Thursday, January 28, 2021

Early Christian Access To Evidence We Don't Have

In some ways, we're in a better position to judge issues pertaining to the truthfulness of Christianity than people in the ancient world were (advances in knowledge in relevant fields, the development of technology that helps us evaluate the issues, etc.). But there are other contexts in which the people who lived in the ancient world, or some subset of them, were better off than we are. One of the advantages they had that people today often underestimate is access to writings that are no longer extant.

There's a patristic document that provides many illustrations of that advantage, but that document doesn't get discussed much. I suspect few people involved in apologetics and other relevant contexts have read it. I'm referring to Jerome's Lives Of Illustrious Men. It has 135 sections, but they're short, so it doesn't take long to read. He provides brief overviews of the lives of individuals who lived during the first few centuries of Christianity, mostly Christians. The primary value of the document in this context is what Jerome tells us about what those individuals wrote. Many of the writings he refers to are no longer extant. But they were available to the earliest Christians and shaped what they believed.

You can read Jerome's entire document on one page here, but without any notes. Or you can read it with notes and with each section on a separate page here.

His list of individuals is far from exhaustive. And there are some documents he doesn't mention that were written by the people he discusses. Martin Hengel noted, "of the second-century Christian writings known to us by title, around 85% have been lost. The real loss must be substantially higher." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 55)


  1. I noticed in the Matthew section that Jerome seems to cite "for he shall be called a Nazarene" as an Old Testament passage, but I thought that verse didn't show up anywhere in the Old Testament. Why do you think Jerome included that?

    1. What Matthew cites in 2:23 doesn't appear in that form anywhere in the Old Testament. He's probably citing a theme found in multiple places in the Old Testament, which is why he attributes that theme to the plural "prophets". I've discussed Matthew 2:23 elsewhere.

      In his commentary on Matthew, Jerome makes the same point I have regarding Matthew's citation of multiple prophets, and Jerome refers to how the material Matthew cites "has not taken the words, but rather the sense, from the Scriptures" (Thomas Scheck, trans., St. Jerome: Commentary On Matthew [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2008], 67). Jerome goes on to say that "Nazarene" is to be translated as "holy" and notes that "All Scripture relates that the Lord was to be holy." Jerome then offers a second explanation for the material Matthew cites, claiming that he derived it from Isaiah 11:1. Jerome's probably wrong on both points, as I argue in my article on Matthew 2:23 linked above. But his comments in section 3 of his Lives Of Illustrious Men probably refer to the treatment of holiness in the Old Testament, Isaiah 11:1, or both.

    2. Thank you, that makes sense.