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Reliability of Patristic References to Jewish Christianity

Among the most important sources on Jewish Christian sects are the writings of the church fathers. We will be using their citations rather extensively in our historical reconstruction of what post-70 CE Jewish Christianity was like. However their work are not be taken naively as historically accurate. We must take into account the various factors that influenced the writings of the Church Fathers:

  • General Considerations
    The church fathers' sense of history was not like our modern critical, scientific one. We know that:

  • Specific Considerations
    When it comes to patristic testimonies on Jewish Christian sects, there are several additional factors we have to keep in mind:
    • In general they were hostile witnesses. This fact has quite a few implication for their presentation of, and their access to, information on Jewish Christianity.
    • Many of the church fathers had their own idiosyncrasies and prejudices which we must be cognizant of when evaluating the evidence they presented.
All these show us that we must handle the evidence from the church fathers with care. For what they write may be influenced by many of the factors above.

Mistaking Legends for Historical Accounts

In general the church fathers' sense of history is not the same as modern critical historians. They would sometimes quote apocryphal works as though they were historical. One example is from Hippolytus' (c170-c236) Commentary on Daniel:

If we believe that, when Paul was condemned to the beast, the lion that was set upon him laid down at his feet and licked him, how shall we not believe that which happened in the case of Daniel? (Commentary on Daniel, 3:9)[1]

Paul's encounter with the lion is no way recorded in the authentic epistles of Paul [a] nor is it found in the canonical (and semi-historical) Acts of the Apostles. It is to be found in the late second century theological fiction The Acts of Paul. Set in Ephesus (see I Corinthians 5:32!), Paul was thrown into prison where a fierce lion was set loose against him. However it turns out that the lion (a talking one!) was one that had previously been baptized by Paul. Paul was not harmed by the lion.

Even a fundamentalist Christian would have no problem seeing how absurd the whole story is: with a talking lion that was baptized by Paul. Furthermore we know from Tertullian (c160-c225) that the author was a presbyter from Asia who upon being convicted of this forgery, duly confessed and said that he composed the work "out of respect for Paul." [2]

Yet here we have a church father quoting this as though it was historical fact and using it to bolster his argument for the authenticity of a similar incident in Daniel! Obviously Hippolytus' sense of history lacks some skepticism. [3]

It is important to keep in mind Streeter's words, written almost a century ago:

[S]tories spread in those days as now, not because they are true, but because they are interesting. And once a good story becomes current, it is widely believed-unless immediately contradicted, either by glaring incompatibility with some notorious fact, or by powerful influences that have an interest in its suppression. In the third century, as to most people in the twentieth, "everybody says so" is a quite sufficient reason for accepting any anecdote which is really interesting...Anecdotes about apostles or other personages of that age, like common-room stories at the present day about persons regarded as "characters", were told and re-told without anyone feeling the need of conformity to an exacting standard of historical accuracy. [4]

Thus when the church fathers referred to "tradition" it may not necessarily be a reliable one. "Tradition" in their parlance could simply be a quote from some apocryphal works or a juicy and interesting gossip told, retold and embellished as it passed from person to person.

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Reliance of Later Church Fathers on Earlier Ones

Another area of caution must be applied to cases when we seem to have multiple attestations to a single event or tradition. The presence of multiple attestations is a good thing, for, if independent, they indicate corroborating witnesses.

However when it comes to the patristic writings, we have to remember the following facts. The church fathers read one another. This is obvious. For it was unlikely that an older work would have survived if later "orthodox" fathers did not consider them worth preserving. Carried further, this means that if an earlier church father was held in high regard, his successors would accept the authority of what he wrote. However the works of earlier writers were referred not normally through verbatim reproductions (although this did happen-Eusebius being one good example) but more often through paraphrased descriptions of the accounts; and often with amplifications and modifications added in by the copyist. [5]

As Streeter pointed out:

Ireneaus (c130-200) derived materials from Papias (c60-130), Hegesippus (c110-180) and Justin Martyr (c100-165); Clement of Alexandria (c150-215), Tertullian (c160-c225) and Hippolytus (c170-c236) used Ireneaus; Origen (c185-254) read most of his predecessors; and Eusebius (c260-c340), the real "father of Church history", used all these earlier writers. Jerome (c342-420)...copied and improved upon Eusebius. But even Eusebius rarely, if ever, perceived that a later writer was merely repeating, with his own comments or conjectural amplification, the statement of an earlier writer; and he thus sets their evidence side by side, as if they were independent witnesses who corroborated one another's testimony. [6]

Let us look at one example of how a simple bare tradition was embroidered by later church fathers. This involves the attribution of authorship of the second gospel to John Mark. The earliest strand is from Papias (c60-13) who was quoted verbatim by Eusebius:

Papias (c60-130) (History of the Church 3:39:15)
Mark the interpreter of Peter, wrote down exactly, but not in order, what he remembered of the acts and sayings of the Lord, for he neither heard the Lord himself nor accompanied him, but, as I said, Peter later on. Peter adapted his teachings to the needs [of his hearers], but made no attempt to provide a connected narrative of things related to our Lord.

We notice how each of the later Church Father took Papias statement as the starting point and simply added their own embellishments to it:

  • Ireneaus (c130-200) added that Mark wrote his gospel "after the departure" (i.e. death) of Peter.

  • Clement of Alexandria (c150-215)(quoted in History of the Church 6:14:6-7) contradicted Ireneaus and added his own statement that Mark wrote his gospel while Peter was alive and when he (Peter) heard of the gospel "he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it."

  • Origen (c185-254) (quoted in History of the Church 6:25:8-9) said that Mark "composed it according to the instructions of Peter"

  • Eusebius (c260-c340) who faithfully recorded the witnesses above, followed Clement's account but then added that when Peter heard about the gospel he "was pleased with the zeal of the men, and that the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches. " (History of the Church 2:15:2-6)

  • Jerome (c342-420) in his letter to Hedibia (Letter 120) mentioned that Peter narrated while Mark noted down what he said.

The important thing to note is how each later writer simply added their own details to the story. We know that these later fathers had no additional data apart from Papias. For instance Eusebius said his statement was given by Clement, yet Clement said Peter neither encourage nor forbade the use of the gospel whereas Eusebius, in direct contradiction, said Peter gave his sanction to the work! Jerome in his work On Illustrious Men (c302), chapter 8, gave the statement from Eusebius; following closely the Clementine details. Yet this contradicted his own account in Letter 120! So, in the words of Streeter, we catch Jerome in an act of "conscious exaggeration" in his letter to Hedibia. The accounts of Ireneaus and Clement also contradicted one another; one said the work was written after the death of Peter, the other stated that Mark's gospel was composed during the lifetime of the apostle. Finally, Origen was merely paraphrasing the Papias account. [7]

Thus in evaluating the writings of the church fathers we always have to ask ourselves what the likely source of their information was before concluding that we have corroborating evidence.

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Main Patristic Witnesses to Jewish Christianity

The lists below are of patristic writers who made important references to Jewish Christian sects:

  • Justin Martyr (c100-c165), a second century Christian apologist, made references to Jewish Christians in his work Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (c144-160).

  • Hegesippus (c110-180), one of the earliest chroniclers of the church, wrote the five volume Memoirs. The books themselves are no longer extant but portions are preserved in Eusebius' History of the Church. In the Memoirs are the oldest accounts about what happened to the relatives of Jesus after the death of James.

  • Ireneaus (c130-c200), bishop of Lyons, wrote about various heretical groups including the Jewish Christian Ebionites in his magnum opus Against Heresies (c182-c188).

  • Tertullian (c160-c225), an African church father, referred to Jewish Christians in his polemic Prescriptions Against Heresies (c200). The work was intended to refute the various forms of Christianity he considered heretical.

  • Hippolytus (c170-c236), a presbyter at Rome, wrote about the Jewish Christians in a couple of chapters in his major work Refutation of all Heresies.

  • Origen (c185-254), a theologian and prolific writer from Alexandria, cited the Ebionites in his book Against Celsus (c250). [Ironically, some of Origen's ideas were considered heretical by later church fathers.]

  • Eusebius (c260-c340), bishop of Caesarea and "Father of Church History", gave the world his monumental History of the Church (c325). He made references to the Jewish Christian sects of Ebionites and Elkesaites in that work.

  • Epiphanius (c315-403), bishop of Salamis in Cyprus and renowned heresiologist, whose main work was called Panarion (374-376), which means "medicine chest" (his work being an antidote to the poisons of the various heresies). Often referred to as "Refutation of All Heresies", the Panarion provides information on the Jewish Christian sects of the Nazarenes, Ebionites and Elkesaites.

  • Jerome (c342-420), the famed translator of the Hebrew Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) and "Doctor of the Church" [b], made numerous references to Jewish Christians in his letters, commentaries and biographies.

  • Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo and, like Jerome, a Doctor of the Church, made some references to Jewish Christians in his works Against the Donatists (c400) and Reply to Faustus (c400)

  • Theodoret (c393-c466), bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, wrote Compendium of Heretical Fables (453) where he included Jewish Christians among the sixty heretical groups he sought to refute.

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Patristic Writers as Hostile Witnesses

Even a cursory glance at the titles of the works above tells us that information about Jewish Christians were presented within a context where their views were to be "opposed" or "refuted". Tertullian and Epiphanius even went as far as equating these to diseases that require "prescriptions" and "antidotes" (from a medicine chest!). This shows us that their accounts, of necessity, were polemical. The church fathers were less interested in a fair presentation than in trying to refute or discredit the Jewish Christians. [8] This means that they were writing from a perspective that was hostile to the subject.

This has some very important implications.

  • Few of the church father would had had direct access to the materials from Jewish Christians themselves.
    For instance, although considered to be an "authority" on Nazarene Jewish Christianity, Epiphanius admitted that he did not know whether the Nazarenes succeeded the Cerinthians or vice versa (Panarion 29:1:1). He was also unsure about their Christology (Panarion 29:7:6). Someone who had direct access to the Nazarenes would have known this almost at the outset. [9]

    Augustine, who lived in Hippo (North Africa near the border separating modern Algeria and Tunisia), did not seem to have any firsthand knowledge of the Jewish Christians since he was never close to the areas where there were these sects. In his writings he sometimes confused the Nazarenes with another unrelated sect, the Symmachians. [10]

  • Much of their materials were based on hearsay and documents that were available to them.
    One good example of how such hearsay continues to be propagated is in their explanation of the origin of the Ebionites. As we have seen elsewhere, ebionim is the plural form of "The Poor" (or the Poor Ones) while ebion is simply the singular form (i.e. a poor one) of the same word.

    The suggestion that the Ebionites were founded by a man named Ebion first appeared in Hippolytus' (Refutation Against All Heresies 7:23). The earliest description of the Ebionites, that of Ireneaus (Against Heresies 1:26:2) did not mention a person named Ebion. Indeed, as Georg Strecker suggested, the origin of the name is very probably due to Hippolytus misreading one of his sources, Justin's now lost Syntagma.

    Yet after Hippolytus, almost all the church fathers (except Eusebius) followed this erroneous etymology of the Ebionites. Shortly after Hippolytus we have Tertullian (Prescription Against Heresies, Ch 33) referring to the heretic Ebion in the same breath as Marcion. Epiphanius even added the "fact" that Ebion was formerly of the Nazarene sect who left and started his own Jewish Christian group which eventually became known as the Ebionites after their founder. Ebion, according to Epiphanius, concocted abominable, pernicious and dreadful heretical theologies. (Panarion, Ch. 30)

    Ebion had evolved from a fiction, borne out of a mistake made by an early Church father in reading his sources, into an "evil, tentacled, personality". [11]

Thus the church fathers, in their polemic against the Jewish Christians, do not normally have access to first hand accounts and based their writings (uncritically) on hearsay and on the writings of earlier fathers they considered orthodox. Of course this does not mean that everything that they write was fiction. Obviously Epiphanius had access to information, however confused these had become when they reached him, that were ultimately derived from Jewish Christian sources. This we know because we can verify some of what he had written with the Jewish-Christian document embedded in the fourth century Pseudo-Clementines. Jerome, during his stay in Palestine obviously knew some Jewish Christians. The earlier Church fathers such as Justin obviously had detailed information about these people as well. [12]

To summarize, in their eagerness to refute the "heretics", the church fathers didn't feel the need to be careful (and critical) in the use and expansion of sources. So we have to do the job that they had left undone. In evaluating the evidence of the church fathers we have to compare the various sources to see which were likely to have been based on eyewitness accounts and which were based on hearsay. Where possible, we should try and find the earliest common sources of the various accounts.

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Idiosyncrasies and Prejudices

Apart from the polemic intent and lack of direct access to facts, some of the church fathers had personalities that should make us beware about taking everything they say at face value.

Jerome for instance is known to be particularly boastful and normally claimed to have accomplished more than what he had actually achieved. A couple of examples should suffice. In his book On Illustrious Men (392) Jerome claimed that he had finished translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew when in actuality he did not accomplish this task until another fifteen years later (c406). He made similar claims about translating the whole Septuagint (the Greek OT) into Latin. There are only a few books in the Septuagint which we have extant of Jerome's translations. And these were the few books he generally referred to when asked about the translation. Indeed when Augustine asked him for a copy of his translation of the Septuagint, he simply used the excuse every schoolboy uses: he lost it! [13]

Thus when Jerome claimed that he had translated a Jewish Christian gospel from Hebrew (e.g. in his Commentary on Matthew c398), we have to take his claim with a pinch of salt. When we add this to the fact that most of his extant quotations from his "own translation" were indistinguishable from Origen's quotations, whose work Jerome copied quite extensively, we have reason to doubt his claim. [14]

Eusebius, on the other hand, was guided by his own prejudices in his selection of material for his History of the Church. In this work, he wanted to portray the church that he considered "orthodox" (i.e. his own) as something that had always existed. He presented the history of Christianity till then as one forward march of the Truth as embedded in the true orthodox faith. Heretics to him were people who wondered from this true path. "Truth is older than error" was his dictum and heretics, of necessity, were the innovators. [15]

Obviously Jewish Christianity, being so different from the orthodoxy Eusebius was familiar with, had to be classified and presented as innovators; people who tried to pervert the one true teaching of Christ and his apostles. It simply did not fit into his paradigm that these Jewish Christians could even possibly be the true descendants of the Jerusalem community and that his own church was the one that was heretical.

Thus we need to be cognizant, where possible, of the church fathers' personalities, quirks and prejudices in writing what they did.

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a.Although Paul did write that he "fought with beasts at Ephesus". (I Corinthians 15:32) Indeed this could be the inspiration for the apocryphal Acts of Paul.
b.The term, given in the Middle Ages, refers to theologians who were considered "great" (in work and "saintliness") There were, originally, only four who held this title, Ambrose (c339-397), Jerome (c342-420), Augustine (354-430) and Gregory the Great (c540-604).


1.quoted in Streeter, The Primitive Church: p15
2.Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol II: p234, p251-253
3.Streeter, op. cit.: p15
4.ibid.: p15-16
5.ibid.: p16
6.ibid.: p17
7.ibid.: p17-18
8.Ludemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p27
Schoeps, Jewish Christianity: p12
9.Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: p35
10.ibid.: p77
11.Schoeps, op cit: p11
Strecker, On the Problem of Jewish Christianity, Appendix I in Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity: p280-284
Pritz, op. cit.: p25-27; p35-38
12.Schoeps, op cit: p12
13.Kelly, Jerome: p158, 159, 302,334
Pritz, op. cit.: p52-53
14.Kelly, op cit: p65
Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol I: p137-149
15.Akers, The Lost Religion of Jesus: p11
Wilkens, Myth of Christian Beginnings: p52-76

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