- The Epistula Apostolorum:An Asian Tract from the Time of Polycarp
Despite a clear preference for Egypt on the part of many recent scholars, a review of the evidence shows that Carl Schmidt was correct in assigning the Epistula Apostolorum to Asia Minor. Literary and theological affinities with other Asian works, the social setting of the author and his group, and the historical circumstances visible in this pseudepigraphon, including the experience of earthquakes, plague, and persecution, combine to place the Epistula in Asia Minor in the first half of the second century. Two dates emerge as the most likely for the composition of the Epistula: just before 120, or in the 140s. The Epistula may therefore be used with confidence to enhance our understanding of the development of Christianity within the sometimes hostile environment in Asia Minor in this period.
The trials and community concerns of one segment of second-century Christianity are preserved in a fascinating pseudepigraphal document now known by the name of the Epistula Apostolorum. Despite some affinities with gnostic texts, this purported "epistle" from Jesus' apostles positions itself as staunchly "orthodox" as over against some other group which bears the name of Christian but which holds to some form of docetism. The self-understanding of the author's community is defined in no small measure by its difference from the rival Christian group, a difference measurable in both sociological and theological terms. Though its fictional setting as a dialogue with the Savior in the days immediately following his resurrection logically precludes it from citing any New Testament texts as such, it knows a great deal of our present New Testament, and certainly some "apocryphal" sources (whether oral or written). Its extensive knowledge of and special love for the Fourth [End Page 1] Gospel is one of its remarkable features and has been noted widely by its modern students.
But where and when did the community exist for whom this author wrote? Neither the date nor the provenance of the Ep. Apost. has ever been fully settled. In 1919 Carl Schmidt in his magisterial study and the editio princeps of the Coptic version assigned the Ep. Apost. to Asia Minor during the decade 160–70,1 but his position has been all but abandoned by more recent scholars. Though some continue to prefer the second half of the second century,2 the trend has been towards a somewhat earlier date, with Hugo Deunsing, Manfred Hornschuh, J. J. Gunther, and C. D. G. Müller all placing it at or before the midpoint of the century. Asia Minor too has been all but eclipsed.3 Deunsing and Gunther wrote in favor of a Syrian milieu, and Hornschuh theorized that the author was a Jewish-Christian with roots in the primitive Palestinian Church, writing in Egypt around 120.4 In the year before Hornschuh's study appeared, A. A. T. Ehrhardt had also argued for an Egyptian origin, but for a later date towards the end of the second century.5 Since the studies of Ehrhardt and Hornschuh in the mid-1960s, Egypt has been in the ascendancy. An Egyptian origin has been decisively adopted by [End Page 2] C. D. G. Müller in the second edition of New Testament Apocrypha6 and is now accepted or advocated by a number of scholars in recent works.7
In the course of studying the early effects of the Johannine literature in the church I have been drawn to the conclusion that there is much more to connect the Ep. Apost. with Asia Minor than has been noted by the published studies, even Schmidt's, and that this material stands out more clearly in comparison with the data cited for Egypt in particular. Most past attempts to locate the life setting of the Ep. Apost. have, not inappropriately, centered upon its apparent knowledge of NT materials and on its literary or theological affinities with other literary sources. But in the best of circumstances such literary comparisons can reveal only part of the picture. And in the present case, the often disputed provenance of the documents to which the Ep. Apost. has been compared has not...