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Addendum: Preaching in the Apostolic Fathers

Posted by on Jul 20, 2012 in scripture | 9 comments

Addendum: Preaching in the Apostolic Fathers

This post is a follow-up of my series this week concerning “Preaching” in the Old Testament. (See “Preaching in the LXX (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 (kerusso – 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 (kerusso) 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 (kerusso) 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 (kerusso) 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 (kerusso) 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 (kerusso): 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 (kerusso)? (I do not include all usages in the these books. There are 19 usages of κηρύσσω (kerusso) 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 (kerusso) 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 (kerusso) 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 (kerusso) change, and why do we still use the wrong translation? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions.


“Preaching” in the LXX (Old Testament) Series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Genesis – Micah
  3. Joel – Daniel + Non-canonical books
  4. Conclusion

Addendum: Apostolic Fathers


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-20-2012

    Alan, I don’t have any idea either when the word might have changed. However, I would posit, that the change came because of man’s tendency toward the “Wanting a King” syndrome, and then the Kings tendency to wanting to hear himself talk. I am sure it all started innocently enough,but like the proverbial frog in the pot, incrementalism took over.

  2. 7-20-2012


    You’ve probably right about it all starting innocently enough, and perhaps even with good motives, then building up to what we see today.


  3. 7-23-2012

    Hi Alan

    Thanks so much for your hard work on this topic. I noticed a long time ago that more ecumenical and Catholic translations of the New Testament consistently rendered kerusso proclaim, whereas the rest would usually render the word preach even in really absurd contexts like Acts 8:35 NASB

    “Act 8:34 The eunuch answered Philip and said, “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?”
    Act 8:35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him.”

    Philip preached a sermon to one guy?

    I’ve attempted to research another side of this question. If kerusso doesn’t mean “preach” what is/are the greek word(s) that are could be associated with preaching. I found one: rhetoric. Rhetoric doesn’t refer necessarily to the very act of preaching but the art and method of making speeches. Rhetorical methods are the cornerstone of almost every preaching book I’ve read.

    What I found was very interesting! It wasn’t until much later when instructors of rhetoric became Christians that certain rhetorical techniques became acceptable in the church. Most early authors reflect very negatively on the use of rhetorical flourish.

    Origen Against Celsus B3 C39
    And we have confidence also in the intentions of the writers of the Gospels, observing their piety and conscientiousness, manifested in their writings, which contain nothing that is spurious, or deceptive, or false, or cunning; for it is evident to us that souls unacquainted with those artifices which are taught by the cunning sophistry of the Greeks (which is characterized by great plausibility and acuteness), and by the kind of rhetoric in vogue in the courts of justice, would not have been able thus to invent occurrences which are fitted of themselves to conduct to faith, and to a life in keeping with faith. And I am of opinion that it was on this account that Jesus wished to employ such persons as teachers of His doctrines, viz., that there might be no ground for any suspicion of plausible sophistry, but that it might clearly appear to all who were capable of understanding, that the guileless purpose of the writers being, so to speak, marked with great simplicity, was deemed worthy of being accompanied by a diviner power, which accomplished far more than it seemed possible could be accomplished by a periphrasis of words, and a weaving of sentences, accompanied by all the distinctions of Grecian art.

    Origen Against Celsus B1 C62
    I assert, therefore, in answer to such statements as the above, that it is clear to all who are able to institute an intelligent and candid examination into the history of the apostles of Jesus, that it was by help of a divine power that these men taught Christianity, and succeeded in leading others to embrace the word of God. For it was not any power of speaking, or any orderly arrangement of their message, according to the arts of Grecian dialectics or rhetoric, which was in them the effective cause of converting their hearers.

    Clement of Alexandria : The Stromata B1 C8
    But the art of sophistry, which the Greeks cultivated, is a fantastic power, which makes false opinions like true by means of words. For it produces rhetoric in order to persuasion, and disputation for wrangling. These arts, therefore, if not conjoined with philosophy, will be injurious to every one.

    Tatian : Address of Tatian to the Greeks C40
    For many of the sophists among them, stimulated by curiosity, endeavoured to adulterate whatever they learned from Moses, and from those who have philosophized like him, first that they might be considered as having something of their own, and secondly, that covering up by a certain rhetorical artifice whatever things they did not understand, they might misrepresent the truth as if it were a fable.

    Tatian : Address of Tatian to the Greeks C1
    Yet those who eagerly pursue it shout lustily, and croak like so many ravens. You have, too, contrived the art of rhetoric to serve injustice and slander, selling the free power of your speech for hire, and often representing the same thing at one time as right, at another time as not good. The poetic art, again, you employ to describe battles, and the amours of the gods, and the corruption of the soul.

    Irenaeus against Heresies B1 Preface
    Thou wilt not expect from me, who am resident among the Keltæ, and am accustomed for the most part to use a barbarous dialect, any display of rhetoric, which I have never learned, or any excellence of composition, which I have never practised, or any beauty and persuasiveness of style, to which I make no pretensions. But thou wilt accept in a kindly spirit what I in a like spirit write to thee simply, truthfully, and in my own homely way;

    Justin Martyr : Justin’s Horatory Address to the Greeks C8
    For neither by nature nor by human conception is it possible for men to know things so great and divine, but by the gift which then descended from above upon the holy men, who had no need of rhetorical art, nor of uttering anything in a contentious or quarrelsome manner, but to present themselves pure26 to the energy of the Divine Spirit, in order that the divine plectrum itself, descending from heaven, and using righteous men as an instrument like a harp or lyre, might reveal to us the knowledge of things divine and heavenly.

    Cyprian: The Epistles of Cyprian: Epistle 1 : Argument
    In courts of justice, in the public assembly, in political debate, a copious eloquence may be the glory of a voluble ambition; but in speaking of the Lord God, a chaste simplicity of expression strives for the conviction of faith rather with the substance, than with the powers, of eloquence. Therefore accept from me things, not clever but weighty, words, not decked up to charm a popular audience with cultivated rhetoric, but simple and fitted by their unvarnished truthfulness for the proclamation of the divine mercy.

    All of these quotes come from
    Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers (various volumes): Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 (275).

  4. 7-23-2012


    Interesting quotes. When do you think rhetoric began to replace proclamation of the gospel or teaching among the church?


  5. 7-23-2012

    The earliest positive reference I could find was by Lactantius writing between 300 and 310. He taught rhetoric and eventually became and advisor to Constantine. I imagine he had some influence.

    Lactantius : The Divine Institutes B5 of Justice C2
    I was teaching rhetorical learning in Bithynia, having been called thither, and it had happened that at the same time the temple of God was overthrown, there were living at the same place two men who insulted the truth as it lay prostrate and overthrown, I know not whether with greater arrogance or harshness: the one of whom professed himself the high priest of philosophy;

    Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. VII : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 (137). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

  6. 7-23-2012

    I’m looking at the same stuff you are and coming to what seems to be very obvious conclusions. It is the sheer scope and ramifications of what I see that kind of boggle me. The whole ecclesiology of the protestant reformation orbits around the proper preaching the word and the administration of sacraments. Could 500 years of protestant church practice be hinging on a poor rendering of two words (kerusso and euaggelizō). Were these two words so poorly rendered in Latin, German and French as well? Is just we’ve been reading our ecclesial context for hundreds of year? The sermon/homily certainly exists in Roman Catholic church practice but the deference to church tradition and church authority renders the need to find a New Testament root to the practice mute in their stream.

    I’ve bought books on preaching and searched through blogs and searched from my Logos library to find the accepted biblical basis for preaching as the central function of the assembled church. The best I’ve found is 2Tim 4:2 in which Paul uses Kerusso which in context is much better rendered proclaim or announce than preach.

    The irony is the most prominent advocates of preaching are advocates of exegetical preaching and good hermeneutics. Could it be that these same folks didn’t properly exegete scripture to establish their basis for the primacy of exegetical preaching in the first place?

    The only basis in the New Testament for preaching in the NT that I see is found in the messages (Peter, Stephen, Jesus) to crowds of people who hadn’t decided to follow Jesus. Even in these situations there was audience response like questions or stoning and such.

  7. 7-23-2012


    I appreciate your comments very much. I carry your question on to the next level to ask this: “If today’s preaching isn’t what NT preaching is, then what is NT preaching and why are we not doing that instead?”


  8. 7-23-2012

    If we are talking about preaching, as a divinely ordained medium for church leaders to engage in monologue in order to educate, inform, challenge, exhort, correct and rebuke the church I can’t find it anywhere.

    How can we define NT preaching when all we can find is NT proclamation via debate, dialogue, question/answer, life example, one to one discussions, parables, the Lords supper and yes public speaking.

    Preaching is a style of public monologue discourse that existed before Christ. It was a finely honed art in Jesus’ day that is absent in the descriptions of ministry that exist. One could argue that Apollos was trained in rhetoric, but the first 2 chapters of 1Corinthians indicate Paul refused to use rhetoric (the power of persuasive words esp 1Cor 2:1-4).

    I don’t know how I would find a NT definition of preaching when the medium doesn’t seem exist in the lives of the people in the NT. It is kind of like asking for New Testament dialectics.

    I think the issue is proclamation. The question we should ask is “Are we faithfully proclaiming the gospel in an effective, sincere, genuinely honest, and culturally relevant way?” We should carefully examine the mediums we use, so they don’t distort or overshadow the message we intend to proclaim.

  9. 7-23-2012


    You said: I think the issue is proclamation. The question we should ask is “Are we faithfully proclaiming the gospel in an effective, sincere, genuinely honest, and culturally relevant way?”