[Editor’s Note:  This is two different but similar questions from the same person, so I am joining them as one article.  These questions concern letters from the church “Fathers” of the late first and the second century AD which help to inform us how the early church lived and what they taught.]


I’d like to know your opinion about the Didache.  It was written in the first of the second century… but it was unknown for a long time until it was discovered as a manuscript in the 19th century, but this manuscript was written in the 11th century.  Can we be sure that this text is the original text??

In addition, What is your opinion about Irenaeus’ writings?  I know that we don’t have the Greek text, but we have a Latin translation.  How can we say that a specific text wasn’t interpolated? [editor’s note: an interpolation is text added by another writer after the original composition of a letter] And concerning Ignatius, how can we know which text is the right one?


It is true that the oldest actual manuscript of the Didache is from the eleventh century.  This is nearly a thousand years after it is believed that the letter was produced.  If this was the only evidence for this book, then there would be a lot of room for conjecture as to the source and date of the letter known as the Didache.

However, this is not the only source for the book.  It is mentioned by Eusebius in about 324 AD.  It is called by him the Book of the Twelve Apostles.  Eusebius seems to be aware that some considered the book to be sub-canonical, but he rejects its status.  The Didache is also mentioned by Athanasius (367) and Rufinus (380 AD).  Both deny its part in the canon of the New Testament, but the very fact that they mention it shows that the book was held in high regard by the early church–in fact it shows that some considered it inspired or sub-inspired.  Surely this moves the Didache to the very early second century at the latest.  It became part of the Ethiopian/Coptic list of sub-canonical books.  It is the consensus of scholars that the Didache is probably a late first century catechism, although some put it in the very early second century.  I believe this is very likely a correct date for this book.

A number of early church fathers quote from the Didache.  Clement of Alexandria, Origen quote from it and Polycarp and Ignatius appear to use the Didache.   The similarity of their quotes to the text from the eleventh century tells us that the manuscript we have is at least a reasonable facsimile of the original Didache.  Obviously, we cannot do anywhere nearly as good a textual criticism of this book as we can with the Greek text of the New Testament with so few manuscripts, but we can reasonably conclude that the Didache we have is fairly close to the original.  Because it is not inspired, having an exact version is less significant to us as Christians.

The manuscript evidence we have for the writings of Irenaeus is very slim.  For his most important work, Against Heresies, there is an Armenian translation, a Latin manuscript from about AD 380 and there are a few quotes from Eusebius.  Many of Irenaeus’ other writings are completely lost. Some skeptics question that Irenaeus was even a real person.   This seems to be biased hypersketicism.  The similarities between the Armenian and Latin manuscripts is sufficient and is sufficiently consistent with Eusebius, that I believe we can conclude that there was an important bishop named Irenaeus from Lyon in the second half of the second century and that he wrote the text of Against Heresies.  However, we should hold out the possibility that some of what we have purporting to be from Irenaeus (especially the Latin manuscript) is a later interpolation.  The data is simply too slight to assure that this did not happen.  This has little effect on our understanding of the Bible or of true Christianity, but it could have some impact on Catholic or even Protestant use of Irenaeus.

The Armenian manuscript only has two of the books of Against Heresies.  For these books, since we have two different sources, it makes the likelihood that what we have is an interpolation in that section less.  Based on things like writing style I suppose that scholars can make some reasonable decision about whether or not certain important passages (especially those about the preeminence of the Church in Rome) are interpolated.  I would have to do more research if you want to ask about particular passages of Against Heresies.

Sorry, but there will be some doubts about the writings of Irenaeus.

The manuscript evidence for the letters of Ignatius are quite a bit stronger.  We have a number of Greek versions, as well as translations into Coptic Syriac Armenian, Arabic and Latin.  Apparently, there were interpolations and even some fake letters.  For example, some of the letters of Ignatius exist in manuscript form with both a short and a long version.  Most likely the “long” version includes a later interpolation.  However, with all the evidence and with Polycarp’s statements about Ignatius, we can feel pretty good that we have several legitimate letters of Ignatius.  My suggestion with Ignatius to use the most conservative list of his letters and you will not go wrong.

John Oakes






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