In view of the fact that there was no New Testament (NT) in the early church, how did the earliest Christians know to refer to those documents which we now call inspired and canonical, i.e. officially recognized by the church? Several factors counted against their ability to fasten upon what became our NT canon. E.g., if Acts is any indication, they operated with a relatively high degree of local autonomy; they did not enjoy or exploit synods or councils till rather later; they often experienced persecution; heresies arose fairly early, so with time there was an increasing number of heretical competitors for canonicity. Perhaps the fact most relevant to our question is the most easily verified, that when the documents of the NT were written, no author stated that his work should be included in a canon. How indeed did the canon close so cleanly?1
In order to answer this question, we will study the earliest body of Christian literature contemporary with or following after the writings of the apostles, i.e. the Apostolic Fathers.2 The Apostolic Fathers on this strict definition comprise St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna. To these three are traditionally added II Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas (even though the latter is definitely a second century work).
So what are we looking for in the Apostolic Fathers? Let us note first that people commonly do not source hear-say and expert knowledge in the same way, nor do they confuse sources having a high degree of credibility with sources having a low degree of credibility. Therefore, by studying how the Apostolic Fathers cited the NT, we may be able to tell what they thought of them. What status did the NT documents have in their minds? Did that status change? If so, when and how? We begin with the earliest Apostolic Father, St. Clement; later we will turn to St. Ignatius, St. Polycarp etc.
I Clement, traditionally ascribed to Pope Clement, a very early bishop of Rome, was written as a letter from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth.3 Received opinion dates I Clement to the last decade of the first century; this makes it roughly contemporary with the Apocalypse of St. John and the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Due to its early date, I Clement is ideal for studying the early Christian view of the authority of the NT documents.
The interested reader may wish to read I Clement for himself. Although this letter is standardly included in anthologies of the Apostolic Fathers, online texts are also accessible; I recommend Earlychristianwritings.com in particular. For a helpful discussion of the Apostolic Fathers and the canon of the NT, the reader may listen to Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s lecture, “The Church after the Bible: The Body of Christ after the Apostles” (Roads from Emmaus, Nov. 2, 2013 at AncientFaithRadio.com).
In our next episode, we will begin by studying how I Clement cites the OT, after which we turn to his NT citations.
1. In 367, St. Athanasius was the first bishop to authorize as canonical just the 27 books of the NT that we find in our Bibles. However, subsequent events prove that not only were some of his OT picks unlucky, but even his NT picks did not decisively close the canon. E.g., Sts. Cyril of Jerusalem and Gregory the Theologian omit Revelation from their list of the NT canon (F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture [IVP Academic, 1988], p. 213).
2. It may sound as if the Apostolic Fathers should refer to the apostles, but that is not so; the term Apostolic is lazy for Sub-apostolic. (In Latin sub can mean “under, at the foot of,” but it can also mean “immediately after,” as in succeed, “to come after”).
3. The feast of St. Clement is celebrated on the traditional Catholic calendar on the 23rd of November, on the Greek Orthodox calendar on the 24th and on the Russian Orthodox calendar on the 25th. A few years ago I unwittingly reverenced his relic in the Parish of the Dormition of the Theotokos in Singapore; it was not until afterwards that I realized that Rimski in “Sveti Kliment Rimski” had to mean “the Roman.”