Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 1786, a Christian Hymn

If you’ve ever gone to church and wondered, “When did Christians start singing hymns?” one answer with manuscript evidence to back it is “mid to late third century or before.” We can say that with certainty because we have P.Oxy. 1786, which (thanks to a grain receipt on one side) we can be pretty sure was written sometime in the third century (200–299), likelier in the later half of that range.

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P.Oxy. 1786

Even better, we not only have an idea of the words of the hymn, but we also have an idea of the music. This is the earliest Christian hymn with musical notation extant. You can see the notation above the word line. It’s pretty awesome. In the ed. princ., Grenfell and Hunt supply the complete transcsription as well as a reconstruction of the hymn in modern musical notation (courtesy H. Stuart Jones). So slip this to your worship team for Sunday, and see what they do with it:

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P.Oxy. 1786 transcription and with musical notation

But what is the translation? Here’s Blumell & Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus, (p. 323), though note that this translation (which I’ve roughly broken to follow the stanzas above; note the first line has no musical notation extant) is based on a slightly different transcription with more reconstruction. The [bracketed] portions are Blumell & Wayment’s reconstructions and have no musical notation available:

… together all the notable of God (sing?)
… or the day (?), let it be silent. Let the lu-
minous stars not … [Let the winds(?) and] all the flowing rivers [be silent],
while we sing, Father and
Son and Holy Spirit, let all the powers
respond, “Amen, amen.” Strength and praise
[and glory forever to God], the sole giver
of all good things, “Amen, amen.”

This is pretty solid stuff. There’s the Trinitarian formula (“Father and Son and Holy Spirit”) clearly expressed. In a hymn. In the mid-to-late third century. This is pre-Constantine, and only 200 years or so removed from the birth of Christianity. The notion of calling the elements (wind, rivers) and heavenly phenomenon (stars) to silence while the Trinitarian formula is sung, followed by a call for the “all the powers” to respond with a double amen affirming the Godhead is (at least as I read it) stunning.

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Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 924, a Prayer against Fevers

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P. Oxy. 5306,* possibly written by same scribe as P. Oxy. 924.

P. Oxy. 924 (TM 64394) is an amulet papyrus from the fourth century. Specifically, it is a prayer against fevers.* We may not think of it much because today we can diagnose the problems behind the fevers and prescribe medicine appropriately. But in the ancient world, a fever meant more because you probably had to ride it out and hope you’d make it through, particularly if due to an infection. Even the flu can be fatal without treatment, so fevers were a real problem. Here’s a translation of the amulet from Blumell and Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus:

Truly guard and protect Aria from fever by day, and from daily fever, and from fever by night, and from minor fever and small fever. All this you will do with benevolence according to your will and according to her faith, because she is a servant of the living God so that your name may be glorified forever.
Father of Jesus, son, mother of Christ, alpha and omega, Holy Spirit, Abrasax.

Now, here is where I identify with this prayer in a very personal way: My daughter has what is called Periodic Fever Syndrome. She gets fevers all the time (fewer now than when she was younger, but still once a month or so isn’t uncommon). When she was younger, they’d come on fast and very high (105 was not an uncommon fever temp in our house) and last for a few days, even with ibuprofen and aceitamenophen fighting against it. I get the first sentence of this prayer intimately. Check the perspective: It is not Aria (who suffers fevers) praying, it is someone who wants her protected — I’d guess a parent or perhaps a husband(?) — praying on her behalf.

From a Christian theological perspective, this prayer starts to go a little south in the second sentence because it is bargaining with God, telling him what he needs to do (prevent Aria’s fevers) and why he needs to do it (she’s faithful, she is a servant of God, and so God will be glorified). And the third sentence goes completely bonkers with appeal to every deity or holy entity in Christianity (Trinity + Mary) with a further “Abrasax” appeal that is commonly found in gnostic papyri. It can refer to the number 365, implying an appeal for constant protection. Idiomatically, “Abrasax” could be the equivalent of saying “24/7”. This whole sentence is structured graphically at the end of the papyrus in an inverse pyramid with all seven Greek vowels lining the outside margin. At this point, it is less a prayer and more an incantation, a magical appeal for goodness to whatever and whomever might supply an answer.

What can we really take away from this papyrus? I see a very real, very human problem represented in P. Oxy. 924. Because of my personal circumstance, it is very hard for me to not read this papyrus as a father desperately wanting his daughter’s fevers to go away, but having no ability or power to do so and no treatments from physicians that help. This desperate dad does whatever he can, including reading this prayer, when a fever hits his daughter.

An appeal to any sort of god or higher power in a desperate and powerless time is a human response to an issue like this. It reminds again that these ancient Christians were people. Their theology wasn’t always pure, but these papyrus scraps from an ancient garbage dump, retrieved by what were essentially late 19th/early 20th century dumpster divers, show us the humanity of these people. They show us how the ancients were real human beings, with real problems.


* Interesting note: Apparently P. Oxy. 5306 and P. Oxy. 5307 are similar amulets with prayers possibly/probably written by the same scribe.

Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 407, a Christian Prayer

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(not P. Oxy. 407)

P. Oxy. 407 (TM: 64310)  is titled “Christian Prayer,” but it is so much more. It is a window into early Christian practice. There is a short, seven-line prayer on one side of the papyrus. The other side simply says “Prayer” and, remarkably, has some scribbled amounts of stuff I’d guess the owner needed to record and only happened to have this papyrus with the prayer handy. Here’s the transcription from P. Oxy. III:

1 ο θεος ο παντ[ο]κρατωρ ο ποιησας τον ουρανον
2 και την γην και την θαλατταν και παντα τα εν αυτοις
3 βοηθησον μοι ελεησον με ⟦εξ⟧ εξαλιψον μου τας
4 αμαρτιας σωσον με εν τω νυν και εν τω μελλοντι
5 αιωνι δια του κυριου κα[ι] σωτηρος ημων Ϊησου
6 Χρειστου δι ου η δοξα και το κρατος εις τους αιωνας
7 των αιωνω[ν] αμην

On the verso

8 προσευχη
9 . (δραχμαὶ) ʼΒρλϛ
10 χωρ( ) λι(τρ ) ε (ἥμισυ?).

Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, eds., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (vol. III; Egypt Exploration Fund: Graeco-Roman Branch; Boston, MA; London: The Offices of the Egypt Exploration Fund; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.; Bernard Quaritch; Asher & Co.; Henry Frowde, 1903), 12–13.

The beauty of this prayer is that it is simple. If you know some NT Greek, you probably already read some chunks of it without much effort. Here’s a translation:

1 O God Almighty, who made the heaven
2 and the earth and the sea and all the things in them,
3 help me, have mercy on me. Cleanse me from my
4 sin, save me in the present [age] and in the coming
5 age through our Lord and Savior Jesus
6 Christ, through whom [be] the glory and the power forever
7 and ever, amen.

This is a real thing that a real person in Egypt did, back in the late third to fourth century: He (or someone he knew) wrote the prayer on a scrap of papyrus, small enough to fold up and keep with him pretty much all the time. He wrote “Prayer” on the back. He folded it up and kept it with him. He opened it up and read it. He cherished it. He was encouraged by it. He probably memorized it, but still read it. Somewhere along the way, he scribbled some other notes and amounts on it, like any one of us has done — scribbled an important number or amount on a post-it note near us so we would remember it.

Then it ended up in a garbage dump and sat there for 1500 years. Then some guys found it and brought it back to Oxford. And now we know about it. I’m sure the owner never dreamed that would happen, but his prayer now gives us a glimpse into a very personal sort of ancient Christian practice. It represents an incredibly human thing (writing a note, something important to treasure and remember) that is something many of us have likely done before. It is a reminder that early Christians were real people, who did real things. They were individuals. They tried all sorts of stuff to keep their faith at the forefront of their minds, much like we do.

And they read more than the New Testament, and they did more writing than just copy NT manuscripts. Just like you, and just like me.

Early Christian Non-NT Manuscripts

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P. Oxy. 1, 150–250 AD

I’ve had a printed copy of Clarysse and Orsini’s short article Christian Manuscripts from Egypt to the Times of Constantine printed and sitting on my desk for awhile. It is chock full of papyrological and epigraphal detail. Ultimately, it is about estimating dates for papyri. They include a short catalogue of “earliest Christian manuscripts” consisting of 27 manuscripts dated in the second to early third century (so, 100–250). The interesting thing that got me thinking is that there are some NT manuscripts (six, seven if you count P. Dura 10 as a diatessaron and thus NT, but I’m not convinced it’s a diatessaron). That leaves 20 manuscripts (over 2/3!) that are not NT, but still early and still Christian.

Of the remaining 20 manuscripts, 11 are Old Testament (and four of those are Psalms!) and nine are simply “other Christian literature.” Of those nine, four are witnesses to the Shepherd of Hermas (extremely popular in the early church), three are theological texts of some sort, and two are apocryphal gospels (P. Oxy. 1, Gospel of Thomas; and P. Egerton 2 + P. Köln 255).

Working through all of this stuff reminded me, once again, that early Christians produced a wide array of literature. So I started with Clarysse and Orsini’s list and broke it into three types of literature: LXX Texts, Extracanonical Texts, and Other Christian Literary Texts. Then I supplemented the LXX Texts list with material from Rahlf’s list (via the Logos Bible Software LXX Manuscript Explorer). I supplemented the other categories with data from Blumell & Wayment’s Christian Oxyrhynchus (which is a fantastic volume!). My small catalogue has 24 LXX Texts (1–350 AD),  28 Extracanonical Texts (150–399 AD), and 26 Other Christian Literary Texts (100–499 AD). Again, this catalog is not exhaustive and centers mainly around texts with Egyptian provenance from the fourth century and before. Dates are all from entries in trismegistos.org.

Over the next while, I plan to write about some of the more interesting of the Extracanonical and Christian Literary texts. There are some gems.

Physical Descriptions of the Antichrist

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Luca Signorelli’s 1501 depiction of the face of antichrist, from the Orvieto Cathedral (via Wikipedia)

If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you know that I’ve been working on a new translation and introduction to First Apocryphal Apocalypse of John (1 Apocr. Apoc. John) for awhile. It will appear in vol. 2 of Burke & Landau’s New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. My contribution is very nearly done. I just received the hopefully last round of feedback from one of the editors (thanks, Brent!).

One thing about really good editors (and in my view, both Tony Burke and Brent Landau are really good editors) is that they know where to ask for more, and when to leave things be. A good editor knows when and where to push to make the contribution better. In this last round, Brent pushed back about one of the more interesting passages in 1 Apocr. Apoc. John: A physical description of the antichrist. Here’s the text:

The appearance of his face is dark, the hairs of his head (are) as sharp as arrows. His eyebrows (are) like a field, his right eye like the morning star rising and his other (eye) like a lion. His mouth is a cubit’s breadth, his teeth a broad span. His fingers (are) like sickles, his footprint two spans, and upon his forehead, an inscription: ‘antichrist.’

There are other ancient writings that give brief physical descriptions of the antichrist. News flash: They don’t all agree. Brent helpfully asked how this description compares to other descriptions. It is a good question, so I’ll need to at least add a footnote with minimal discussion here.

All of this is background to the reason for this post. In digging around to find other physical descriptions of the antichrist, I came across the following citation:

Rosenstiehl, J.M. 1967. Le portrait de l’antichrist. Vol 1, pp. 45–63 in Pseudepigraphes de l’Ancien Testament et manuscrits de la mer mort. Cahiers de la RHPR1 1, ed. M. Philonenko, et al. Paris.

My biblical studies library resources are limited here in Bellingham, so I put the call out on the Twitter, and was answered (thanks, Ian). A scan was on its way. In French, but that’s not a huge deal. Upon arrival of the scan, I realized this was a pretty sweet source (and very appropriate for my needs). It provided over 20 excerpts of descriptions of an antichrist figure from several different writings (including 1 Apocr. Apoc. John!).

Now, I needed to get translations, and my French is only as good as I can fake through my Spanish and the little I know of Latin. This means it isn’t great. So on Saturday I started keying the excerpts and feeding them to Google Translate to get a rough translation.

I figure this might be useful information to others out there, so I have a Google doc that lists the descriptions, in order, with sources, with the French first followed by the English. The English is a translation of the French unless otherwise noted. View the document.

If you know French better than I do (likely), feel free to suggest an edit to the English. I’ll probably accept it, I’d just rather not have wide-open editing on this document.

What Did Early Christians Read?

P.Oxy. 63.4365 (transcription, images) is a letter from one woman to another regarding lending books to each other. The letter, albeit short, indicates that both women were Christian and familiar with reading Christian manuscripts.

P.Oxy. 63.4365

The letter author requests “the Ezra” (likely the pseudepigraphal 4 Ezra) and reminds the recipient that she was lent the “Little Genesis” (another way to refer to the pseudepigraphal book of Jubilees). The entire text is as follows:

To my dearest lady sister in the Lord, greetings. Lend the Ezra, since I lent you the Little Genesis. Farewell from us in God.

AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Harvard Theological Studies vol. 60. Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 2008, p. 71.

This letter, dated to the early fourth century, was discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. It indicates that there were literate people at that time and in that place who had experience reading Christian manuscripts to the point of owning manuscripts and lending them to others. The letter itself uses two different nomina sacra (a Christian practice of abbreviating sacred names), typically found in larger manuscripts. This is a clue that the writer of the letter was familiar with nomina sacra, most likely from experience reading them in various manuscripts.

Interestingly, these literate Christian ladies were borrowing each other’s pseudepigraphal literature. But all sorts of literature has been retrieved from Oxyrhynchus: writings from the New Testament, from the Septuagint, from the Apostolic Fathers, from the Pseudepigrapha, and from the Christian Apocrypha.

This letter and the other literary remains retrieved from Oxyrhynchus indicate that (at Oxyrhynchus, anyway) Christian literature was collected (perhaps even produced), read, heard, lent, and borrowed among the community.

But it is true in other early Christian communities as well. Harry Y. Gamble, in his masterful work Books and Readers in the Early Church, provides a translation of Gesta apud Zenophilum consularem (Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church. Yale University Press, New Haven: 1995, p. 145–147.). This document describes the capture of Christian manuscripts for destruction during Diocletian’s “Great Persecution,” which commenced in 303. The document mentions 37 different manuscripts that were captured from a single church. The description is striking. The first volume taken was “a very large volume” which was likely a gospels codex. Upon receiving it, the mayor (who is the one seeking the manuscripts) simply states: “Why have you given one volume only? Produce the scriptures that you have.” He doesn’t for a minute believe that the church only has one codex. The next step is to locate the church’s readers (the early church had an office of “reader”), who are the ones with the books. The remaining 36 books are distributed among the seven readers of the church. The manuscripts were taken from the readers and, in all likelihood, destroyed.

Christians had books. They read books, they heard books read, they produced books, they maintained books, and they shared books. And it was more than just the New Testament. And it was more than just the material most today consider canonical.

They read widely and deeply.

Stuff Early Christians Read

I’m hoping (not promising) to write a series of posts introducing and examining various collections of works and individual works outside of the New Testament that early Christians likely read.

This is tenatively planned to include stuff like the Septuagint, the Apostolic Fathers, other writings from early Christian writers (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Melito of Sardis), and various writings collectively labeled as “Christian Apocrypha.”

Some Background

Over 4.5 years ago, I organized a class at my church that we called Stuff Early Christians Read. The goal was to give a very high level introduction to non-canonical sources the early church read and copied. I had the extra benefit of friends and colleagues well versed in other relevant literature (Judaica, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Pseudepigrapha) who did the introductions to those particular corpora. I focused on LXX, Apostolic Fathers, and Christian Apocrypha. It was a hoot. Since then, I’ve toyed with the thought of expanding the material I was responsible for into a book, but simply haven’t got around to it.

But it is good material. So I want to try to be semi-disciplined and work through the material, expanding and researching and writing as a I go. The best-case scenario is that I actually make my way through the material and end up with a rough draft that I can then further edit and revise into something publishable. The worst case is that I write one post and then the crazyness of life takes over and I never finish it. The reality is we’ll probably end up somewhere in between those two scenarios. I think it’s worth trying.

Christ’s Resurrection in the Apocryphal Gospels

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The apocryphal gospels — those documents that relate stories about Jesus but are not considered to be in the canon of scripture — also relate details and aspects of the story of Christ’s resurrection that are not known from canonical gospels. These are typically interweaved with details knowable from the canonical accounts.

The translations below are taken from my book, Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha: A New Translation, published by Lexham Press. The book is also available for users of Logos Bible Software. The Logos version also has the Greek sources available as a separate resource.

Gospel of Peter

The Gospel of Peter, known from a codex dated between the fifth and eighth centuries, was found in a cemetery in Akhmim, Egypt. It contains some very familiar details and some rather fantastic details of Christ’s resurrection. Here is a selection from GPt 9.35–10.42:

9.35 Now on the night when the Lord’s Day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in heaven, 36 and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend from there with much light and come close unto the tomb. 37 And the stone that had been cast at the door rolled away of itself and made way in part, and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.

10.38 The soldiers, therefore, when they saw it, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they were also there keeping watch); 39 and as they told the things that they had seen, again they saw three men coming from the tomb, two of them supporting the other, and a cross following them. 40 And the head of the two reached to heaven, but that of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. 41 And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, “You preached to the ones who are sleeping?” 42 And a response was heard from the cross, “Yes.”

The detail in §10 about the two giant men (angels, their heads “reached to heaven”) and the even more giant cross that overshadowed them is certainly not witnessed in the canonical accounts. Even more interesting is the cross, personified, responding about preaching to those who “were sleeping.” Though please note Mark Goodacre’s conjecture that instead of “cross,” we should read “crucified one.”

Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus)

The text known (in its Greek edition) as the Acts of Pilate is also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus in its Latin edition. It was very popular, translated to several different language editions over the centuries and even in to modern times. There are three primary parts: The trial and death of Christ, a part with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus with details on the resurrection, and the Descent of Christ to Hades.

Here is Act. Pil. §13, styled as a discussion that takes place within the synagogue. The context is that the ruling Jews had locked up Joseph of Arimathea in a room and sealed it because of his involvement in putting Jesus’ body in the tomb. The synagogue was meeting the next day (Sunday) to discuss what to do with him. However, when they went to get Joseph, they discovered that he had somehow been taken away from the locked, guarded, and sealed room.

13.1 And while still seated in the synagogue and astonished because of Joseph, there came some of the guard that the Jews had asked Pilate to keep the tomb of Jesus, lest his disciples should come and steal him away. And they reported, saying to the rulers of the synagogue and the priests and the Levites what had happened: “Somehow there was a great earthquake, and we saw an angel descend from heaven, and he rolled away the stone from the mouth of the cave, and sat upon it. And he was shining like snow and like lightning, and we were very afraid and pretended to be dead. And we heard the voice of the angel speaking with the women who waited at the tomb: “Do not fear, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. Now go quickly, tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead, and is in Galilee.”

2 The Jews said, “Which women did he speak with?” Those of the guard said, “We do not know who they were.” The Jews said, “What hour was it?” Those of the guard said, “Midnight.” The Jews said, “And why did you not take the women?” Those of the guard said, “We became like dead men through fear, and we did not look to see the light of the day; how then could we take them?” The Jews said, “As the Lord lives, we do not believe you.” Those of the guard said to the Jews, “You saw so many signs in that man, and you did not believe, how then should you believe us? Truly you swore rightly ‘as the Lord lives,’ for he does live.” Again those of the guard said, “We have heard the reports of the one who asked for the body of Jesus, that you secured him and that you sealed the door; and when you opened it you did not find him. So you give us Joseph and we will give you Jesus.” The Jews said, “Joseph has departed to his own city.” Those of the guard said to the Jews, “And Jesus is risen, as we have heard from the angel, and he is in Galilee.”

3 And the Jews, upon hearing these words, were exceedingly fearful, saying, “Take heed lest this report be heard and everyone starts to listen to Jesus.” And the Jews took counsel and laid down a large sum of money and gave it to the soldiers, saying, “You say: ‘While we slept his disciples came by night and stole him away.’ And if this comes to the governor’s hearing we will persuade him and secure you.” And they took it and did as they were instructed.

Again, several details from the canonical accounts, but there are also significant expansions. There are more details given about what happened at the tomb, more details from the soldiers, and even some confrontation between the soldiers and synagogue leaders (you show us Joseph, we’ll show you Jesus) where the soldiers end up with assurances from the synagogue leaders that they’ll be protected if the governor hears what really happened.

So why is this stuff important if it isn’t in the canonical gospels? It shows us, again, that early Christians weren’t stupid. They had questions about things known from the New Testament, because they didn’t make sense. They were amazing and fantastic, and they believed them, but there were still questions they had about the whole thing. They fabricated some details in their telling and retelling of the stories, but that only shows us what information they found necessary to add to make sense of it all. This helps us understand what these early Christians believed, what they read, and how they assimilated it all.

To podcast or not to podcast?

So, a few weeks back, I asked the following question on the Twitter.

I kept the poll open for a week.

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That’s  pretty strong response.

I’m still not totally convinced, though. Heck, I can hardly find the time to write stuff on this site, let alone produce a podcast.

Also, I’d need to do it super cheap. Like, no monetary cost. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

I’m concerned about storage and video is big, but I guess that’s what YouTube / Vimeo / et. al. are for. Or go audio only, though there’s still a storage question (soundcloud)?

Basically, I want to prepare (outline main points), record in one take (warts and all) on my phone, and then publish. Probably solo, at least for a bit. Low tech pirate radio stuff. 10-15 minutes, nothing long and arduous.

Is this possible? Am I crazy for even thinking it? I mean, I already have a basic outline and plan in my head for, say, the first 10–15 episodes. Anybody out there pull off something similar?

The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation is now available in print!

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It’s real! Purchase at Amazon.

My translation of the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers is now available in print! I’m super excited about this.

It’s been long enough ago that I don’t really remember when I had the idea. But looking back at internal records here at Logos, my Apostolic Fathers Greek-English Interlinear was listed on pre-pub in late February 2010. That jives with my vague memories because I think I actually started work on the Didache and Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians in 2009. Anyway, that was the project that started it all.

I woke up early pretty much every weekday morning after that to work on the interlinear. Through 2010 and into 2011, until the product was released in October 2011.

Sometime between October 2011 and October 2012, I must’ve had the idea to write a program to convert the translation embedded within the interlinear into an actual, bona-fide, English translation. So I did. Some text-wrangling ensued, and I generated translations that needed to be further edited and revised into a smooth, readable English text. The Logos version was released in December 2012, with a reverse interlinear alignment. I thought it was pretty much the coolest suite of stuff I’d ever be able to do (Interlinear, Translation, Reverse Interlinear), but it just got cooler. Because in December 2016, Lexham Press talked to me about getting the translation available in print. There were some bumps along the way, but we persevered, and the English translation is now available in print. Woo hoo!

You can purchase a copy of The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation, from either Lexham Press (be sure to specify print) or from Amazon.

Side note: Because I was able to do it with the Apostolic Fathers meant I next wanted to try it with Logos/Faithlife’s Septuagint Interlinear. We rounded up some more contributors/editors (thanks, guys!) and the output of that process became the Lexham English Septuagint, available with a reverse interlinear.