Today, we are about
to investigate one of the most neglected subjects in the field of New Testament
textual criticism: the study of patristic
evidence. The term “Patristic evidence”
refers to the writings of early Christians and their contemporaries when using
the New Testament text.
The patristic era
overlaps the end of the apostolic age in the late first century, and continues in
the east to the death of John of Damascus, in 749, or, in the west, to the
death of the Venerable Bede in 735.
It will be easier
to digest the patristic era if we divide it into four parts.
● The Sub-Apostolic Age begins in the late
first century and includes part of the second century. The writings of this early period are among
the earliest witnesses to the text of the New Testament.
● The AnteNicene Age runs from the
mid-100s to the Council of Nicea in 325.
Technically, every writer before the Council of Nicea was “AnteNicene.”
● The Nicene Generation includes the writings of those who attended
the Council of Nicea in 325, and their contemporaries.
● The Imperial Age covers the writings of Christians from 379, when
Emperor Theodosius I began to reign, until 749.
Let’s take these one by one, briefly
mentioning some of the most important writers in each period. This might be a little tedious, but it is
important to frame these writers in their historical context, and not see than
as just a list of names. This is not an
attempt to present all the patristic writers, or even half of them – just some
that were more influential than
others, and some who provided significant materials that are used in textual
The Sub-Apostolic Age
Clement of Rome might be the same Clement who is mentioned by Paul
in Philippians 4:3. He presided at the
congregation in Rome
in the last decade of the first century.
He wrote one letter to the church at Corinth, which is known as First Clement.
There is another early writing, from
another source, that has come to be known as Second Clement. Here we meet
one of the challenges in patristic studies:
it is not rare to find that some compositions attributed to a popular
writer are not really his work, and it is not rare to find that an early
author’s genuine work has been embellished by a later writer. In the second century, many compositions were
written in the names of earlier writers.
Sometimes this was a gesture of respect, but sometimes it was subterfuge
to give authority to what would otherwise be a non-authoritative composition.
Ignatius was a leader in the church at Antioch. In the early second century, the 100s, he was
martyred in the city of Rome,
during the reign of the Emperor Trajan.
On the way from Antioch to Rome, he wrote six letters to congregations in Asia Minor
– southwest Turkey
– and to one individual, Polycarp. His
writings do not contain very many direct quotations from the New Testament, but
they are important indicators of the concerns that were harbored by a Christian
leader at that time.
Ignatius was concerned about the
false teaching known as docetism – a
belief that Jesus merely appeared to have a physical body. As a safeguard against false teachings,
Ignatius promoted the idea that an individual bishop, instead of a group of
elders, should oversee each congregation.
The Epistle of Barnabas was written sometime after the
year 70 and before the year 132. Its
author may or may not have had the same name as Paul’s fellow missionary
Barnabas. He had a heavily allegorical
method of interpreting the Old Testament.
This writing was considered authoritative in some parts of the early
The Epistle of Barnabas is unrelated to the text known as the Gospel of Barnabas, which is a very late
Papias was bishop of Hierapolis, in Asia Minor. The best
estimate of when he wrote is somewhere
around 110, no later than 120. Papias
wrote a five-book series called Expositions
on the Sayings of the Lord – but no copies of this text are extant; it is
only preserved in extracts made by later writers. Some later writers considered him a student
of the apostle John.
The Didache [Did-uh-`kay] is
a relatively brief early catechism, or teaching-text, composed to represent the
teachings of the apostles. It is not
impossible that it was composed in the late first century, but the early second
century is probably a better estimate.
The Shepherd of Hermas is a much longer book, consisting of
three main parts: Visions, Mandates, and Similitudes. This was a very popular text in the early
church. Parts of the Shepherd of Hermas are preserved in
come to the AnteNicene
Marcion was the son of a Christian bishop in the city of Sinope on the southern coast of the Black
Sea. In the 130s, he
travelled to Rome,
and taught that the God who created the physical universe, and who gave the Law
to Moses, was an entirely different heavenly being from the God who sent
Marcion developed his own collection
of authoritative books: a drastically
edited form of the Gospel of Luke, and ten edited letters of Paul. The orthodox reaction was to say that God the
Father almighty is the Creator of heaven and earth. Marcion was declared a heretic in 144. His edition of authoritative books was
thoroughly rejected, and the church more aggresively promoted the four Gospels
as the canonical core of the New Testament. Marcion’s main work, Antithesis, is not extant, but extracts
from it were made by some other writers later in the early church.
Polycarp, who was martyred in about 160, had once met Marcion. Later writers report that on that occasion,
when Marcion asked Polycarp, “Do you know who I am?”, Polycarp had replied,
“Yes; you are the firstborn of Satan.”
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and he had been taught by John. He left behind a letter to the church at Philippi.
Justin Martyr got his surname by being
martyred. That probably happened around
165, or slightly earlier. Justin left
behind mainly three works that have survived:
the First Apology, the Dialogue With Trypho, and the Second Apology.
In this context, an “apology” is not
a statement of regret like “I am sorry.” It is a defense, απολογία, like what
is referred to in First Peter 3:15 – a systematic explanation of what
Christians believe, why they believe it, and the positive effects of their
beliefs upon their lives.
Justin used material from the
Gospels a lot – but he did not say which Gospel he was using; he simply says
that he refers to the remembrances of the apostles. It is possible – I would say probable – that Justin used a harmonized
account of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – the Synoptic Gospels – and that this inspired
one of his students to produce a similar text, in which all four Gospels are
The name of that student was Tatian, and his four-Gospel Harmony was the Diatessaron. Tatian was an
Assyrian who resided in Rome for a while, and
then returned to Assyria. Probably.
He probably made the Diatessaron
around 170, and he probably made it in Syriac.
Tatian’s Diatessaron was very
popular in Syria
for more than two centuries, but Tatian was suspected of heresy – partly
because he had not included the genealogies in the Diatessaron – and his work was eventually suppressed.
Melito of Sardis, like Justin Martyr, was an
apologist. He composed a written defense
of Christianity around 170. He also
wrote a composition called Peri Pascha,
offering a Christ-centered interpretation of the Passover.
Irenaeus was also from Asia Minor, and he
had heard Polycarp, before moving west, to what is now the city of Lyons, in Gaul, or France. Irenaeus not only defended Christianity, but
also counter-attacked false teachings, such as the heresies taught by Marcion
and by a group generally known as Gnostics.
Around the year 180, he wrote a five-book composition commonly known as Against Heresies.
Some of the Gnostic doctrines that
Irenaeus described are so unusual that some readers questioned whether Irenaeus
was representing them accurately. But beginning
in the late 1940s, Gnostic literature was found, from a site in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, which
tended to confirm that Gnostic theology was as strange as Irenaeus had said.
Irenaeus made an abundant use of the
books of the New Testament. One of his most
famous and influential statements is his affirmation that the church recognizes
four Gospels, no more and no less:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Except for fragments and extracts
from later Greek writers, most of Against
Heresies is not extant in Greek; it is preserved in an early Latin
translation. Irenaeus also wrote a text
called the Demonstration of the Apostolic
Teaching, which is preserved in an Armenian translation.
Athenagoras was another apologist in the
second half of the second century. He is
remembered for two works: Embassy on Behalf of Christians, and On the Resurrection of the Dead. A later writer reports that Athenagoras began
studying Christian writings in order to oppose them, but became a believer in
the course of studying them further.
Clement of Alexandria, an influential writer in the
late 100s, and on into the early 200s, could be re-named Clement of the Open Road, because
he traveled a lot. He is best known for six
compositions, one of which is the Stro-`ma-teis.
Clement’s Gospels-text is
interesting, because it appears to change from one book to another. His text of John is Alexandrian, but his text
of Luke is more Western; he used Mark only sparingly, and his text of Matthew agrees
with the Textus Receptus – which we
will look at in a future lecture, I hope – as often as it agrees with Codex
Meanwhile, further west, a Latin
apologist named Tertullian, based in
the city of Carthage in North
Africa, produced many works between 198 and 220 – sometimes
targeting heretics, but also addressing what he saw as moral compromises by
fellow believers. He wrote very many
Hippolytus, who lived at about the same time as Tertullian,
inherited the tradition of apologetics handed down from Irenaeus. In the extensive composition Phil-o-soph-uʹ-mena
[Phil-o-soph-u-men-a], Hippolytus critiqued
ancient religions and philosophies, especially the beliefs of the group known
Our next witness, Origen, was extremely
productive. Origen was born in Alexandria to a Christian
family. His father Leontius was martyred
in the year 202.
When persecution became less
intense, Origen did some traveling; he visited Rome,
and other places, before focusing on writing at Alexandria, where he studied under Clement
and produced many works, including First
Around 232, Origen moved to Caesarea. He
continued to write until, as a result of physical suffering endured during the
Decian persecution, he died in 254.
Although Origen had written against
heretics – most notably in his work Against
Celsus – some of his own teachings were considered highly
questionable. Centuries later, his
teachings were condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Constantinople
in 553, in the reign of Emperor Justinian.
As a result, most of his works have been lost. Besides First Principles, many more of Origen’s works have survived,
including Discussion With Heraclides,
On Prayer, and several commentaries. An edited collection of extracts from
Origen’s writings was released in the 300s as Philocalia.
Turning back to Carthage, we meet Cyprian, who presided there in 249-258. Cyprian had the difficult task of guiding the
church through two waves of
persecution: the persecution under
Emperor Decius, and the persecution under Emperor Valerian. Cyprian was martyred in 258. But before his departure, he wrote some
books, including Three Books of Testimonies, and On the Unity of the Church.
Cyprian was a big fan of Tertullian.
We are indebted to Pontius the Deacon,
an associate of Cyprian, for composing a biography of Cyprian shortly after he
In the city of Rome, a church leader
named Novatian was also martyred in
258. Novatian was involved in a power
struggle in Rome,
and took a very harsh attitude not only against believers who fell away under
persecution, but also against fellow clerics who forgave them. His most important surviving work is a Treatise on the Trinity.
In the second half of the 200s, a philosopher named Porphyry wrote a book called Against
the Christians. A substantial
portion of it, including some objections that involve textual variants, can be
reconstructed from citations made by Christian authors responding to his
Methodius was a
Christian bishop who responded to his contemporary Porphyry. Methodius was also very critical of some of
Origen’s teachings. His refutation of
Porphyry has not survived, but his composition The Banquet has survived.
was a student of Origen and wrote a lengthy composition to honor his
teacher. Writing 50 years before the
Council of Nicea, he maintained Trinitarian theology in Exposition of the Faith and other works.
group represents the generation of writers who either attended the Council of
Nicea in 325, or were the contemporaries of those who did so.
Eusebius of Caesarea was the first Christian historian. He worked mainly in the early 300s, and wrote
Ecclesiastical History, in which he
preserved excerpts of earlier source-materials which are now lost. With his mentor Pamphilius, he wrote a
composition In Defense of Origen. He also made the
Eusebian Canons, a cross-reference system for the Four Gospels, which is
included in many manuscripts of the four Gospels.
Aphrahat, a Syriac author, wrote a series of compositions called the
Demonstrations in the 330’s and
340s. Aphrahat’s main Gospels-text was
Athanasius of Alexandria was the most vocal opponent of
Arius at the Council of Nicea. He ardently
defended orthodox Trinitarian theology, especially the point that there was
never a time when the Word did not exist.
Athanasius composed many influential theologican works, including Orations Against the Arians, Against the Heathen, and his 39th Festal Letter, in 367,
in which he listed the books of authoritative Scripture.
Ephrem of Syria was trained by Jacob of Nisibis, one of the
signatories to the Council of Nicea.
Ephrem wrote many hymns and commentaries, including a commentary on the Diatessaron. He died in 363.
the western end of the Roman Empire, in what
is now France, Hilary of Poitiers was known for enthusiastically opposing Arianism, even when the
Emperor was an Arian, and Hilary was in exile.
His compositions include On the
about the same time, Fortunatianus, in
wrote a Latin commentary on the four Gospels, either quoting or alluding to many
New Testament passages.
Lucifer of Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, wrote in Latin. He was a vigorous and verbose defender of
Trinitarian theology, and took a hard line against Arianism. He died around 370.
approach the Imperial Age, when
things get a little crowded. You could
say that this era begins when Theodosius I becomes Emperor in 379, or two years
later at the Council of Constantinople – or that it began with the converging
careers of several remarkable leaders in the church.
Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their
fellow-worker Gregory of Nazianzus are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. Basil’s “Caesarea” is not Eusebius’s Caesarea
on the coast of Israel; it
is another city with the same name, in central Turkey.
These three men consistently
maintained Nicene theology. Basil of
Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus were fellow students at Athens, and one of their classmates was the
future Emperor Julian the Apostate.
When Basil was not opposing
Arianism, he made efforts to help the poor and the sick. He wrote many letters and books on practical
ministry as well as doctrine.
Gregory of Nazianzus was influential
in solidifying Constantinople as a center of
Trinitation theology. He died in 390,
after writing many theological discourses.
Gregory of Nyssa outlived the other
two Cappadocian Fathers. He was
not disposed to aggression in doctrinal disputes, but he could frame the
orthodox position effectively. Gregory
of Nyssa is suspected of favoring Origen’s concept of apokatastasis, that is, the idea that eventually, everybody will
be restored to harmony with God.
In the late 300s, Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis,
on the island of Cyprus, took it upon himself to take up
the task of opposing heresies, using the writings of earlier apologists as his
model. He presented his most important
work, Panarion, as a medicine-chest,
full of antidotes against the poisons of a variety of animals, which were
metaphors for various heresies and heretics, including Origen. He also wrote Anchoratus.
Diodore of Tarsus, who met Basil while they were both exiled in Armenia, organized a school at Antioch, where his students included a
promising young man named John, who had started his service in the church as a
lector, or Scripture-reader.
meanwhile, Cyril of Jerusalem had to deal with accusations of unlawfully
selling church property. His accuser was
a nearby rival bishop, Acacius of Caesarea, who was an Arian. Despite being exiled three times, Cyril of
Jerusalem composed a substantial series of Catechetical
Lectures, which has survived. He died in 386.
Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, in
the city of Milan – which was politically more
important than Rome
at the time – a man named Ambrose was recruited to be the bishop in 374. He was phenomenally successful. On one occasion he obligated Emperor
Theodosius I to openly express repentance after ordering Roman troops to
massacre rebellious citizens in the city of Thessalonica.
He wrote On the Faith, On the Holy Spirit, and many other
meanwhile, meanwhile meanwhile, a scholar named Didymus composed many doctrinal works in Alexandria in the 300s. These works, like the works of Origen, were
condemned in 553, even though Didymus’ theology was strongly Trinitarian. Some of his compositions were preserved
nevertheless, and some were discovered on papyrus in the 1940s in Egypt,
including his Commentary on Psalms. Didymus’ ability to produce many theological
writings is rendered more impressive when one appreciates that he was blind
from early childhood.
By the time Didymus the Blind died
in 398, John, the student of Diodore, had become an extremely popular preacher
in Antioch, and
he was known as John Chrysostom, that is, John the golden-mouthed. He was so popular that when he was called to
serve as archbishop of Constantinople, he left
in secret to avoid an uproar.
Chrysostom preached an abundance of sermons. He preached not only about
theological intangibles but also about helping the poor, the dangers of luxury,
and the responsibility of the clergy to live exemplary lives. Eventually he was exiled, and died in exile in
407. But Chrysostom’s legacy was
enduring, and hundreds of his sermons have survived.
One of Chrysostom’s friends, Theodore of Mopsuestia, outlived
Chrysostom by 20 years. Whereas
Chrysostom departed from Antioch to serve at
Constantinople, Theodore remained at Antioch a
while longer before relocating to Mopsuestia, which is now Adana, Turkey. He died in 428, leaving behind many works,
including a commentary on the Minor Prophets and a commentary on most of the
Epistles of Paul.
At about the same time Ambrose became bishop of Milan, a man named Jerome had a dream, in which he was accused of being a follower of
the Roman writer Cicero, instead of a follower of Christ. This began a very productive career. In 383, Jerome produced the Vulgate
Gospels. The Vulgate eventually became
the standard Latin text of the Western church.
Jerome traveled widely, and wrote on an even wider variety of topics,
including the history of the church from the days of Eusebius of Caesarea up to
his own time. He wrote very many letters
and commentaries, some of which were modeled on the work of earlier writers,
One of the targets of Jerome’s criticisms was
a monk named Pelagius. Pelagius was probably originally from Britain, and moved from Rome
to Carthage to Jerusalem, where he died in 418. He was known for advocating a doctrine of
free will. Pelagius was eventually condemned
as a heretic; nevertheless, some of his writings have survived.
Besides Jerome, another individual who energetically opposed the teachings of
Pelagius was Augustine of Hippo, who
had been converted by Ambrose. Hippo was
a city in what is now the northeastern coast of Algeria. Pelagius raised some interesting questions,
like, “Does God hold people accountable for failing to obey commands that are
impossible to obey?”.
By the time Augustine was done
answering them, he impacted church doctrine more significantly than any other
writer of his time. Among Augustine’s
many surviving works, Confessions, City of God, and the Enchiridion are among the most important. He also wrote many letters. Augustine died in 430.
Shortly after the death of Pelagius, Nestorius,
who had been trained at Antioch,
promoted some controversial teachings.
After he became archbishop of Constantinople,
his orthodoxy, especially regarding the nature of Christ, was openly
challenged. He was condemned at the
Council of Ephesus in 431, and was sent back to Antioch,
and from there to Egypt,
where he died in 450.
Nestorius’ most energetic opponent was Cyril
of Alexandria, and while almost none of Nestorius’ works have survived,
Cyril of Alexandria is admired for his many theological works. However, he was probably one of the most
ruthless archbishops ever.
Shenoute was already an experienced
leader in the church in Egypt
when he attended the Council of Ephesus.
In Upper Egypt, Shenoute promoted a
strict form of monasticism, encouraging and exemplifying not only dedication to
the study of Scripture, but also to acts of charity. When he died in 466 after living 118 years,
he left behind many writings.
Researcher W. E. Crum observed in
1904 that “Students of the New Testament will find in Shenoute’s endless
quotations a highly valuable witness, as yet wholly unexplored, to the text of
the most important of the Egyptian versions.”
Theodoret of Cyrrhus was
not a fan of Cyril of Alexandria. Like
John Chrysostom, early in his career he was a lector at Antioch.
By 423, Theodoret was put in charge of Cyrrhus in northwestern Syria, which
gave him plenty to do, not only in terms of correcting false doctrines, but
also in terms of practical ministry. It
was Theodoret of Cyrrhus who mentioned that in 800 congregations in the area,
he found 200 copies of the Diatessaron,
which he replaced with copies of the four Gospels.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus died in the
460s. Although he was eventually
declared a heretic, many of his compositions and letters have survived. Theodoret’s career in the east overlapped the career of Leo the Great in the west. Leo
was invited by Cyril of Alexandria to intervene in his dispute against
Nestorius. His writings had a heavy
influence at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
In the next century, while Emperor Justinian ruled in the East, a scholar named
Cassiodorus founded the Vivarium in
southern Italy. It was partly a monastery, partly an
educational center, and partly a scriptorium.
Cassiodorus left behind several important works, including Institutiones, and various letters.
Finally, the Venerable Bede, in the
late 600s and early 700s, had the sort of broad knowledge of history, theology,
and science that Cassiodorus had hoped to inspire. Bede left behind several important works.
. . .
should be asked about an author’s testimony regarding a specific passage of the
● First, has the reference been
accurately reconstructed using all helpful materials?
● Second, has it been verified that
a particular text attributed to a specific author really is the work of that
author? For a variety of reasons, many works have been
attributed to some writers who cannot be their actual source.
● Third, is the reference preserved
in the language in which it was originally written by the author? Many patristic references are versional, and the
same limitations that apply to versions, ought to be applied to versional
patristic writings. This applies not
only to works that were composed in
languages other than Greek, but also to works that are preserved in languages other than Greek.
● Fourth, does the writer make a quotation, or an allusion, to a discernible New Testament passage?
● Fifth, does the writer explicitly
comment on a contested reading, or does he simply use it without comment?
● Sixth, has the writer borrowed or
adapted material from another writer? If
this has occurred, then in the borrowed material, we might encounter the text
of the source-material’s author.
● Seventh, does the text used by the
writer change in accord with changes in the location of the writer? A mobile writer might use whatever New
Testament manuscripts happened to be on hand.
● Eighth, is a particular quotation
from the New Testament made in a composition engaging an opposing view, or in a
composition written to a friendly reader or readers unlikely to challenge a
● Ninth, does a writer repeatedly
use and comment upon the same form of the same New Testament passage?
When all this is taken into
consideration, patristic evidence constitutes a major source of data about what
forms of the text were used where, and when, and by whom, in the early church. Many of the echoes, the extant copies of
patristic compositions, are late, but the voices are early.
To an extent, this evidence
counter-balances the inordinate weight that has been put on manuscripts that
tend to represent one particular locale that was blessed with low
humidity. It facilitates a more
panoramic view of the text in the early church.
In closing, I encourage viewers to watch
four cartoon videos, at the Extra Credits channel, called
Early Christian Schisms – Before Imperium:
Early Christian Schisms – The Woes of Constantine:
Early Christian Schisms: The Council of Nicea:
Early Christian Schisms: Ephesus, the Robber Council. And Chalcedon
Early Christian Schisms: Lies
I also recommend visiting
Academia.edu and downloading and reading Hort’s Six Lectures on Early Patristic Writers.