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What are the oldest known Christian texts that are not part of scripture, or considered apocryphal text? I'd be interested in brief details of any texts which may aid in our understanding of the New Testament, including their history and where I could potentially find translations of those early texts in English.

I am personally interested in trying to dig a little deeper into the details of the lives of the very-early Christian church. I imagine there have to have been at least a few manuscripts that have been discovered that were either early theological texts from local pastors of the first century, letters amongst Christians about life within Christendom or letters regarding very-early Christian political structure.

In essence, I want to clarify my reading of scripture by better understanding the people to whom scripture was directly written. I ask because I'd like to build a better mental context of who the "average" people of the early church were, based off of early, non-biblical Christian writing.

Such details help to clarify and understand the writings of the New Testament and are useful as they provide additional context as we seek to interpret the biblical text.

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    Amended to bring on-topic as a hermeneutical-approaches question. Patristics is a valuable hermeneutical input for understanding NT texts, as per OP's stated intent in comments: "In essence, I want to clarify my reading of scripture by better understanding the people of which scripture was directly written to." @RLH
    – Steve can help
    Mar 18, 2016 at 11:14
  • See the first volume of this free online collection.
    – Lucian
    Aug 17, 2017 at 8:21
  • I've Reopened this Q as since the edit it only had Reopen votes against it, but they had all aged away due to lack of voters at the time.
    – Steve can help
    Sep 30, 2022 at 10:21

2 Answers 2

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The earliest known Christian texts belong to a family known as the Apostolic Fathers, which covers all authors who had lived during the Apostolic era and usually had a direct link with one or more of the Apostles. As Dick Harfield has noted in his answer, the two earliest sources among these are the Didache and the First Epistle of Clement. There are free translations available, but I'd highly recommend the Penguin Classics copy of the texts - this translation is absolutely compelling, easy and fun to read.

Three Earliest Reliable Texts

  1. The Didache is the earliest 'handbook' of Christian practises which we know of, and may have been more common than many NT texts for a period. It may surprise you exactly how prescriptive and precise the text is in "do it this way exactly", but it's still fascinating!

  2. To Diognetus is my personal favourite text of the early church. It's an anonymous piece written to a Roman official (Diognetus), and is the earliest Christian apology we have on record. This sophisticated letter just brims with wit and a solid defence of Christian doctrine in a pagan culture, and is a very memorable and quotable piece of literature in itself.

  3. Clement of Rome was a successor of Peter, and took it upon himself to write a follow up letter to the Corinthians, which feels a bit like gold dust to any Christian well familiar with 1 & 2 Corinthians and itching to hear a bit further in the story. The 'Second Epistle of Clement' is actually an anonymous homily, but has characteristics in common with the synoptic gospels, so is a fairly pleasant read.

Other key reading

  1. We know Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch was a disciple of John, and writes in a very energetic and edgy way, filled with incredible imagery and symbolism. However, be warned - here be dragons - the more you read of the various Ignatius letters and scraps, you'll notice clear work of later redactors inserting Roman Catholic theology from many centuries later, and at times he sounds nothing like any other writer of his own time. Depending who you are, it's debatable whether some or all of Ignatius' work has been tampered with in this way, and much of it is likely just not his to begin with anyway. So take him with a pinch of salt.

  2. Papias was a highly prolific writer in the early church, and is mentioned by lots of other writers... but unfortunately nothing he wrote survived in bulk aside from a few quotations, so you'll only ever find scraps from him.

  3. Polycarp the Bishop of Smyrna was recorded to have known John in his youth, and wrote a letter to the Philippians which has been preserved. There is also a document circulated by the church of Smyrna about his martyrdom, which is possibly the earliest 'martyrdom' themed document we have on record.

  4. The Epistle of Barnabas (pseudonymous) is a very interesting take on Christian thought from an eccentrically Jewish angle, as the author digs through many interesting OT texts and prophecies in defence of the Christian faith. His passage on the scapegoat is unforgettable.

  5. Justin Martyr is a noteworthy writer from the sub-apostolic era, a Greek philosopher who converted to Christianity. There are lots of large, interesting texts available from him and help fill gaps about life and thought for some on the early church, but due to their size none of these are in the Penguin Classics book unfortunately.

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A very important first-century Christian writing is the Didache (Didache ton apostolon), ‘The Teaching of the Apostles’ = subsequently ‘The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’. The first 6 chapters form a group usually designated Duae Viae, which most scholars see as pre-Christian. The next 5 chapters contain instructions for community services and prayers, then practical advice on the treatment of itinerant apostles and missionaries. In more or less its present form it is dated between 50 and 120 CE.

Another is the First Epistle of Clement, an epistle to the Corinthians that is usually dated to about 96 CE. Authorship by a person called Clement is uncertain but probable. It is unclear who Clement was, but he was certainly a member of the Roman clergy. On the basis of this letter, the Catholic Church has designated him Pope Clement and placed him in the list of early popes, but scholars, including many Catholic scholars, say there was no monarchical bishop of Rome until well into the second century.

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