5 Must-Read Letters By People Who Knew Jesus’ Apostles

March 29, 2012 — 6 Comments

The New Testament is a collection of books, letters and sermons written by Jesus’ disciples and or their disciples.  But the early Christian didn’t cease writing after the New Testament.  Here are 5 must-read letters written in the decades after the passing of the Apostles.


The Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is a discipleship manual in three parts.  The first outlines the ethical teaching of the Church (chapters 1-5) and the second concerns its ritual teaching such as baptism, communion and leadership (chapters 6-15).  The book concludes with a brief exhortation to endure to the end (chapter 16).

The Didache is likely the earliest book outside the New Testament.  This is strongly suggested in the fact that apostles and prophets still move freely between churches.  The Didache sees this as a blessing but is also wary of those who might take undue advantage.  It states,

Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.

Interestingly enough the ethical teaching in the Didache has much in common with  Matthew’s gospel  and may have been written in a community near where Matthew was composed.

1 Clement

1 Clement is a letter written by the church of Rome to the church of Corinth.  The author or authors are troubled that the Corinthians have ousted their senior leaders for younger ones.  A situation which, they are convinced, has arisen out of envy.

Let us therefore, with all haste, put an end to this [state of things]; and let us fall down before the Lord, and beseech Him with tears, that He would mercifully be reconciled to us, and restore us to our former seemly and holy practice of brotherly love.

Clement reminds the Corinthians of Paul’s letter to them but He is also deeply indebted to the book of Hebrews.  Indeed some in the early church believed Hebrews was written by Clement.  At the very least 1 Clement, like Hebrews, was written in Rome before the end of the first century.

Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Romans

Not much is known about Ignatius’ of Antioch.  What we do know about the man comes from seven surviving letters he wrote on his way to martyrdom in Rome.  The letters give a profound glimpse into one bishops thoughts before he will be ordered to renounce Christ under the threat of a painful execution.  He writes to the church of Rome,

I am afraid of your love, lest it should do me injury.  For it is easy for you to accomplish what you please; but it is difficult for me to attain to God, if ye spare me.

But like an athlete readying himself for the fight he shouts

Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.

Polycarp’s letter to the Phillipians

Ignatius writes one of these letters to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and one time disciple of the Apostle John.  Soon after Ignatius’ death, the church of Philippi sent word to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and one time disciple of the Apostle John, requesting that he collect copies of Ignatius’ letters for their own use.  Polycarp’s letteris a treasure trove of New Testament allusions.  Though he says very little that is new, his book wonderfully encapsulates the teaching of the Apostles.

These things brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself but because you have invited me to do so.  For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul.  He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive.  And when absent from you, he wrote a letter, which if you carefully study, you will find to be means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which has been given you…

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

The only narrative in this list, the Martyrdom of Polycarp is a riveting account of Polycarp’s own martyrdom in Smyrna.  Ignatius’ letters only hint at what might await him.  This document actually describes by those who witnessed it the fate that befell Polycarp when he refused to deny Christ.

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Follow the hyperlinks above and begin exploring these letters yourself.

Matthew Scott Miller

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