Two apostolic catechisms.
What forms did early Christian teaching take?
The English word catechism derives from the late Latin word catechismus, which in turn derives from the late Greek word κατηχισμος, a noun formed on the verb κατηχιζω, or κατηχεω, to teach by word of mouth. In the prologue to his gospel, Luke presupposes that catechismal material has already reached his reader, and indeed informs us that he is writing in order to confirm such catechismal material (1.4):
And Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians 6.6, envisages regular catechismal activity in the church:
Other instances of κατηχεω in the New Testament are Acts 18.25; 21.21, 24; Romans 2.18; 1 Corinthians 14.19.
Knowing, then, that catechism was an integral part of apostolic Christianity, are there any early catechismal materials available to us for closer examination? Yes and no. They may well be available, but only as part of longer texts. Needless to say, we no longer have direct access to the oral form of the teaching presupposed in Luke and Paul. And shorter freefloating texts of any kind tend either to be assimilated into longer works or to disappear into the mists of history.
We must, in other words, coax the earliest catechisms from the New Testament or the apostolic fathers, or from other miscellaneous pieces of ancient literature.
For our purposes, I am distinguishing the catechism from other kinds of traditional material that can be transmitted in very similar ways.
Very broadly, the entire early Christian tradition can be divided into words and deeds, id est, between what Jesus or the apostles said and what Jesus or the apostles did. Each of these broad categories can of course be subdivided, and one of the subdivisions of that first category, words, would be catechismal materials. These are not parables, not aphorisms, not dialogues. These are distilled Christian instruction, sayings designed to teach core principles of the faith.
Two catechisms that can be confidently extracted from our extant sources, I think, are the following catenae of sayings:
The purpose of the present investigation is to cultivate a sensitivity to an historical process, namely the transmission of teaching materials in apostolic Christianity. We ought to be able to recognize shorter catechismal complexes within longer pieces of literature, and to become attuned to the apostolic teaching patterns, as well as how Christian authors integrated them into their texts.
Those two catenae, measure for measure and as your father, are the raw data for this inquiry. I have analyzed each of them individually on their respective pages, and recommend reading those analyses before continuing on with this present page, in which I intend to synthesize them into a coherent set of findings.
I reprint here the tables given on those separate pages for convenience. Items separated from the main catechism are italicized. The final item in each catechism is boldfaced:
Measure for measure.
As your father.
The catechismal nature of these two catenae would seem to trump the question of whether the various authors knew them in oral or in written form. These are not narratives, with a clear and necessary logic of presentation. They do not have to hang together as coherent pieces of work, and their constituent parts can be broken up and scattered, as Matthew proves with measure for measure.
So, when we find the same basic elements coming together creatively in different pieces of literature, we are onto something. That a traditional format is at issue, and not merely one author having read the work of another, is clear from the following considerations:
Granted, then, that each of our five authors is dealing with traditional material, and not merely copying from another work, we turn to examine the particulars of how each author has incorporated measure for measure and as your father into his text.
1 Clement 13.1-4 comes in the context of reminding a schismatic and seditious Corinthian church what it means to endure in patience and submission. Clement draws upon a number of examples of enduring faithfulness both from the Hebrew scriptures and from more recent experience. Now Clement confirms his admonitions with reference to the Hebrew scriptures (yet again) and also to the sayings of the Lord Jesus. I subdivide the relevant passage to reflect this double reference:
It ought to be noticed that, although my structural formatting obscures the connection somewhat, the support from the scriptures and the ensuing second exhortation blend almost seamlessly together. The Old Testament citation from Jeremiah 9.23-24 wraps up with the enjoinder to let him boast in the Lord (εν κυριω καυχασθω, the latter being the main verb of the clause), then throws in a couple of infinitives of purpose (του εκζητειν... ποιεν, to seek... to do) in a dependent clause, at which point Clement sets right into especially remembering (μαλιστα μεμνημενοι).
The participle μεμνημενοι (remembering), however, cannot grammatically modify the verb καυχασθω (let him boast), since the participle is plural, the verb singular. The plural participle must go all the way back to the first exhortation for its antecedent, modifying the plural verb in the phrase ποιησωμεν το γεγραμμενον (let us do what is written). Doing what is written, for Clement as he cites Jeremiah, means boasting only in the Lord. This is the imperative content of doing what is written. (If you are doing what is written, you are inevitably boasting only in the Lord.)
The adverb μαλιστα (especially), then, makes remembering the words of the Lord Jesus the most important subset of doing what is written. If you do what Jeremiah wrote and boast only in the Lord, you will inevitably, and most importantly (μαλιστα), be remembering (which in the biblical sense also means following or minding) what the Lord Jesus himself said on the topic. The sevenfold support from the sayings of Jesus, in other words, forms the very content of what it means to boast in the Lord (id est, to do what is written, what Jeremiah wrote).
The sayings of Jesus, in other words, line up with and fill out the scriptural command in Jeremiah. If you are boasting only in the Lord, then you are by definition not boasting in yourself, or in your own wealth or wisdom. And, if you are not boasting in yourself, then you are being humbleminded (ταπεινοφρονουντες) which is the term that Clement chooses in his third exhortation to summarize this teaching of Jesus. As Clement also begins this discussion with the like injunction, let us be humbleminded (ταπεινοφρονησωμεν), humblemindedness serves as an inclusio for the entire passage.
Clement clearly esteems the sayings of Jesus as on a par with the Old Testament scriptures:
These similarities between the scriptures and the sayings of Jesus, however, point up two interesting differences in how Clement cites each:
Clement also refers to the singular holy word (λογος) of that final scripture, Isaiah 66.2, contrasted with the plural holy words (λογοις) of Jesus, but this difference probably owes to there being a catena of sayings cited from Jesus, but only a single saying cited from Isaiah.
Clement refers to the scriptures as to a text, but to the Jesus sayings as to an historical event, as one might refer back to a famous speech. Acts 20.35b does the same thing when it recalls the sayings of Jesus:
Note again the recognition of dominical authority in calling him the Lord Jesus, just as Clement does. And note again the exhortation to remember the sayings, just as Clement has. Such features are not, then, merely a Clementine quirk. We have our finger on the pulse of a genuinely ancient way of referring to the teachings of Jesus.
Polycarp writes in his epistle to the Philippians 2.2-3 of how to ensure participation in the resurrection:
The promise of resurrection is more than mere background for these sayings; it is foreground. As the passage begins with the resurrection promised to those who walk in the commands of God, so it ends with the kingdom of God promised to those who are persecuted for doing right. We are thus not left in doubt as to the occasion of the reciprocation guaranteed in the Jesus sayings between these frames. The reciprocation will happen at the coming of the kingdom, the resurrection of the dead.
The Polycarpian instruction takes two different forms. There is negative instruction, or what to avoid, and positive instruction, or what to do.
Avoiding the negative takes the form of abstinence; we are to be abstaining (απεχομενοι) from a list of vices. This Greek term for abstinence also shows up in Didache 1.4, right in the middle of its own catechism, studied below.
Doing the positive takes the form of remembering the sayings of the Lord. I call once again upon how Acts 20.35b recalls the sayings of Jesus:
In Polycarp as in the Acts the dominical authority is invoked by calling Jesus Lord. In Polycarp as in the Acts the sayings are to press upon the memory.
The similarity between Polycarp and Clement on this point is striking. Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, pages 19-20:
One of these quotations, Pol. Phil. 2.3a, is copied from the quotation of the sayings of Jesus in 1 Clem. 13.1-2, including the quotation formula ("Remember what the Lord said when he was teaching"). However, while the quote in 1 Clem. 13.2 had been drawn from the oral tradition, Polycarp, who knew the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, corrected the text in order to establish a more faithful agreement of Jesus' words with the wording of the written gospels from which he has also drawn his other gospel materials (Phil. 2.3b; 7.2; 12.3). At the same time, it is remarkable that Polycarp never uses the term "gospel" for these documents and that the words of Jesus are still quoted as if they were sayings drawn from the oral tradition.
This point is well taken. Both Clement and Polycarp not only combine the sayings of the Lord and the injunction to remembrance, which combination is as far as Acts 20.35b goes, but also point out the teaching and recount the same catechismal statement. Polycarp is, then, probably drawing from Clement.
But Koester takes one more step in that quote. He states that Polycarp has corrected the tradition to align more closely with the written gospels of Matthew and Luke. Is Koester correct?
Allow me to compare the four sayings in Polycarp to their counterparts in Clement, Matthew, and Luke. Clement will be our control, for if Polycarp looks closer to Clement than to either Matthew or Luke, or if Polycarp goes his own way, then Koester is proved wrong. But, if Polycarp looks closer to either Matthew or Luke than to Clement, then he is proved right. The references are 1 Clement 13.2; Polycarp to the Philippians 2.3a; Matthew 7.2a; 6.14; 5.7; 7.12; Luke 6.37ac, 36, 38b.
First, on judgment:
Polycarp, like Luke, phrases the first half of this saying as a negative command. But it is Polycarp alone who phrases the second half as a purpose clause, with ινα.
Second, on forgiveness:
Polycarp, again like Luke, makes the second half of this saying a promise (whereas Clement now uses a ινα clause). However, Polycarp does not follow the distinctive Lucan use of απολυω; he rather sticks with the more typical αφιημι. Polycarp also adds the pronoun υμιν, like Clement, but unlike Luke.
Third, on mercy:
Given that Polycarp follows Clement verbatim here, and Matthew has phrased his saying as a beatitude while Luke uses the adjective οικτιρμων instead of the verb ελεαω, Polycarp is clearly not correcting the tradition by the gospels in this case.
Fourth, on measurement.
Polycarp, like Luke, adds the prefixed preposition αντι- to the verb μετρεω.
Polycarp nowhere favors Matthew across these four sayings. Thrice he seems to favor Luke, with two format changes and the addition of a prefix to a verb. Yet, granted that the formats of these sayings are interchangeable, and that Polycarp ignores the most distinctive Lucan vocabulary changes (release and compassionate), it hardly seems to me that Polycarp is in any way correcting, to recall Koester, the tradition by Luke. Rather, Polycarp appears to be inspired by Clement, but also knows the wording of Luke, and is also willing to go his own way. We have no reason to think that he has any of these texts open in front of him as he pens his epistle.
Polycarp is probably, and most fittingly, remembering the words of the Lord, not correcting a traditional wording against a standard text. Polycarp has committed this catena to memory, and occasionally Luke, who was also remembering while composing, points his memory toward a particular formulation.
Koester notes that Polycarp relies upon the written gospels for 2.3b; 7.2; 12.3. Perhaps, then, he is simply assuming that Polycarp is relying upon them for 2.3a as well. Let us look at that first reference, 2.3b, which is part of our text...:
...alongside Matthew 5.3, 10:
Polycarp is obviously very, very close to Matthew here. He does not replicate the Matthean periphrasis for God, the heavens, and he omits the prepositional phrase in spirit, but the rest is virtually identical. And it cannot be coincidence that Polycarp has chosen to conflate precisely and conveniently those two Matthean beatitudes whose guarantee is the kingdom of the heavens. Polycarp knows Matthew, and uses him here.
But this obvious knowledge and use of Matthew in 2.3b makes the sayings of 2.3a stand out all the more as proceeding, not literarily from the text of Luke (much less Matthew!), but rather from the memory of Polycarp, as if they came from the oral transmission. And they do, despite their presence in the texts of Matthew, Luke, and Clement. They are a catechism, and Polycarp feels free to write them as he himself knows them, not exactly as they stand in any text.
Didache 1.2b-6 is set into the teaching of the two ways for which this subapostolic document is most famous. There are two ways, according to both the Didache and a time-honored Jewish catechismal tradition. The first way is that of life. The second is that of death. There are instructions, of course, for each of these categories. The way of life consists of loving God and neighbor, which is explained in terms of the Golden Rule as follows:
Matthew 5.38-48 comprises the final two items in a series of parallel instructions, each introduced by the combination of you heard it said and but I say unto you. All of these items fall under the umbrella of 5.20, on surpassing the justice of the scribes and Pharisees. The first item then consists of 5.21-26, the second of 5.27-30, with a related comment in 5.31-32, the third of 5.33-37, and the fourth and fifth of our present passage, 5.38-48:
The Matthean treatment of both measure for measure (he utterly breaks it apart) and as your father (he works it into his presentation scheme in the sermon on the mount) underscores just how flexible these sayings can be. It seems almost a badge of authorial honor to take a raw set of instructions allegedly from the lips of Jesus and fit them seamlessly into the rest of the gospel text.
Luke 6.27-38 is the most intriguing of our passages because it combines both of our distinct catechismal catenae, as your father and measure for measure. So nicely does Luke integrate them that we would scarcely be able to isolate each from the other without our other instances of the same two catenae. Verse 36, on being compassionate like the father, is the hinge upon which 6.27-38 turns:
Again I am struck by the flexibility of these sayings. They basically retain the original idea, and remain in sequence for the most part, but Luke brings together two distinct catenae, nowhere else combined, into one, hinging them both ingeniously around the Golden Rule.
The catechismal sayings that I have glanced at here appear to me, at any rate, to reflect the oral transmission of Jesus materials in the Christian community. I take seriously the fact that our patristic witnesses, Clement and Polycarp, tell their readers to remember the sayings of Jesus.
The gospel of John is illuminating in this regard. Several times John refers to sayings that the disciples heard from Jesus during his ministry and then remembered later (John 2.22; 12.16; 14.26; 16.4; confer John 15.20). This language of remembering what Jesus said is very reminiscent, of course, of Acts 20.35b, which we have seen already, and also of Acts 11.16, which I offer now:
It would be hazardous to claim, I think, that the oral process was one of dramatic fidelity to the original wording, meaning, and order of each set of sayings so transmitted. This page itself is full of creative reworkings of the various sayings in two apostolic catechisms. But I do not think it would be dangerous to suggest that a genuine effort was made to remember, to avoid forgetting, the words of Jesus, and that the reworking of the sayings so evident to us upon examination was part of that process; one of the best ways to remember something is to find its relevance to your own situation, and that requires reworking.
For further study into the oral transmission of gospel materials, refer to my page on oral and literary tradition.