Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Significance Of The Early Patristic Sources

They support a high view of the New Testament documents, such as their authorship, genre, historicity, and Divine inspiration. Because of that, skeptics often try to cast doubt on the significance of those patristic sources. Critics will often take an unusually negative view of the dating of the documents, their authorship, the quality of the sources they had access to, the quality of their information, the degree to which they disseminated the more valuable information they had, etc. So, it's important to evaluate and reevaluate those issues from time to time.

There's an element of truth to the approach skeptics often take toward these sources. As a general principle, earlier sources are better than later ones. And even the earliest patristic sources are patristic sources, meaning that they generally postdate the New Testament documents. Memory fades over time. Though some contemporaries and eyewitnesses of Jesus and the apostles would have lived into the late first century and beyond, there were fewer of them as time passed. Some apostolic documents and other relevant literature would have been preserved over time, but there would be fewer such documents available later than earlier. Some patristic sources were significantly close to the apostles relationally, chronologically, geographically, and such, but others weren't. From a Christian perspective, the New Testament documents were Divinely inspired in a way in which the patristic sources weren't. And so on.

However, much more can be said on the other side, in support of the value of the early patristic sources, than skeptics suggest. There's a danger of overestimating these sources, but also a danger of underestimating them. And even some Christians underestimate them, as a result of overreacting to Roman Catholicism or for some other reason.

For example, there are some passages in First Clement that ought to receive more attention than they normally do in this context. Section 5 refers to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul as having occurred in "our own generation". The admonition in section 44 that it would be unjust to remove church leaders who were appointed by the apostles and have served well in those offices seems to assume that some leaders appointed by the apostles were still alive. Section 63 refers to messengers being sent who "from youth to old age have lived blameless lives among us". So, we have one apostolic church (Rome) writing to another (Corinth) and mentioning the presence of witnesses who had been part of their community "from youth to old age", which would go back to the middle of the first century. Those witnesses were contemporaries of the apostles, close witnesses of the apostles' interactions with the Roman church and more (they witnessed the activities of close associates of the apostles, like Mark and Luke, related to Rome; they witnessed apostolic documents sent from Rome, not just documents written to that city; etc.).

I've written elsewhere about similar evidence pertaining to Papias, Polycarp, Quadratus, etc. You can search our archives for other examples.


  1. This is why we can rule out the idea that the story of Jesus was substantially altered. There is simply too much organisation and continuity for that.

    1. Yes, that's true both at a more abstract level and in light of the details provided by sources like First Clement. What makes the situation even worse for skeptics is that they have to argue for an unreasonably large amount of discontinuity not only among the Christian sources, but also among the heretical, Jewish, and pagan opponents of Christianity.

    2. Yes, the debates with opponents and heretics all presuppose a common ground. Jewish and Pagan opponents accuse Jesus of being a magician or illegitimate. They don't deny that he ever performed miracles and they certainly don't deny that he ever existed. The heretics have to claim that Jesus imparted "secret" teachings to the apostles. This presupposes that everyone knew what the orthodox teachings were.

  2. We've covered a large number and variety of subjects on this blog over the years. One way you can get an idea of the significance of the earliest patristic sources is to search our archives for references to Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Papias, Aristides, The Epistle Of Barnabas, etc. Notice how often they come up and how many contexts they're relevant to. And this is just one blog.