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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Apostolic Fathers

B. 1.

Under this title are normally included: 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Epistles of Ignatius, Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, Didache (Epistle of) Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, and Fragments of Papias. (At one time the Epistle to Diognetus used to be included.)


The term ‘Apostolic Fathers’, which was not used in antiquity of these writings, implies that the author was an acquaintance of the apostles but did not belong to their number. Clement and Hermas are said to have been a disciple of Paul. Polycarp is said to have been a disciple of John. The Didache claims to reflect the teaching of the twelve apostles.


The texts discussed first are the Didache and Barnabas (Barn.). The former contains some first-century material, and has significant parallels with the New Testament; the latter is an example of a Christian text from a period slightly later than the NT. We shall refer later to three other texts, 1 and 2 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, because they seem to have been considered worthy contenders for inclusion in the canon in the fourth century. Mention will also be made of the letters by Ignatius.


Unlike the texts included in the apocryphal NT, in which the characters of the NT proper reappear, typically in scenes that fill in gaps in the traditional stories, the Apostolic Fathers are concerned not with events set in the time of the NT narratives but with issues of common pastoral concern at their time of composition, such as morality and church order.


Several writings among the Apostolic Fathers (by Clement, Barnabas, Polycarp, and Ignatius) are letters. This form of writing is relatively rare in the apocryphal NT. (See Q.1–6.)

The Didache C. 1.

Among the Apostolic Fathers is the Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles). It is a short manual of church discipline prefaced by a section on morals. The only complete extant Greek MS is from the eleventh century, and this was rediscovered only in 1873. Its publication in 1883 by P. Bryennios generated great interest. Since then a fourth-century Greek fragment (P. Oxy. 1782 containing Did. 1:3b–4; 2:7b–3:2a) has come to light and this helps prove that the Didache was known in Egypt by that time. The Greek Apostolic Constitutions, which shows knowledge of the Didache, also comes from fourth-century Egypt. Knowledge of it by Irenaeus (c.130–c.200 CE) is not proven. A Latin version also exists. Material in the Didache, especially the section known as the Two Ways (Did. 1–6) is also found in Barnabas (see below). Mutual dependence of these two texts is unlikely; at the very least this material in common proves only that that section antedates the composition of both works.

2. Date and Provenance.

The general scholarly consensus is that the Didache, which is a composite work, was compiled in the form we now have it in the Bryennios MS in the first half of the second century from several sources, some of which are likely to go back to the first century. Its provenance is unknown but the consensus is that it was composed in Syria, perhaps in or near Antioch, given the strong links between the Didache and the Matthean tradition. The community which preserved and used the Didache seems to have been strongly Jewish—the passage about the Two Ways, the food regulations, the fasts, and the table prayers are all suggestive of such a background. Some hold that it is the product of a branch of the early church antagonistic to the liberal, Pauline, pro-Gentile approach to Christianity.

3. Influence.

The Didache seems to have been very influential, as may be seen by its use not only in the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Constitutions, where it forms the basis of Book 7, but also in the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles or the Apostolic Church Order traditions in Ethiopic. The traditions embedded in the Didache are also seen in the Latin Doctrina (Apostolorum) from the ninth century and in Coptic and in Georgian. Various patristic writers, such as Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.25.4, and Athanasius, Festal Letter, 39.11, knew of it, as does the seventh-century Catalogue of the Sixty Books. This latter and the fourth-century list behind the Stichometry of Nicephorus refer to a writing called the Teaching (or Teachings) of the Apostles, but it is not clear if the Didache is meant. The teaching known to Nicephorus is only 200 stichoi in length, which makes that writing shorter than the present Didache.

4. The Didache and the Bible.

OT citations in the Didache (Mal 1:11, 14 in Did. 14.3, and Zech 14:5 in Did. 16.7, and possibly Sir 7:22; 12:1 in Did. 1.6) are introduced by special formulae. Did. 1.6, ‘as has been said’; 14.3, ‘For this is what the Lord [= God] was referring to’; 16.7, ‘As was said’. In the case of the passages in the Didache which parallel a NT passage no such introductory formula is found. Did. 1.3, ‘Here is the teaching’; 2.1, ‘The second commandment of the teaching is’. The word ‘gospel’ occurs in Did. 8.2; 11.3; 15.3 but is unlikely to refer to a written source. There are no citations at those points; the reference is to teaching by Jesus.


However, the following are noteworthy:

Did. 9.5, ‘For the Lord [presumably Jesus] also spoke concerning this: “Do not give what is holy to dogs.”’ This echoes Mt 7:6 . Did. 8.1–2, ‘Let your fasts not [coincide] with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday; you, though, should fast on Wednesday and Friday. And do not pray as the hypocrites [do].’ This links teaching found embedded in Mt 6:5 and 6:16 , but the Didache's use of the teaching differs from that in Matthew's gospel. The Didache is concerned with the establishment of distinctively Christian fasts. There is early evidence that Christians did fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. This was to contrast with Pharisaic fasts on Mondays and Thursdays. Mt 6:5 gives details of how hypocrites pray and how Jesus' followers are to pray. Mt 6:16 is concerned with the manner in which hypocrites fast, and not with the days on which they fast.


Other links between the Didache and the NT are disputed. Some scholars argue that the author of the Didache knew and used the canonical gospels. Mt 5:39–47 is said to be behind the interpolated section Did. 1.3b–2.1, but some of the verses parallel the Lucan version (Lk 6:27–33 )—see DID. 1.3b–2.1—and it may well be that the parallels are not due to direct literary dependence but to the oral tradition, or even to a harmonized form of the canonical writings.


There are further links elsewhere which show tenuous parallels with the NT, for example Did. 3.7 (Mt. 5:5 ); 11:7 (Mk 3:28–9 ); 14:2 (Mt 5:23–4 ). These are not strongly suggestive of direct literary dependence. As far as the Matthean parallels are concerned, the link is probably with the material Matthew found in his own source—in other words is from the Matthean additions to his framework (e.g. 3.7, ‘On the contrary, be mild tempered, since those who are mild tempered will inherit the land’). This has encouraged some to look for links with the source Q itself rather than with Q in Matthew or in Luke.

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