Scripture among the Apologists: Introduction

BibleThe early followers of Jesus Christ indelibly influenced the subsequent shape of Christian faith and praxis. Contemporary Christian conceptions of God, anthropology, history, eschatology, philosophy, the sacraments, and Christology remain indebted to the beliefs and practices of the first centuries of the Church. An important but often neglected facet of the early Church’s legacy involves its conceptions of authority: the way in which followers of Jesus oriented, understood, and employed truth claims—both written and oral—as legitimating sources for their beliefs. As the Church developed and spread throughout the world, conflicting truth claims had to be addressed. In the earliest years, an appeal to the consensus of the Apostles was possible.[i] Following the deaths of those pillars, however, claims concerning the faith had to be substantiated in different ways.

early-church-fathers-iconOne significant way early Christians sought to validate their claims about faith and practice came through the appeal to written sources. Evident even within the earliest Christian writings is the authority of the Jewish Scriptures.[ii] By the time of Constantine, however, these writings were joined by a series of writings composed by the Apostles and their earliest followers. The way in which this new collection of writings took shape, and the way in which these sources eventually served as the authoritative basis for Christian faith, has long captured the attention of scholars. As part of the wider project of examining how early Christians formed this New Testament of writings and influenced subsequent Christian conceptions of authority, this paper examines the manner in which two early Christian Apologists,[iii] Justin the Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch, conceived of and used scripture in their own writings. The emphases of this study are twofold: first, to offer an overview of the manner in which Justin and Theophilus employed written sources in their apologies; and second, to provide a comparative analysis of how these early Christian writers conceived of and employed written sources in the construction of their apologetic theologies.[iv] This study argues that an examination of Justin and Theophilus, specifically their treatment of the Fourth Gospel and implementation of Johannine logos theology, demonstrates the authority of specifically Christian written sources for second century apologetic works. As corollary arguments, this study also suggests that a contextualized methodology constitutes a necessary component for accurate study of early Christian literature; that Justin and Theophilus employed a wide matrix of writt en authorities; and that the comparison of Justin and Theophilus advances important similarities and differences between these writers which inform the understanding of second century Christianity.

[i] Acts 15.1-35. [ii] A nearly constant topic of discussion during this time period involves the appropriateness of terms such as “Jewish Scriptures”, “Jewish Bible”, “Old Testament”, and “New Testament.” While often anachronistic and ignoring the historical complexities of writings in this period, these terms remain useful for delineating certain textual collections. Recognizing the fluidity of these collections, the preferred terms of this study are “Jewish Bible” and “Christian writings.” For a discussion of terminology, see Andrew S. Jacobs, “A Jew’s Jew: Paul and the Early Christian Problem of Jewish Origins,” JR 86.2 (2006): 258-286 and Oskar Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” ed. Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, Justin Martyr and His Worlds (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 54. [iii] Skarsaune notes that the term “apologists” – used as a reference to second century Christian writers – is a modern designation first used by J. C. Th. von Otto to indicate the manner in which these writers sought to defend Christian faith. See Oskar Skarsaune, “Justin and the Apologists,” The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought, ed. D. Jeffrey Bingham (London: Routledge, 2010), 121 and Sara Parvis, “Justin Martyr and the Apologetic Tradition,” ed. Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, Justin Martyr and His Worlds (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 116-7. [iv] This comparative project was suggested by Fr. David Meconi of Saint Louis University. As a future project, I hope to expand consideration of each of these early Christian writers as chapters in a dissertation.


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

5 thoughts on “Scripture among the Apologists: Introduction

  1. Hi Jacob. Paul Pavao here. I don’t comment much, but I read your blog semi-regularly. Two questions:

    1. Are you going to compare the Christian canon of Justin and Theophilus with the Muratorian Fragment. The Muratorian canon is usually dated around their time frame, so it seems pertinent.

    2. I’m not at home, so I can’t verify my memory right now, but I’m pretty sure Ignatius and Polycarp never quote John’s writings, which seems unusual since they are both considered his disciples. Have you covered that in your previous writings. I’ve seen several of your posts that address the decades earlier than Justin and Theophilus. You addressed Clement of Rome, and you address the gnostics. Is there anything on your blog addressing the lack of Johannine quotes in Ignatius and Polycarp? Are you familiar with the question?

    1. Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your thoughtful questions, I appreciate your readership and commenting!

      1. Given the comparative nature of this project (and the continuing debates about the dating of the Muratorian Fragment), I don’t really address it in this series. That said, I’m in the midst of a project about the contours of scripture in the second century more generally, so there will be some work on that issue here before too terribly long I suspect.

      2. Very familiar with that question, which is a framing issue for my dissertation. My basic response is this: while Ignatius and Polycarp don’t *quote* John, they do *cite* his writings and utilize his theology at numerous points in their extant writings. Charles Hill and Titus Nagel have some solid considerations on this particular question that I’d recommend to you if you haven’t already seen them.

      As I conceive of these discussions, the question is really one of methodology and terminology. Even scholars of early Christianity have been too sloppy with the language of reception to this point. When it comes to the Fourth Gospel, conversations about what was going on in the second century often devolve into debates on “maximalism” and “minimalism” (influenced by a conversation some years back by Helmut Koester and Eduord Massaux, among others). I think we need to move around those designations and actually talk about how to talk about how Christians like Ignatius and Polycarp are using the materials available to them. I’ve got a ton of work on this subject I’ve recently undertaken and am currently refining (especially for the dissertation, but also for a couple of specialized conferences). Again, hopefully I’ll have the time to get to PV before too long.

      Hope those responses are helpful. Best, JJP

  2. Oh, and I should add: Thank you for addressing subjects like these. You keep these blogs short, so they are easy to read, but you do a good job of addressing your subject nonetheless.

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