Saturday, March 17, 2018

Early Christian Writings

New and pretty cover!
Early Christian Writings (a Penguin collection), trans. by Maxwell Staniforth

I've had this collection of very early but non-Biblical Christian writings on my TBR pile forever, and I finally read it!  Of course, what we have is a small surviving fraction of the writings and epistles that once existed, so while there is a "First Epistle to the Corinthians," there aren't any more.  My own copy is about as old as I am, in the earlier Penguin format, but there's no good photo of it online, so you get this attractive new cover as an illustration.

Clement: First Epistle to the Corinthians: This letter is from the church in Rome to the congregation in Corinth, and it's very early indeed, about 96. It is unsigned but is traditionally assigned to Clement, who was bishop of Rome at the time.  (He was fourth in line, it goes Peter, Linus, Cletus, Clement.)  Apparently, nobody thought of Clement as a pope; nonetheless, he writes a letter to the Corinthians chastising them for recent divisions in their congregation and calling them to humble themselves.  It's a long and diffuse letter, but all centered around the terrible sin of pride.

Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch:  Here is a whole series of letters from Ignatius, who was bishop of Antioch in Syria.  We know just about nothing about his life, except that his parents were probably pagans and he converted to Christianity after a dissipated youth.  He was martyred in 107 under Trajan, and was actually taken to Rome for the purpose.  On the trip, representatives of various congregations would meet him, and he would give them letters to take home with them.  In these letters, he speaks about the importance of unity in the Church and the authority of the clergy.  He didn't like all the threatening schisms he saw.  He also talks about the glory of martyrdom.

Epistle of Polycarp to the Phillipians: Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, seems to have been a beloved figure in the Church, and since he lived to be quite old -- 86 -- and seems to have been born to Christian parents, he served as a great witness to the younger Christians, because he was old enough to have been taught by Apostles and to have known many people who had seen Christ.  He was a disciple of St. John and a steadfast transmitter of his faith, without new inventions or frills.  For all that, we don't know much about Polycarp's time as bishop, and we mostly know about his martyrdom.  The letter was written to the Phillipians because they said they'd like to hear from him, and he warns about the love of money and speaks about the Christian duties of various people.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp: This is an account, written by Marcion who saw Polycarp's death, who put it together for the members of the Church at Philomelium.  It's "the earliest genuine record of the death of a Christian martyr that we possess," and so people used it as a template after that.  It's a gripping story which starts with Polycarp's arrest where he was hiding.  He was a frail and elderly man, but he faced it all down with calm and even good humor.  He was threatened with wild beasts and with fire, but eventually the governor decided on fire.  Polycarp was burned and then stabbed.

The Epistle to Diognetus is an anonymous treatise that is supposed to be an answer to a pagan's questions about Christian beliefs and customs.  Both the author and recipient are unknown, and the book says that "Diognetus" may have been identified with Emperor Hadrian, but yeah maybe not.  The letter starts off explaining why the Greeks and the Jews are no good, and then talks about Christian life and beliefs.

The Epistle of Barnabas:  Writer unknown, although lots of ancient people thought it was by the Apostle Barnabas.  This seems to be extremely unlikely, as Barnabas was very attached to his Jewish roots, and the letter is listed in Eusebius as one generally not considered as inspired.  The letter is about the question of how Judaism and Christianity are related, and this author is quite convinced that they have nothing to do with each other (!!!).  He claims that the Jewish people were deceived, and then goes a bunch of really pretty weird allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.  (He says that the dietary laws restricting eating particular animals each have their own reason, for example not eating hares really "means you are not to debauch young boys.")  This is a strange epistle and it's no wonder it wasn't generally considered inspired.

The Didache was only re-discovered in 1873 and is a very important little work.  It's pretty much a handbook for Christian life; the first half, "The Two Ways," is an exposition of virtue and vice, and the second half is rules for baptism, fasting, missionary work, and so on.

I would say that if you're going to read just a couple of these works, pick Polycarp's martyrdom and the Didache.  A lot of the epistles are not of great interest unless you're studying the early Christian Church (which is a good idea!).  But those two are very interesting, and not at all difficult to read.  I'm glad to have finally read these, and am interested in reading more.


2 comments:

Ruth said...

Hmmm, I'm always open to early Christian history, or church history...and especially Polycarp. So w/ my interest in church history, I would probably like this book a lot. (I also plan to read Eusebius' The History of the Church one of these days.)

Jean said...

I bet you would, Ruth! It's right up your alley.