Christian literature, it stands to reason, consists of all those texts having to do with Christ, Christians, or Christianity (the second two in that list obviously tracing their own origins to the first). Since Christ in this context refers to Jesus of Nazareth, and since the calendar distinctions BC-AD (or BCE and CE, if you prefer) pivot on him, we may say that Christian literature did not exist before the 1st Century AD. Therefore, “early Christian literature” would be that subset of Christian literature whose origin was closer to the 1st Century than to our own.
Christian writers were prolific even in the early stages of Christian history. Noted scholar Larry W. Hurtado says:
Early Christianity was exceptionally productive of texts, also copying and disseminating them (we know of a few hundred composed within the first three centuries). Texts were sometimes a part of other religious options as well, but, with the possible exception of ancient Judaism, no other group or tradition seems to have been so given to the production, copying, distribution and reading of texts as central activities.
Of course, the most notable collection of early Christian literature is the New Testament. Beyond this first significant wave, there is, however, an ocean of other writings. This post will seek, as I add to it over time, to identify some of this other literature.
Note especially that Hurtado says in the quote above, “we know of a few hundred composed within the first three centuries.” (The website Early Christian Writings lists and links to 226 of them.) Therefore, whatever writings I list here can only be a mere sample.
(Writings are shown in italics; writers are in regular print.)
1 Clement – Included in Codex Alexandrinus (400-440).
2 Clement – Included in Codex Alexandrinus (400-440).
Shepherd of Hermas – A Roman work of about 110 AD or earlier. Included in Codex Sinaiticus (c. 330-360). Mentioned, along with the Didache, positively but as non-canonical by Athananius in his festal letter of 367.
Didache – Mentioned, along with Shepherd of Hermas, positively but as non-canonical by Athananius in his festal letter of 367.
Epistle of Barnabas – Included in Codex Sinaiticus (c. 330-360).
Gospel of Barnabas
Epistles to Diognetus
Revelation of Peter
Gospel of Thomas – Found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. Though it identifies itself as a ‘gospel,’ it is in fact a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus given without any compositional order and lacking descriptions of deeds or miracles, crucifixion or resurrection stories, and especially any overall narratival or biographical framework (Crossan’s description).
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture, 1988.
Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 1943-1981.