Wilderness in the Apostolic Fathers

wilderness-of-judeaIn “The Wilderness Narrative in the Apostolic Fathers,” Clayton Jefford outlines the references to wilderness traditions and narratives set in Israel’s wilderness found in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. His central contention is that the uncertainty of the ancient Israelite motif of wilderness wandering appealed little to non-Jewish, second-generation Christians who were more interested in identity formation than wilderness theology. Jefford begins by tracing three major New Testament associations with wilderness: 1) that true prophets receive revelation in a wilderness context; 2) that God’s self-revelation to Israel occurred in the wilderness; and 3) that the wilderness exists as a threatening presence. He then examines references to the wilderness in 1 Clement 43 and 53, arguing that both scenes are tied to the issue of “correct governance and civility within the structure of the church.” (162) Clement’s larger purposes, therefore, led him to visit these particular passages and draw on the example of Moses.

Jefford then turns to consideration of wilderness content found in Barnabas 4, 7, 8, 12, and 14. Unlike in 1 Clement, however, Barnabas’s use of wilderness imagery is not positive. Instead, this material reveals “a consistent use of scriptural events that reveals the weaknesses of Jewish tradition and practices that led to the necessity, at least from the perspective of our author, for the crucifixion of the Messiah and the rise of Christianity. (162) That is, the wilderness period puts Israel’s disobedience on display, a disobedience that would eventually result in the formation of a new covenant with a new people of God. Jefford closes out his presentation with some final comparisons and conclusions. Most striking for him are the divergent ways in which 1 Clement and Barnabas employ wilderness, with 1 Clement revealing an emphasis on the wilderness as a model of God’s direction of legitimate leadership and Barnabas indicating that the wilderness narrative may function as a weapon for Christian critiques of Judaism.

Apostolic FathersOverall, there is much of value in this article, especially for those engaging wilderness traditions or the formation of Christian identities in the Apostolic Fathers. Jefford rightly emphasizes the Apostolic Father’s concerns with identity formation, although for 1 Clement at least, one wonders why one of the central moments of Israel’s identity-formation is not resourced more. As for why the Apostolic Fathers avoided the period, Jefford’s claim of attempting to avoid uncertainty falls somewhat flat, as uncertainty was nothing new for early Christians. More likely explanations involve the contexts of the Apostolic Fathers and their congregations. The largely urban status of churches during this period, as well as their geographical distance from wilderness areas, might have dissuaded easy identifications with that period. In this view, it was not certainty but applicability which led the Apostolic Fathers to by-and-large bypass the wilderness experiences.

In his consideration of the data from 1 Clement, I wonder if those materials might be more correctly labeled as “scenes taken from the wilderness” than “wilderness scenes.” While I am not sure of how far I would want to press that distinction given the perversity and power of wilderness imagery in early Christianity, Clement’s larger purposes—which Jefford rightly notes—seem to be far more important than any wilderness account from which he draws them. Jefford notes the continuation of the Numbers scene in 1 Clement 43, suggesting that the Corinthian audience would have inferred those contexts as well. This claim seems reasonable given how ancient allusions functioned, but again, I’m not certain that the issue at hand involves “wilderness” so much as Clement’s appeal to Moses and the civil governance of Israel.

Shepherd Early ChristianityThe Epistle of Barnabas’s use of the wilderness traditions stands very much in a wider stream of receiving these accounts as critiques of Jewish faith and piety. Much like the author of Hebrews and Justin Martyr, for the author of Barnabas, Judaism has failed, the beginnings of which were demonstrated back in the wilderness. In the place of the failed wilderness people stands a new covenant, a covenant situated not in the wilderness but in Christ. Again, this type of use by Barnabas seems to more of a “use of the scriptures of Judaism against Judaism” motif than specifically wilderness-oriented. Yet as with 1 Clement, I’m not sure how far I would want to push this, since there seems to be no prima facia reason why two interrelated motifs could not function at the same time for an author


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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