As author Clayton Jefford states in the first chapter, the body of literature collectively known as the Apostolic Fathers was, like the New Testament, not recognised as such during the time of composition, but rather is a categorisation that has been made much later, with the benefit of hindsight. 'In large part our Apostolic Fathers represent the remnants of early Christian writings that ultimately did not make it into the New Testament canon.' These are writings that were seen as having merit for the early Christian community, and continued to hold authority of some sort in most subsequent Christian times and institutions, but has never had an official church sanction in the way that the canonical Bible has had.
However, understanding the formation of the canon is important in understanding the Apostolic Fathers as a collection, and Jefford introduces this complex subject with clarity. The closeness of these works to the canonical scriptures can be seen in the fact that, on various ancient lists, some of the works appear with the current canonical books, while some canonical texts are missing. Jefford gives a brief introduction to each work of the Apostolic Fathers (Epistle to Diognetus, First Clement, Second Clement, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the seven Epistles of Ignatius, the Epistle of Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Shepherd of Hermas, and fragments of Papias) - whereas each of the works dates back to the first or second century, the phrase and understanding of the collection is at least a medieval one, and Jefford states that the modern use of the term 'Apostolic Fathers' dates from Jean Cotelier in 1672.
Jefford has chapters devoted to historical context (people and places), scriptural connections, and theological ideas, as well as chapters that deal more generally with the ancient church in institutional terms and the influence and legacy that this early church, with possession of the body of literature from the Apostolic Fathers, had on later developments in Christianity. Jefford's historical survey organises things geographically, while Jefford's theological survey follows primary topics still strong in systematic theological circles (God, ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology, and orthodoxy).
Despite their influence, which has resurfaced a number of times in the nearly two millennia since their composition, 'the collected writings of the early church that are now classified as the Apostolic Fathers unfortunately remain a complete mystery to most Christians.' Jefford makes apt contrast of these texts with other works such as the Gospel of Thomas and other 'lost' writings - the fact that these were preserved (even though not considered scriptural) shows that the church over time considered them important and worthwhile in ways that competing writings were not. Jefford also highlights the regional diversity and ethnic and ethical diversity of the authors of the Apostolic Fathers. 'They were not canonised, but neither were they rejected. In this way we might argue with some justification that, despite the fact that these writings derive from a variety of different authors and geographical settings, they do indeed stand as a unified corpus of writings that depict a genuine faith among early Christians.'
This is a book that will provide for the student, seminarian, minister, historian or other interested reader a good introductory snapshot of the Apostolic Fathers in terms of context, content, influence and importance.
There is no index in the book, which is a drawback for those who might want to use this book as a reference tool. However, the book is well written and concise, so making notes for one's own use in the back pages would not be a bad idea.
This is a book designed largely for the busy person in mind -- the reading is simple without being simplistic; there are not too many names and terms to wade through, and the whole of the book could be read in but a few hours, making this piece of church history readily accessible to even the busiest of lay persons, and a refresher handily available for the busiest of clergy.