The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations

By Michael W. Holmes (ed.)
Grand Rapids : Baker (1999). xv + 613 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 251-252

Michael Holmes, Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Bethel College, has provided scholars and students with the most accessible and up to date resource available for study of the Apostolic Fathers. Since this book is actually an “update” of a “revision” of a “second edition” of an “original,” it is helpful to review briefly the pre-history of this great work.

J. B. Lightfoot, Cambridge Professor and later Bishop of Durham, provided the English-speaking world a great service with his invaluable edition of the Apostolic Fathers (Macmillan, 1890). The first edition included the Epistles of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp plus the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In 1891 he completed his work with his own addition of the Didache plus the texts of the Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle to Diognetus, as well as the Fragment of Papias, contributed by J. R. Harmer (Macmillan, 1891).

This last one-volume edition served the church well for a century. Users of the Lightfoot-Harmer text, however, had to contend with a rather antiquated English translation of these ancient books that often obfuscated rather than enlightened readers. In the current edition under review, editor Holmes expresses this concern tastefully:

Of all Lightfoot’s work it was the translation which had borne most heavily the passage of time, not the least reason being changes in English style and usage, particularly during the last half-century. As a consequence, while the underlying basis of the translation remained sound, not a few readers found the translation itself more difficult and off-putting than helpful (x).

Therefore, in 1989 a revised English translation of the Lightfoot-Harmer volume appeared (The Apostolic Fathers. 2nd ed. Edited and reviewed by Michael W. Holmes. Grand Rapids: Baker 1989). In 1992 Professor Holmes contributed a Greek and English edition, incorporating the new translation—The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings, 2nd ed., edited and translated by Lightfoot and Harmer, edited and reviewed by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992). Finally the present “updated edition” under review was published in 1999.

In spite of his gracious acknowledgement of Lightfoot’s and Harmer’s labors, Holmes really has contributed an entirely new edition of the Apostolic Fathers with their Greek and English texts on facing pages. This edition provides an update to the biographies and introduction in the 1992 work, as well as the evidence of an additional witness to Hermas (Bodmer Papyrus XXXVIII).

This reviewer cannot express adequately his appreciation for this edition of the earliest extant Christian writings outside the NT. It is clear, up-to-date, and affordable, especially when compared to the two volume Loeb Classical Library edition, translated by Kirsopp Lake (Apostolic Fathers. Loeb Classical Library. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1976-77).

Evangelicals have often ignored the writings of the Church Fathers, probably due to a distrust of “tradition” that has prevailed in the Protestant heritage. However, most evangelicals still utilize without much qualm biblical commentaries extensively in their studies. Should they not at least be aware of what these second-century authors wrote, some of whom were in direct contact with the apostles during their youth?

This book should be purchased and studied, no matter what level of Greek proficiency characterizes the pastor, student, or professor who uses it. Even if one already possesses the old Lightfoot edition, this new work by Holmes is well worth its cost.