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Patristic Evidence: Why Time and Place Matter

In my previous post I indicated that there are three major kinds of evidence for reconstructing the text of the New Testament: the surviving Greek manuscripts (obviously our best source of evidence), the early versions (ancient translations into such languages as Latin, Coptic, and Syriac), and the quotations of the church fathers. Moreover, I indicated that one advantage of the citations of the church fathers is that this kind of evidence can be dated and located far more easily than can the Greek manuscript evidence. But now in looking back over the post, I realize that I never indicated why that might matter.

As with all things dealing with textual criticism (which I use strictly in the technical sense: textual criticism is NOT simply the scholarly study of texts – e.g. as literary critics engage in – it is the *reconstruction* of texts, that is, the attempt to get back to the text as written by an author given manuscripts that have differences in them; textual criticism is used for every literary text of the ancient world, middle ages, and even up to modern times; it is a thriving discipline for 19th century authors for example, who wrote, obviously, by hand….), the matter is a bit complicated. But here are two factors to consider.

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Church Fathers and the Voice at Jesus’ Baptism
Church Fathers Who Quote the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 9, 2013

    I would appreciate the examples since this particular book is probably over my head.

  2. Avatar
    FrankB57  August 10, 2013

    Please do.

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    nichael  August 10, 2013

    I’d like to ask a “time-dependent” question concerning the Patristic evidence. Specifically, this has to do with history of the name of the canonical gospels.

    I’m asking this question in this context because I’ve always assumed (correctly, I hope) that the writings of the Fathers give the best “overlap” of the relevant time period. (And it is different from the early manuscript evidence where the naming of the Gospels seem to have gone from early, fragmentary copies in which the Gospels appear to have been mostly unnamed (in part because their source communities in many cases may have had access to only the a Gospel, which would required no distinctive name) to later times (certainly by the 3rd/4th cent or so) by which time the Gospels were pretty universally designated by their “modern” names.)

    So, my question here is:
    Do we have any evidence that any of the canonical Gospels were ever (widely?) known by names other than the names that we know them by?

    Or does it really seem to be the case that each of the four Gospels went directly from being “unnamed” to being universally known by the names that we have today (“…according to Mark/Matthew/Luke/John”)?

    (If the second option is correct, I have to admit that this strikes me as a little strange. I.e. how the names might have become “standard” and widespread in the absence of anything remotely like a “central naming authority”.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 11, 2013

      It’s a great question and deserves a long answer. But for here I can simply say that the first to name our Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was Irenaeus around 185 CE. We don’t know how much earlier they were known by those names. By the early third century these were the names commonly assigned to them. And we don’t know of anyone who called them anything else. It is very interesting indeed! But I don’t think that the implications are obvious (some people think that they are. I don’t.)

  4. Avatar
    Scott F  August 10, 2013

    This is like a mystery novel – and much enjoyable and enlightening than anything by Dan Brown!

    I get the same zing with this stuff as I first got from “Cosmos” and James Burke’s “Connections” (Oh his hair!)

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    Christian  August 11, 2013

    As a layman, I found that book quite readable. Just skipped the technical passages and the Greek.

    • Avatar
      James Dowden  August 15, 2013

      Likewise (although I studied Greek many years ago; so I don’t skip those bits). The only things that put me off academic books are:
      1) when they are written with the dryness of a pottery catalogue from an excavation report;
      2) when they are written in an obscurantist style full of words of doubtful significance, presumably in some misguided attempt at imitating Gilles Deleuze;
      3) when they’re a lightly-revised dissertation that is trying just a little too hard to be clever, presumably passed by a panel that was trying just a little too hard not to be unkind;
      4) when they’re an example of that weird sort of Evangelical scholarship that performs magic tricks with data so that they back up the author’s preconceptions;
      5) when they’ve been published with a certain Dutch publishing house, and therefore cost five times as much as a normal academic book (I actually begin to wonder whether this sort of thing should be considered publication in any meaningful sort of sense).

      I don’t think that’s at all unusual, and it rather suggests that there is a subset of academic books that should be marketed better to a wider audience.

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    JamesFouassier  August 12, 2013

    Ref “Orthodox Corruption”, I read the original in hardcover but would like to have your revised edition electronically. I don’t see the revision available that way. Have I missed it somewhere, Professor ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 13, 2013

      I don’t know if it’s available electronically or not, I’m sorry to say. The new edition differs mainly in having a length addendum that discusses how the field has changed, in light of the interests of the book, over the past twenty years.

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