It doesn't take a great deal of spiritual perception and awareness to recognize that today's Church, with all of its traditions, sacraments and holy-days, is a far cry from that which existed in the first century. When we measure the organization of the Church of the Book of ACTS with that of the second and third centuries we can't fail to take account of the drastic change which comes over it. With this in mind, one wonders why such a high regard is given to the writers and preachers of the second century. Many today are in fact content to measure and interpret Scripture according to what these so-called Apostolic Fathers said, or are said to have said.
Many new students of the Bible are absolutely dumbfounded when they first learn that the great majority of today's scholars date much if not most of the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) to a period after the time it aspires to be of. In other words, the apostle Matthew didn't write his Gospel shortly after the events which he depicts, but someone else probably wrote it (so they proclaim) many years after the fact. And further, Paul and Peter didn't write all of the epistles attributed to them, but others, perhaps their later disciples, wrote in their name. This is the common assumption of the scholarly world today.
And what is most astounding about the general conclusion of many of these scholars, is the reasoning for their hypothesis. They believe that because MATTHEW foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in A.D. 70, they surmise that it must have then been written after that occurrence, otherwise how would the writer have known about it. Predicting future events is not a science they can measure so they are compelled to erase it from their equation.
Below is a snippet of some of their reasoning.
A comparison of Matt. xxii. 1-10 with Luke xiv. 16-24 suggests that the story at Matt. xxii. 7 has been rewritten to make explicit reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. Before this alteration could be affected it was necessary for the fall of Jerusalem to lead to a change in the interpretation of the passage, and this modified interpretation had to become fixed before it could be written into the text as it is in our Gospel. This seems to require a date after A.D. 75.
The Origins of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, by G.W. Kilpatrick
The majority of these scholars propose that later writers added these predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem to Yeshua's preaching and Paul's writings. They suggest and often confidently declare that the reason for these alterations was so as to make it appear that the Church of the second and third centuries was originally founded by individuals of the first century who indeed had the gift of prophecy. They evidently believe that much of what was written was no more than a sham which was concocted to give credence to the second generation of Church hierarchy.
Consider this revealing comment from Burnett Hillman Streeter in his The Four Gospels: A Study Of Origins.
The story of the Acts of the Apostles leaves Paul in Rome a couple of years or so before the persecution under Nero (A.D. 64), in or shortly after which probably Paul, and possibly Peter, fell. Owing to the extreme paucity of early Christian literature (apart from the New Testament) the ninety years which separate this event from the writings of Justin is the most obscure in the history of the Church. It was during this period that the Gospels were written, and during the earlier part of it each must have had a separate history [page 15].
Mr. Streeter is quite accurate in writing that the decades following the destruction of Jerusalem are the most obscure in the history of the Church. Next to nothing is known of them. And yet in the very next sentence he writes as a matter of fact that the Gospels were written during those years. How does he know? He can't know. Nobody knows. There is no evidence to date which proves either way when the Gospels were written. Yet that reality does not restrain many of these scholars from proclaiming detailed and comprehensive conclusions about much of the Christian Scriptures, all based on some unproven assumption.
Here is another example from Adolf Schlatter in his book The Church in the New Testament Period.
The Supreme achievement of St. John was the publication of his Gospel. We do not know the exact year in which this happened. He looks back on Peter's crucifixion and corrects the wide-spread expectation that he himself would remain alive until the coming of Christ in a way which suggests that when he wrote the Gospel he was an old man [page 299].
Really? Completely rejecting the last scene from John's Gospel as factual, Mr. Schlatter supposes that it must have been written after Peter's death, otherwise how would John have known the details of Peter's crucifixion. You just have to shake your head in wonder and disbelief at some of the conclusions of these Theologians.
The whole subject of Biblical research, the entire object and purpose for the reading and study of the Scriptures all turns upon a simple choice between two possibilities. Either,
the Christian Scriptures (usually referred to as the New Testament) can be trusted to represent the true events surrounding the life, death, resurrection and return of Christ, or they can't.
If we do not believe them to represent the true history of the original Church, then why read them? Why write about them? Why spend our time and energy disproving them or proving them to be false? Why not find another past time which more suits our tastes? The Scriptures were written to be believed. They were written to reveal and open up, to elucidate and illuminate, but only for those who approach them with an open heart, with a meek and quite spirit. To the agnostic, to the unbeliever and doubter they remain a sealed book.
It is generally recognized that for the first century Church, the great dividing line of that era is A.D. 70. Everything that happened before the destruction of the city and temple and nation of Israel is drastically different from everything which happened afterwards. Before that date, the Christian Church was thriving and expanding throughout the Roman Empire. But after the fall of Jerusalem their progress and expansion seem to vanish into thin air and all becomes deathly quiet. Before that date there is much written concerning the activities of the apostles and disciples of our Lord. In the decades just after that date, very little if anything is known.
If we are willing to consider the possibility or even accept the premise that Yeshua returned and gathered together His followers into His kingdom in A.D. 70, that would explain what happened. Then there would have been no faithful believers left on earth and that would account for the blank which is left on that page in the history of the Church. Of course if that was the case, then the Biblical writers could not have written after A.D. 70 for there would have been no true fellowships, no true congregations, no true Church left on earth. All would have stopped and ceased to exist.
If on the other hand, we conclude that Yeshua didn't return for His followers in A.D. 70, and many of His disciples lived on for many years, then we must wonder why they didn't teach that next generation accurately concerning the things of GOD. If, for example, the apostle John lived and missionized in Ephesus well into the second century, as Church Tradition teaches, then why didn't he correct many of the errors which were blatant in the doctrine of the Church of that time? And what happened to all of the faithful men to whom Timothy was charged with teaching the truth (2 TIMOTHY 2:2)? Why do we hear absolutely nothing from them? For further reading on this important and enlightening topic, see Whatever Happened to Timothy?.
But if Yeshua did indeed return for His Bride in A.D. 70, no doubt some of the unfaithful and fickle believers would still have been around, being left behind, and might afterwards make efforts to re-constitute a Church. Over the course of several years or even decades, some of the fellowships might spring back to life and begin again to teach from their dust covered Gospels and Epistles which may well have been in their possession. Howbeit, having no apostles around, nor any who had actually witnessed the events depicted in the Gospels and ACTS, who could say what was true and what was not? Everyone would have their own version of the incidents surrounding the lives of Yeshua and His apostles.
As time passed, a new generation of believers might arise, who would write opinions and observations for their companions and followers to read and consider. Some of those individuals are known to us today as the Church Fathers, or the Apostolic Fathers (these supposedly being taught by the apostles themselves). Occasionally their writings provide us with valuable insight into the events of the first few centuries, but often they are far off the mark. Over the ages many traditions have grown up around their writings and too often what they wrote has actually eclipsed what the Scriptures teach. It therefore falls upon each of us to carefully and meticulously measure these Church Traditions with Scripture.
As Ned Stonehouse aptly wrote in Origins of the Synoptic Gospels,
Nevertheless, as I believe we must continue to emphasize, tradition may not be assigned a place of authority on a level with the witness of the Gospels themselves. And so if one's study of Matthew should bring to light elements that contradict the tradition, we ought to be prepared to jettison the tradition and to hold on firmly to what the Gospel discloses concerning itself [from page 22].
You and I must diligently and faithfully weigh the words of the original writers of the Christian Scriptures against those sayings of the following generations. Do we place our confidence in Matthew and Peter and John and Paul for the true account, or do we trust Ignatius and Tertullian and Origin and Eusebius? Do we believe that GOD Almighty was guiding and directing events so as to preserve a faithful record of the history surrounding the life, death, resurrection and return of HIS Son or do we believe that everything was left to chance and happenstance?
If we come to accept the Christian Scriptures to be what they claim to be, only then do we have a means whereby we are able to measure the writings purported to be of the next generation. We must endeavor to discover not only when these Apostolic Fathers wrote, but also how do their writings flow with those of the Christian Scriptures.
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are,
Clement's two letters.
Ignatius' seven letters.
The Sheppard of Hermas.
Epistle to Diognetus.
There is currently no external evidence whereby we are able to accurately determine the date of any of these writings and even the author is uncertain for most of them. For the most part the best we can do is measure them by their content, by their own testimony.