The Patristics Resources Online

Phil asked a couple good questions a couple weeks ago that I am just now getting around to answering (and I’m so late, Phil has already posted his follow-up): what are the best patristics resources online and what still needs to be done? Sorry, Phil, for taking so long to respond, but I’ve been gathering my thoughts. I’m also going to be responding to some of his comment makers here as this gives me a better forum for explaining things at length.

And keep in mind who these are coming from. From a positive point, I am a programmer and have thought quite a bit about what we could to technologically to improve things. From a negative point, I am like most other Protestants: I am not very knowledgeable of the field of patristics. I am trying. I am doing quite a bit of reading on the subject (especially the first few centuries). But I have never had access to the academic side of patristics. For example, one of the commentators on Phil’s blog mentioned some commercial electronic databases. I had no idea those existed. So, if some of these comments ignore the existence of things, please help me (and my readers) out and help my ignorance.

The Best Online Patristic Resource

I will give this one to the resource that I use the most, which is CCEL. It is not perfect (html is better than nothing, but is not as nice as other formats) but it is nice to have those texts up on the web and digitized.

There are several honorable mentions though for different reasons. First goes to Wikipedia. When I am looking for biographical material or just general info on a Father, that is the place I go. It shows up (usually) first in a Google search and the information seems pretty reliable. For the patrastics beginners, access to basic bio and history is very important.

The second honorable mention goes to Documenta Catholica Omnia, who has page scans of some of Migne’s Greek texts and digitized forms of some of his Latin texts. Of course you could throw in Google books and for getting more page scans up in the cloud.

The Biggest Online Patristic Need

There is one need that rises above all others in my mind: we need more texts digitized and translated. That is the foundational work that must be done before much of any other decent work can be done.

Responses to Responses To Phil

I apologize for this, but putting these thoughts here made more sense to me. Do read the comments to Phil’s original post. They are thoughtful and useful.

Pdf As Mediocre Medium

One of the commentators, Paul by name, said this about pdf’ing patristics texts:

I wonder if the great contemporary industry of PDF-making is really heading up the wrong road. In the end, PDF is a representation of the printed page. As a distribution technology it allows these scanned pages to be more widely available than before, but as an information technology it does not advance much beyond the printed page at all. It supports very limited searching capabilities and virtually no text analysis. And yet huge effort, sometimes duplicated and often uncoordinated, is going into these PDF projects. Are they a soon-to-be-outmoded technological dead end?

He’s spot on. Pdf is a good technology for printing. I use it a little on the site and will be using it more in the future than I do now. But I never store my data in Pdf because it is hard to get it back out again. Right now I store it all as Xml and then convert it to Pdf for reading, but keep the Xml so I can process it.

Is Xml the way to go? Well, sometimes. Take the MorphGNT project as an example. Does he use Xml? No. It’s just a plain ol’ text file. But it works fine. It strikes me that there are three really important elements to doing this right, and MorphGNT does it right: 1) the data needs to be easily machine readable, 2) the data needs to be structured and 3) the data needs to be Unicode. Does everybody need to use the same format and structure for the data? It’s not a bad idea, but it’s not necessary. As long as it is readable easily by a machine (which is one way that pdf docs fail), it doesn’t really matter the format. More disparate formats might get annoying, but it wouldn’t be necessarily unworkable.

On Using Out Of Date Texts

Also noted was the use of out-of-date texts, like those of Migne. Is that a problem? Well, yes. How does this problem compare to the problem of not having the texts available at all, or available and not digitized? Its significance pales in comparison. I am all for better critical texts of anything, but the first step is getting something out there digitized.

But with that caveat, having up-to-date texts is important. How do we solve that? Not easily. I do some work with CSNTM and somebody needs to do with patristics what they (and others) are doing with biblical manuscripts. Make the images available so people can collate and start collecting the data. Then we could start putting some texts up that aren’t out-of-date.

Need To Have A Backup Plan For When We Die/Get Tired

I have no idea what I will get accomplished in my life in regard to these things. Currently this is an area that is of great interest to me. But will it be as important to me in ten years? A lot of career/mind-changing things could happen. Or maybe I’ll get hit with a bus. What we do in the process of digitization needs to have an open license attached to it (public domain or a few creative commons licenses would work) so that when I’m hit by that bus, someone else can copy my data and put it on their site to distribute it before godaddy stops renewing my domain name due to lack of payment. We need to keep this in mind since this project will take a great deal of time unless someone can come up with some funding.

Patristics: The State of the Discipline

Off of the topic of digitization, here is another need in the world of the web, another thought echoed by a comment or two on the original post. For those of us who are not in touch with the state of patristics, material online about that would be very beneficial. Where is the field? Are there discernible trends? I can answer some of this for NT studies because I read a good number of books in the field, but I’m lost in this regard about patristics.

Those Are My Thoughts

Hope they were at least marginally helpful.


Phil Snider (7/31/2008 7:53 PM)

Thanks for the helpful comments. The technical area is precisely the area that I’m least practiced in, so I appreciate the discussion both you and Paul have contributed to on the subject of PDFs and formats.

I also appreciate the concern about the long-term prospects of the work we do on the net. That worries me as well because, in many ways, our work only lasts as long as we do. "Remember we are like grass..." has a new meaning on the Internt.

The question about patristics as a field is a good one and one that I’m not even sure I could answer. The situation is confused by the rise of a secular Early Christian studies approach (parallel to religious studies) which has led to a disavowal of patristics per se in many settings. Yet, there is interest. It has struck me as odd that most of the patristic bloggers I know out there (full-time or occasional) are either students or amateurs. Where are the professors?



Mark Reed (8/2/2008 7:30 PM)

Faulkner University has a project to translate many previously untranslated patristics texts into English. See their web page at

Eric (8/3/2008 11:19 PM)

Phil: If that’s the case, I wish more professors would show up! That would be very nice.

Mark: Interesting project. I think I might have seen it a long time ago but then forgot about it. I might have had back then the same problem I had yesterday: I can’t get the Excel file to work right so I can’t access any of the appropriate pages. Quite frustrating.