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Modern Interest in the Apostolic Fathers

An interest in the “church Fathers” emerged in Western Europe among humanists of the Renaissance, many of whom saw in the golden age of patristics their own forebears — cultured scholars imbued with the classics of Western Civilization, concerned with deep religious and philosophical problems. No wonder, then, that the humanists focused their attention on the writings of the “great” Fathers of the church such as Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, the Cappadocians, and the like, while showing virtually no interest in their comparatively “primitive” and “uncultured” predecessors, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, and Hermas, who on no reckoning were cultured scholars or brilliant thinkers. When a “most ancient” church Father like Irenaeus was mentioned, it was usually in order to show the unrefined nature of his theology and to censure his aberrant doctrinal views, which failed to reflect the more mature and nuanced statements of later times.

The Reformation provided some impetus for the study of Christian writings immediately after the New Testament period, but even then few scholars evinced an extensive interest in or knowledge of authors of the early second century, for reasons that, in hindsight, may seem obvious: for many Protestant thinkers, the notion of “sola scriptura” precluded the need to appeal to books immediately outside the canon, whereas most Catholic theologians were far more invested in the great theologians, councils, and creeds of later times.

It was not until the seventeenth century that the terms of the discussion shifted dramatically, as all sides began to recognize the importance of the earliest non-canonical authors for establishing the antiquity of their own views, Protestants (of various kinds) and Catholics taking their arguments beyond exegesis of the New Testament texts and the formulations of later church councils into the early years of the Christian movement. This burgeoning interest in the earliest Fathers was intensified by significant manuscript discoveries, which provided a means of revising commonly received notions of Christian antiquity.  Two of particular importance involved the writings of Clement of Rome and Ignatius.

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How Do I Read Books?
The Collection: Apostolic Fathers



  1. Avatar
    Christian  November 19, 2012

    Fascinating. In which of your books have you elaborated on the history of patristic scholarship?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 19, 2012

      I haven’t really written that much on the history of the discipline, although I have more comments on it in my Introduction to the Loeb volumes in the Apostolic Fathers.

  2. Avatar
    Jim  November 19, 2012

    I don’t have the Loeb Classical Library which probably answers this question. What is/are the dates of the oldest surviving manuscripts of any of the Apostolic Fathers? (i.e. are they close in time to the oldest surviving NT documents.) I suppose I should have purchased Loeb’s, but I was waiting for your edition (alright, I blew the money on entertainment).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2012

      We have fragments of the Shepherd of Hermas that go back to the 3rd century, and it is included in the famous Codex Sinaiticus (along with the rest of the NT) in the fourth. My Loeb edition is indeed out and available.

  3. Avatar
    oklahomasooner82  September 30, 2013

    Professor Ehrman,

    I apologize if this is not the correct area to ask this, but I hope you won’t mind. I was raised Catholic and other Catholics I know have said your arguments really only argue against Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, not the Catholic Church. Not sure what is meant by this but it does bring a couple of questions to my mind. You have argued against the resurrection, so how would you respond to a Catholic who says the Early Church Fathers (some of them anyway like Ignatius, Clement and Polycarp) were appointed by the Apostles and they preached the Apostles died for their faith, and these Fathers died for their faith, so the resurrection must have occurred? Or that if the resurrection hadn’t occurred, how do you explain the survival and growth of the Christian faith?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

      I don’t recall ever arguing against the resurrection. What do you have in mind?

      We don’t know how most of the apostles died. If someone tells you they do know, ask them what their evidence is. 🙂

      Neither Ignatius nor Polycarp (in their surviving letters) indicates that they were appointed by apostles. And the book of Clement does not claim to be written by Clement!

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