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How to Find Biblical Citations in the Writings of the Church Fathers

February 14, 2011

This is going to be a very practical kind of post, rather than something warmly inspirational, though I think it could lead to lots of warmly inspirational moments. What I want to do briefly is point to something that helps us to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us. Many people have been pointing out in recent years that the writings of the church fathers were saturated with Scripture (see, e.g., Robert Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought). They lived and breathed Scripture in a way that is almost foreign to us, because, among other reasons, they had so much of it memorized. For this reason, when they did theology, they often spoke in the words and metaphors of Scripture.

Assuming that this is true, how might one go about finding out how the fathers interpreted a specific biblical passage? You have a few options available to you. You could go through all the indexes of the old Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers sets (all available on http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html). That’s a decent place to start, but it takes a while to go through the several dozen volumes. Furthermore, that set represents but a fraction of early Christian writings, and the indexes often miss biblical allusions and even citations. Another option is to check out the relevant volume in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture published by IVP. That too can be useful, but I have found that the small snippets it gives you are often so devoid of context that they fail to give you a real sense of what each author is doing. Moreover, again, the citations included are often very selective. A third option would be to go through all the indexes of the nineteenth-century publications Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina. This has the advantage of being much more comprehensive than the other avenues, but going through a few hundred volumes is a very tedious undertaking.

The way of going about this that I have found the most helpful is to use the massive amount of data compiled and published in Biblia Patristica. This is a multi-volume work still underway which aims to compile every citation or allusion to Scripture in the writings of Philo and the church fathers. So far 7 volumes have been published covering most writers up through the fourth century, including somewhere around 270,000 biblical references. All of these volumes are now out of print, but do not fear. There is an even easier way to access the raw data. All of the published volumes, as well as another 100,000 references not available in published form, are now available through a fairly simple web interface. The website is called Biblindex, and is a marvelous tool for research (NB: it doesn’t like certain browsers like Google Chrome). Using it requires a simple and free registration, and you’re then presented with a search form in which you enter any biblical verse or verse range, along with various ways of limiting the results based on author, geographic locale, time period, etc. The site then gives you all the references to that verse or passage in nearly all authors up through the end of the fourth century and into the fifth. Tracking down all these references is now enormously easier thanks to sites like http://www.ccel.org, Google books, and Amazon which give you English translations to many of the works you’ll find referenced. I’ll give one example of a search I did recently for my research. If you search for references to Psalm 23, the most famous psalm in the English-speaking world, you find 317 references in patristic writings. Tracking down those references allows you to see the development of an exegetical tradition – which authors are similar to other authors, and which authors present changes to the prior tradition. With research tools like this, it is now possible to understand and appropriate the insights of the church fathers to a degree not previously possible or hardly even conceivable. As we understand then, we can then do the important task of figuring out how to stand on their shoulders.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 11:19 am

    In Genesis 16, Sarai urged Abram to have a child with her servant Hagar. Though this recommendation contradicted God’s promise of a son through Sarai, Abram chose to follow his wife’s advice. But because of the unwise decision not to trust God, Abram faced many difficult, painful trials. And today Israel and the world is experiencing the consequences of Islamic terrorism because of his poor choice.

  2. July 27, 2015 6:19 am

    Thanks very much for this. The only non-intuitive thing on the biblindex search form is that you have to click on the + (add) button, for both the biblical reference and the author.

    Andrew

  3. jch permalink
    October 17, 2016 9:47 pm

    I searched for refs to John 1:1 through year 200, but the several refs I clicked on were in French (and I’m not French : ) Is there a way to get to English?

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