Patristic literature refers to the writings of the Fathers of the Christian church (the Greek word patristikos means "relating to the fathers") between the latter part of the 1st century AD and the middle of the 8th century. It can therefore be distinguished from New Testament theology at one end and from medieval scholasticism and Byzantine systematization at the other. It reflects the philosophical and religious thought of the Hellenistic and Roman world from which it derived the bulk of its concepts and vocabulary. The themes of this vast literature are manifold, but the theological reflection of the Fathers focused for the most part on questions of Christology and the Trinity.
Although writers of the East and West had much in common, perceptible shades of difference can be found in their theologies. A scientific theology developed in the East and was marked by a blend of biblical theology and Platonic idealism (especially in Alexandria) or Aristotelian realism (especially in Antioch). In the West, Christian writers generally depended on the Greek theological tradition, which they often clarified in definitions or interpreted in juridical categories, until the emergence in the late 4th century of a sophisticated Latin theology.
Patristic literature falls into three main periods. The ante-Nicene period (before AD 325) includes the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the apologetic and antiheretical literature, and the beginnings of speculative Greek theology. The major figures of this period include Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Irenæus, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian. The period between the councils of Nicæa (325) and Chalcedon (451) was the golden age of the Nicene fathers (including Eusebius of Cæsarea, the first major church historian) the Alexandrians (most notably Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria), the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), and the Antiochenes (John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia).
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Altaner, Berthold, Patrology, 5th ed. (1960); DiBerardino, Angelo, eds., Patrology, trans. by P. Solari, 4 vols. (1986); Goodspeed, E. J., A History of Early Christian Literature, rev. ed. (1966); Hamell, Patrick J., Handbook of Patrology (1968); Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (1978); Leigh-Bennett, E., Handbook of the Early Christian Fathers (1980); Quasten, Johannes, and Plumpe, Joseph C., eds., Ancient Christian Writers (1946- ).
Collected together are the English translations of the actual texts of many known early Christian manuscripts. These works form an important part of the foundation for virtually every Christian Church.
In Christianity, as in all other religions, interpretation by authors and speakers and Clergy is invariably involved. Since different people have sometimes interpreted the wording of early manuscripts in different ways, (as also is true of the Bible), there developed many different "human opinions" on many important subjects, which initiated many heresies, many schisms and a large number of Denominations and other Churches, each which have their own human opinions on those important subjects.
Since much of the argument seems to arise over interpretation of the meanings of works of the early Church Fathers, we are presenting the works here, WITHOUT significant commentary or interpretation. The exceptions generally have to do with historical facts which are relevant. For example, there are some short letters which appear to have been written to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but the author appears to have lived many years after her! Such notes include a brief reference to being "spurious".
There are also assorted "fragments" of manuscripts included. In some cases, these fragments result from the illegibility of much of a manuscript, where only certain sentences are readable. In other cases, they are truly fragments, torn portions of manuscripts.
Being English translations, one must remember the need to consult the original language texts for any critical study. Similarly, we must remember that, at the time these letters and books were written, even the Bible was written in Scriptua continua, continuous text without spaces for paragraphs, sentences or even words, and there was no capitalization, punctuation or other formatting. Therefore, the paragraph numbering and Chapter headings in these texts were obviously additions by later copyists or translators to clarify the texts. However, without those improvements, these texts are nearly impossible to read or understand, and so it seems tolerable to accept them.
This listing is approximately in chronological order, as is currently understood. We hope to eventually include all known existing Manuscripts.
A Syrian writer of the 2d century AD, Tatian attended Saint Justin Martyr's school of philosophy in Rome and, after a long spiritual quest, was converted to Christianity. His Diatessaron, a synthesis of the four Gospels, and Oratio ad Græcos (Address to the Greeks), a reasoned defense of Christianity, were his most important works. He subsequently abandoned Christianity and founded the Encratites, a gnostic sect.
Papias, fl. 130, was one of the early Christian writers known as the Apostolic Fathers. He was bishop of Hierapolis in Anatolia and is said to have been a disciple of Saint John the Apostle and a companion of Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. His Explanations of the Sayings of the Lord, a work in five books that survives only in fragments preserved by Eusebius of Cæsarea and Irenæus of Lyon, is important because it contains many oral traditions and legends of apostolic times.
Presbeia was inscribed to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. In this treatise, Athenagoras defended the Christians against contemporary accusations of atheism, cannibalism, and promiscuity by outlining the Christian belief in the Trinity, in the resurrection of the body, and in the sanctity of marriage. Athenagoras also produced the first rational explanation for God's simultaneous unity and trinity.
Another treatise, translated The Resurrection of the Body (found in the same manuscript with Presbeia), is cautiously attributed to Athenagoras. The second treatise is perhaps the first complete exposition in literature of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The document's authenticity is questioned because it receives no mention in the writings of the 3rd-century Alexandrian theologian Origen, nor is it mentioned in later patristic writings. However, scholars have noted that the two treatises share the same vocabulary. Presbeia also hints of the existence of a later work that more fully discusses the Christian concept of the resurrection.
Clement was among the founders of the Alexandrine tradition in Christian theology. His writings fuse Christian faith and Greek (Platonic) philosophy. His best-known works are the Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Greeks), in which he attempted to convert worshipers of pagan gods; the Pædagogus (Tutor), an explanation of the world in terms of the Logos, or mind of God; and the Stromata (Miscellanies), in which he argued that philosophy was God's gift to the Greeks. Clement has sometimes been called a Christian gnostic. He is considered one of the Fathers of the Church.
Ferguson, F., Clement of Alexandria (1974); Osborn, E. F., The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria (1957).
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, b. Carthage, c.155, d. after 220, was one of the greatest Western theologians and writers of Christian antiquity. Through his writings a witness to the doctrine and discipline of the early church in belief and worship is preserved.
An advocate in the law courts in Rome, Tertullian converted (c.193) to Christianity. About 207 he broke with the church and joined the Montanists in Africa. Soon after, however, he broke with them and formed his own party, known as the Tertullianists.
An extremist by nature, he had gone through a period of licentiousness during his early years, but later he advocated a severe asceticism and discipline that his followers found hard to emulate.
Tertullian was a man of fiery temperament, great talent, and unrelenting purpose. He wrote with brilliant rhetoric and biting satire. His passion for truth led him into polemics with his enemies: in turn pagans, Jews, heretics, and Catholics. His admiration for Christian heroism under persecution seems to have been the strongest factor in his conversion.
Tertullian's writings, notably Apologeticum, De præscriptione hæreticorum, and De carne Christi, had a lasting effect on Christian thought, especially through those who, like Cyprian of Carthage, always regarded him as a "master." He also greatly influenced the development of Western thought and the creation of Christian ecclesiastical Latin.
Barnes, T. D., Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (1971); Sider, R. D., Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (1971).
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