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Postscript: Preaching in the Apostolic Fathers

Posted by on Aug 10, 2009 in church history, scripture | 1 comment

This post is a follow-up of my series this week concerning “Preaching” in the Old Testament. (See “Preaching in the Old Testament: Introduction” for the first post in that series.) In that series, I suggested that “preach” is not a good translation of the term κηρύσσω (kÄ“russō – usually translated “preach”). Instead, I said that “announce” is a better translation. (Also, “proclaim” would be a good translation, as long as we understand that “proclaim” does not mean the same thing as any of the modern definitions of “preach”.)

In order to make that claim, I looked at the usage of the term κηρύσσω (kērussō) in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament), in the non-canonical books that are usually included in the LXX, and in Josephus and Philo. I included Josephus and Philo because they have similar backgrounds to the New Testament authors: they are Jewish, and they lived in roughly the same time period.

But, could it be that the New Testament authors (and Christians in that time period in general) used the term κηρύσσω (kÄ“russō) in a new way? Of course, that’s possible. We know, for instance, that Jesus changed the meaning of the word “lead” for Christians (i.e. Matthew 20:25-28). Did the New Testament authors use the term κηρύσσω (kÄ“russō) to mean something other than “announce” or “proclaim”?

One of the best ways for us to determine this is to follow the meaning of the term κηρύσσω (kērussō) in early Christian writings, particularly 1 Clement (80-140AD), Ignatius to the Philadelphians (105-115AD), the Shepherd of Hermas (105-160AD), Epistle of Diognetus (130-200AD), the Epistle of Barnabas (80-120AD), and the Martyrdom and Polycarp (150-160AD). The other early Greek Christian writings do not include the term κηρύσσω (kērussō): 2 Clement (130-160AD), the Didache (50-120AD), Polycarp to the Philippians (110-140AD), and the other six letters from Ignatius (105-115AD).

How do these writings use the term κηρύσσω (kērussō)? (I do not include all usages in the these books. There are 19 usages of κηρύσσω (kērussō) in these early Christian writings.)

For who ever dwelt even for a short time among you, and did not find your faith to be as fruitful of virtue as it was firmly established? Who did not admire the sobriety and moderation of your godliness in Christ? Who did not proclaim [preach] the magnificence of your habitual hospitality? And who did not rejoice over your perfect and well-grounded knowledge? (1 Clement 1:2)

Again, I will show you how, in respect to us, He has accomplished a second fashioning in these last days. The Lord says, “Behold, I will make the last like the first.” In reference to this, then, the prophet proclaimed [preached], “Enter into the land flowing with milk and honey, and have dominion over it.” (Epistle of Barnabas 6:13)

For which reason He sent the Word, that He might be manifested to the world; and He, being despised by the people of the Jews, was, when proclaimed [preached] by the Apostles, believed on by the Gentiles. (Epistle of Diognetus 11:3)

Now, some suspected me of having spoken thus, as knowing beforehand the division caused by some among you. But He is my witness, for whose sake I am in bonds, that I got no intelligence from any man. But the Spirit proclaimed [preached] these words: “Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father.” (Ignatius to the Piladelphians 7:2)

While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, so that not merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim [preach] in the midst of the stadium thrice, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 12:1)

“Listen,” he said: “This great tree that casts its shadow over plains, and mountains, and all the earth, is the law of God that was given to the whole world; and this law is the Son of God, proclaimed [preached] to the ends of the earth; and the people who are under its shadow are they who have heard the proclamation, and have believed upon Him.” (Shepherd of Hermas Similitude 8 3:2)

And they who believed from the eighth mountain, where were the many fountains, and where all the creatures of God drank of the fountains, were the following: apostles and teachers, who proclaimed [preached] to the whole world, and who taught solemnly and purely the word of the Lord, and did not at all fall into evil desires, but walked always in righteousness and truth, according as they had received the Holy Spirit. Such persons, therefore, shall enter in with the angels. (Shepherd of Hermas Similitude 9 25:2)

As with the usages of κηρύσσω (kÄ“russō) in the Septuagint, Josephus, and Philo, in these early Christian writings the term also seems to be closer to the meaning of the English verb “announce” than to any of the definitions of the English verb “preach”. Also, note that in Shepherd of Hermas Similitude 9 25:2 (the last passage quoted), apostles and teachers are said to have both announced the gospel and taught the word of God. This is similar to what we found in Matthew 4:23:

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming [announcing] the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23 ESV)

Thus, tracking the usage of the term κηρύσσω (kÄ“russō) from about 250 BC (the start of the translation of the LXX) to about 200 AD (the latest date of the some of these Christian writings), we see that the term carried the meaning of “announce” (or perhaps “proclaim”), but not the meaning of “preach”. The meaning of this word did not change through those 450 years.

So, when did the meaning of the word κηρύσσω (kÄ“russō) change, and why do we still use the wrong translation? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions.

One Comment

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  1. 6-20-2010

    The constant here is kerusso, the variable is the English translation. What is the history of the translations of that word into Latin, Slavic, and other languages, including English?