approaches the canonical writings of the New Testament more nearly than any other remains of antiquity.
4. The second epistle ascribed to Clement is not mentioned by any of the fathers before Eusebius, who speaks of it doubtingiy: |But it should be known that there is said to be also a certain second epistle of Clement. But it is clear to us that this is not equally known with the first, for we know that the ancients have not made use of it.| Hist. Eccles.3.38. It is generally acknowledged to be spurious, and is, perhaps, as Hefele suggests, one of the homilies falsely ascribed to Clement. With this supposition its contents well agree; for it does not seem to have, like the first, a definite end to accomplish. It opens with a general exhortation that the Corinthians should think worthily of Christ in view of the great work which he has wrought in their behalf, and urges upon them a steadfast confession of him before men, not by empty words, but by a life of holy obedience. It sets before them the incompatibility of the service of God and mammon, and dwells with especial earnestness on the high rewards of eternity in comparison with the pleasures and pains of the present life; as if the writer had in mind those who were exposed to the double peril of substituting an empty profession for the living spirit of obedience, and of apostatizing from Christ through fear of persecution and martyrdom.
5. Besides the above, there is a mass of writings current in ancient days under the name of Clement which are acknowledged by all to be spurious. Among these are: The Recognitions of Clement; The Clementines, or, according to the Greek title, Clement's Epitome of Peter's Discourses in Travel; Clement's Epitome concerning the Acts and Discourses of Peter in Travel -- three forms of substantially the same work. It will be sufficient to give a brief notice of the Recognitions. The author, apparently a Jew by birth and a philosopher of the Alexandrine school, has embraced a form of Christianity mixed up with the dogmas of his philosophy. For the purpose of attacking and overthrowing the false religious notions of his age, he invents an ingenious historic plot. Clement, a Roman citizen, who, as appears in the sequel, has been separated in early life from his father, mother, and two brothers, whom he supposes to be dead, is introduced as sending to James, who presides over the church at Jerusalem, with an accompanying letter, an account of his early education; his acquaintance with the apostle Peter, who chooses him to be his companion in travel; Peter's conversations with himself and the rest of the company; his public addresses and acts; especially his famous encounters with Simon Magus, whom he overthrows and puts to public shame. In the course of their journeying they visit a certain island, where they meet with a poor woman begging alms, who is found, upon the relation of her history, to be the mother of Clement. Upon farther inquiry it appears that two of Peter's company, Nicetus and Aquila, are her sons and the brothers of Clement. Finally, Peter encounters on the sea-shore, whither he had gone to perform for the newly discovered mother and sons the rite of baptism, an old man who is found to be the long lost husband and father. From these recognitions the work receives its title. But this historic plot is only the occasion of introducing the writer's theological and philosophical opinions, with especial reference to the prevailing errors of his day. Any page of the work is sufficient to show that Peter and Clement had nothing to do with its composition. It cannot be placed earlier than the close of the second or the beginning of the third century. Prefixed to these Clementine writings, and having reference to them, are two spurious epistles, one from Peter to James, president of the church at Jerusalem, with the proceedings of James consequent upon the reception of it, and one from Clement to James. These it is not necessary to notice.
The so-called Constitutions of Clement in eight books, embracing, as their name indicates, a system of rules pertaining to church order and discipline, were certainly not the work of Clement. It is not certain that they had their origin as a whole in the same age; but the judgment of learned men is that no part of them is older than the second half of the third century. The eighty-five so-called Apostolic Canons have prefixed to them the spurious title: |Ecclesiastical Rules of the Holy Apostles promulgated by Clement High Priest (Pontifex) of the Church of Rome.| The origin of these canons is uncertain. They first appear as a collection with the above title in the latter part of the fifth century. How much older some of them may be cannot be determined with certainty.
II. THE EPISTLES OF IGNATIUS.
6. Ignatius was bishop of the church at Antioch, and suffered martyrdom at Rome by exposure to wild beasts A.D.107, or according to some accounts, A.D.116. Of the fifteen epistles ascribed to him, it is agreed among biblical scholars that eight are spurious and of later origin. The remaining seven are generally regarded as genuine, but the text of these, as of all the rest, is in a very unsatisfactory condition. There are two Greek recensions, a longer and a shorter, the latter containing approximately the true text, though not without the suspicion of interpolations. There is a Syriac version containing but three of Ignatius' epistles, and these in a much reduced form (which some are inclined to regard as the only genuine epistles); also an Armenian version containing thirteen epistles. See further Schaff, Hist. Chris. Church, vol.1, pp.469-471. As the question now stands, we may with good reason receive as genuine the seven mentioned by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl.3.36) and Jerome (De Viris illust.16). They were all written on his last journey to Rome; four from Smyrna, where Polycarp was the bishop, to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, and Romans; three after his departure from Smyrna, to the churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna, and to Polycarp bishop of Smyrna. The native vigor and energy of Ignatius, as also the depth and sincerity of his piety, shine forth conspicuously in these letters; but they differ from the epistle of Clement in the manifestation of an intense ecclesiastical spirit, by which, indeed, they are marked as belonging to a later era of the church. If we except the epistle to the Romans, they all abound in exhortations to render implicit obedience to their spiritual rulers as to Christ himself. To these precepts he adds exhortations to maintain unity, and to avoid false doctrines, specifying particularly Judaizing teachers and such as deny our Lord's proper humanity.
We cannot read his letter to the Romans, among whom he expected shortly to lay down his life for Christ's sake, without deep interest. But it is marred by the manifestation of an undue desire to obtain the crown of martyrdom, which leads him to protest against any interposition of the Roman brethren in his behalf. |I beseech you,| says he, |show no unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, by means of which I may attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.| Chap.4. His letter to Polycarp, a fellow bishop, abounds in precepts for the right discharge of his duties. It is interesting as showing Ignatius' idea, on the one side, of the office with its high responsibilities, and, on the other, of the duties which the churches owe to those who are set over them in the Lord.
7. There are some spurious epistles ascribed to Ignatius which it is sufficient simply to name. These are: A letter to one Maria a proselyte of Cilicia in answer to her request that certain young men might be sent to her people as their spiritual guides; epistles to the church of Tarsus, of Antioch, and of Philippi -- theological dissertations mostly made up of texts of Scripture; a letter to Hero a deacon, containing precepts for the right discharge of his office, and abounding, like those just named, in quotations from Scripture: two pretended letters of Ignatius to the apostle John; one to the Virgin Mary, with her reply.
Finally, there are some fragments of Ignatius' writings preserved to us in the quotations of the ancients, which it is not necessary to notice.
III. THE EPISTLE OF POLYCARP.
8. Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John, and presided over the church in Smyrna. He suffered martyrdom about the year 166. Of his writings only one short epistle remains, addressed by him to the Philippians soon after the martyrdom of Ignatius, who passed through Smyrna on his way to Rome. This we gather from the letter itself; for in this he assumes that Ignatius has already suffered (chap.9), and yet he has not heard the particulars concerning his fate and that of his companions. Chap.14. This brief epistle is marked by a fervor and simplicity worthy of an apostolic man. The writer commends the Philippians for the love manifested by them towards the suffering servants of Christ, exhorts them to steadfastness, reminds them of Paul's precepts in his epistle to them, and proceeds to unfold and inculcate the duties belonging to the officers and several classes of members in the church. The immediate occasion of the letter seems to have been his transmission to the Philippians, in compliance with their request, of Ignatius' epistle to himself, with such others of his epistles as had come into his hands. Chap.13. The preservation of the present epistle is probably due to this its connection with the epistles of Ignatius forwarded by him to the Philippians.
IV. THE WRITINGS OF BARNABAS AND HERMAS.
9. The writings current under the names of Barnabas and Hermas have by no means the outward testimony in their favor by which the preceding epistles of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp are supported; nor the inward evidence arising from the consideration of their contents. We will consider them briefly in the order abovenamed.
10. Until recently the first part of the Epistle of Barnabas existed only in a Latin version. But in 1859 Tischendorf discovered at Mount Sinai the Sinai Codex (Chap.26, No.5), which contains the entire epistle in the original Greek. That the writer was the Barnabas mentioned in the New Testament as the companion of Paul in preaching the gospel, cannot be maintained on any firm basis of evidence. As to the date of its composition learned men differ. Hefele places it between the years 107 and 120. Apostolic Fathers, Prolegomena, p.15.
The writer was apparently a Hellenistic Jew of the Alexandrine school, and he wrote for the purpose of convincing his brethren, mainly from the Old Testament, that Jesus is the Messiah, and that in him the rites of the Mosaic law are done away. His quotations from the Old Testament are numerous, and his method of interpretation is allegorical and sometimes very fanciful, as in the following passage, for the right understanding of which the reader should know that the two Greek letters [Greek: IE], which stand first in the name [Greek: IESOUS], JESUS, and represent that name by abbreviation, signify as numerals, the first ten, the second, eight; also that the Greek letter [Greek: T] (the sign of the cross) denotes as a numeral, three hundred. |The Scripture says,| argues Barnabas, |that Abraham circumcised of his house three hundred and eighteen men. What was the knowledge communicated to him [in this fact]? Learn first the meaning of the eighteen, then of the three hundred. Now the numeral letters [Greek: I], ten, [Greek: E], eight, make eighteen. Here you have Jesus (Greek [Greek: IESOUN], of which the abbreviation is [Greek: IE]). And because the cross, which lies in the letter [Greek: T], was that which should bring grace, he says also three hundred.| Chap.9. The Rabbinic system of interpretation in which the writer was educated furnishes an explanation, indeed, of this and other like puerilities, but no vindication of them.
11. The Shepherd of Hermas, as the work current under the name of Hermas is called, consists of three books -- his Visions, his Commands, and his Similitudes. The four visions are received through the ministry of an aged woman, who is the church of Christ. The twelve commands and ten similitudes are received from one who appears to him |in the habit of a shepherd, clothed with a white cloak, having his bag upon his back, and his staff in his hand,| whence the title The Shepherd of Hermas. All these are intended to unfold the truths of Christianity with its doctrines and duties. The writer has a most luxuriant imagination. In reading his books, particularly the first and the third, one sometimes finds himself bewildered in a thicket of images and similitudes, some of them grotesque and not altogether congruous. Yet the work throws much light on the religious ideas and tendencies of its age.
The ancients speak doubtingly of the authority of this work. Origen, whom Eusebius and Jerome follow, ascribes it to the Hermas mentioned in the epistle to the Romans (chap.16:14); though it does not appear that he had any other ground for this than the identity of the name. The Muratorian canon names as its author Hermas the brother of Pius bishop of Rome. According to this, which is the more probable view, the date of its composition would be about the middle of the second century.
V. THE APOSTLES' CREED.
12. We put this among the remains of the apostolic fathers, not because there is any doubt as to its containing the substance of the doctrines taught by the apostles, but because, as is generally admitted, it did not receive its present form at their hand. |Though not traceable in its present shape before the third century, and found in the second in different longer or shorter forms, it is in substance altogether apostolic, and exhibits an incomparable summary of the leading facts in the revelation of the triune God from the creation of the world to the resurrection of the body; and that in a form intelligible to all, and admirably suited for public worship and catechetical use.| Schaff, Hist. Chris. Church, pp.121, 122.
VI. APOCRYPHAL GOSPELS AND ACTS.
13. These are very numerous. Under the head of Apocryphal Gospels. Tischendorf has published twenty-two works; under that of Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, thirteen. To the student of church history they are not without value; for they illustrate the origin of many ancient traditions and some ritual observances. But if we look to their intrinsic character, they may be described as a mass of worthless legends abounding in absurd and puerile stories. The contrast between the miracles which they relate and the true miracles recorded in the canonical gospels and Acts is immense, and such as makes the darkness of these spurious writings more visible. The miracles of the canonical books have always a worthy occasion, and are connected with the Saviour's work of redemption. But the pretended miracles of the apocryphal writings are, as a general rule, wrought on trivial occasions, with either no end in view but the display of supernatural power, or with a positively unlawful end, whence it not unfrequently happens that their impiety rivals their absurdity. Many samples of both these characters could be given, but the general reader may well remain ignorant of them.