Sunday, July 13, 2008

Patrology Online: What's Good and What Still Needs to be Done?

I was thinking I might try a change of pace this week. Instead of one of my essays, I want to hear from my readers on two basic questions. You can either answer in the comments or, if you like, write on it on your own blog. Just send me the link, if you chose the latter option.

Question #1:
What is the best site or resource online for the study of Patristics?

That is, what is that you find most useful for your reading of the Fathers? This could be anything from sites for texts, translations, background information or whatever, so long as it is patristic related.

Question #2:
What still needs to done in patristics online?

That is, what would you like to see added? Do we need more reference works (a new patrology on the lines of DIR (de imperatoribus romanis? Or what texts do we need translated (Photius' Biblioteca)? Or something else.

Let me know what you think.



paul said...

The (extraordinarily expensive) commercial electronic patrologies like PLD or CCLT are extremely sophisticated databases with powerful boolean searching capabilities. They allow you to search, for example, for the history of commentary on a particular biblical verse over a 1000 year period, or to inquire if any form of a word in a semantic field (amor* OR dilectio* OR caritas*) is found in connection with another semantic field (AND altare* OR sacrificium*), and so forth. They therefore allow access to texts of a kind that could hardly be imagined before, even by the most learned.

The free electronic patrologies, although admirable in many ways, are much more limited. They often allow only simple searches on individual files, sometimes the works of a single author or even as small as a single treatise.

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?

There are some projects (e.g., parts of CCEL) which use HTML encoding, which is a bit more promising, but they do not seem linked up to search engines able to perform the sophisticated searches over large corpora which are the real promise of the new technology.

And then there is the problem, I suppose insuperable, of depending on out-of-copyright texts which are sometimes extremely antiquated (for example the 19th-century versions of 17th-century editions often found in Migne). In their new electronic forms these texts appear modern and up-to-date, but they are anything but, and their appearance in the new guise can be misleading.

Some of the online patrology projects, in fact, do not seem to have been really well conceptualised or to make the most of the possibilities opened up by modern information technology. I think you have raised an excellent question for discussion.

Phil Snider said...

Thanks, Paul!

This was an angle that I hadn't thought of, although this is one of the dilemma's that an amateur scholar such as I have: access to these databases. I'm lucky in having access to a university library system through my wife, but not everyone is that lucky.

The point about the PDF technology is well taken. I don't think we've explored the usefulness of hypertext for patristic texts to the degree that we could.

Similarly, the problem with a lot of information online is that it is based on very dated sources. Don't get me wrong, but these books are good books (often), but we don't really keep track of what is happening in patristics now.

Thanks for starting off our discussion.


mike said...

I'm a regular user of the patristic pages at New Advent, CCEL, and the Fathers page at Roger Pearse's I think the future is in efforts like Roger's cooperative translation projects. God bless him for commissioning professional translations as well. He dreams big, and I'd love to see his dreams come true. I imagine someday the PG and PL will be searchable and free, but I don't think it'll be any time soon. Oh, and Google books has also been a big help.

Seumas Macdonald said...

I think my personal greatest desideratum is to see freely available source-texts, on sites that are relatively easy to access and use. To see PG and PL on the web for free in a format that allowed easy cut-and-paste would be a great boon.

Jim said...

1) I dunno

2) I dunno

I am pretty much a piker this academic league. My degree is in business ;-).


Weekend Fisher said...

I was getting long-winded -- shocking, isn't it? ;) -- so answered on my blog. My own answers plus I picked up on what Paul was saying and continued on those lines.

paul said...

Perhaps not everyone knows about Documenta Catholica Omnia (, and it may be worth drawing to everyone's attention. It's an extraordinarily ambitious project being carried out by the Cooperatorum Veritatis Societas, a group about which I know nothing.

Among the many resources available are the PL and PG. For the PG, as as far as I can see, there are PDF page scans of Migne, which have also been scanned by others. For the PL there are also PDFs, but rather than mere page scans these are meticulously OCR'ed and newly typeset versions of the Migne texts. They are very clean and pleasant to read, appear to be very carefully proof-read, helpfully give the original column and section breaks for citation and reference purposes, and are enriched at the end of each work by a word list.

They must be the result of much careful and dedicated labour, and I do not want to look a gift horse in the mouth. Nevertheless my previous quibbles apply. I can, for example, download St Ambrose on Ephesians and save myself a trip to the library. I can then search the text, but in quite limited ways (no wildcards, let alone boolean searches, etc.) The files seem to be protected PDFs, and as far as I can see don't allow cut and paste or other manipulation. In other words, they're a little more useful than the printed page, but not much so. They won't allow me to ask, for example, if Ambrose used a certain word only early in his career, or only late, and so on. They don't seem to open up the really exciting possibilities of electronic texts.

So I'm still wondering why so much, often duplicated, effort is going into projects that only make a small step forward when it is possible to make a giant leap. Of course, part of the answer must be that the sophisticated commercial projects required massive investments of time, money, and technical expertise that are much more difficult to realise in non-commercial volunteer projects. That may well be an obstacle that cannot be overcome.

However, given the outstanding success of many complex open-source projects, I wonder if a better-conceptualised and more tech-savvy "giant leap" patristic project would be possible, even if it must be based on the older copyright-free editions.

chad said...

This may be off base, but I think we need more resources that aren't straight patristic reading, but helping people with the "baby-steps" into patristic reading. Christopher Hall's two book (reading scripture with and theology with the Church Fathers) are great introductions, but what I have found from online resources it is pretty hard for a newbie to navigate.

But the textual issues are very important, and I already have some great new links to chase.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Well I was commenting last night when a thunderstorm knocked out my internet. Here's my original reply though I'm afraid some of my thunder has already been stolen:

Question 1: I find myself at more often than any other site because not only do they have a good number of patristic works on file, they are easily searchable and it also has the Catholic Encyclopedia (which is a good resource for Patristics even if you're not Catholic) and the Summa Theologica.

Of course I spend a good amount of time on and Newadvent is still the #1 for me (maybe I'm biased).

Question 2 - I think more access to scholarly journals might help.

Google books is quickly becoming an excellent resource for 19th century patristic scholarship. I hope more 20th century works (if only small ones) are released to the public domain for easy access. That might be asking too much.

One of the bloggers on the biblical studies carnival a while back mentioned that biblio-blogging was well on its way to setting itself right beside scholarly journals as a new form of peer-reviewed scholarship. I think patristic blogging is well behind the biblical studies blogosphere but thanks to guys like you, I think it's making some headway.
I'm excited to see what the future holds for it and I hope to contribute in some small way to its advancement. One particular way in which patristic blogging is being held back somewhat is because it has such a tendency to be polemic. One can hardly comment on any text of the early Church without making claims that are inherently polemic.
And I of course realize that I have a nice amount of work to do in that area. Yet one cannot totally remove polemics from patristic research - how we read them dictates in large part how we live out Christianity (or what we think of Christianity). We have reason to be polemic because the stakes are so high in this area. So a balance must be struck somewhere and as we approach this, I think patristic blogging will only increase in value.

The sheer volume of patristic blogging is skyrocketing now and the quality of what is readily available is impressive.

Phil Snider said...

Hi all!

Thanks for the many answers on this. I don't think I have the room to answer all the comments, but I do have a couple observations.

First, jim, I wouldn't worry about training or lack of training. I'm interested in knowing what is missing for those who are starting to inquire about patristics as well as those who specialize. Remember, I'm an autodidact in this area too. I've just been working at it for the past eight years or so.

Second, one of the things I'm hearing is the availability of texts and the cost of commercial programs. I agree with this concern. At the end of the day, the commercial products are aimed at professionals and institutional buyers, so that tends to mean that the costs are notable. I'm not sure how to get around this.

Third, I like Mike's idea about collaborative projects like Roger Pearce's Eusebius project being the way forward. In many ways, the Internet affords us the opportunity for collaboration which previous generations didn't have. The trick is to come up with a project which is both contained and can maintain a high level of interest.

Fourth, chad, I don't think you're off base at all. One of the things I'm seeing is that we are putting a lot of effort into getting texts and translations on line (which is important), but there are comparatively few aids to understanding them. As I've found in my high school Latin and Classical Studies teaching, ancient texts are not easy to interpret for the modern reader, so things like reference works and commentaries are badly needed, if only to help people pick through the forest of references and assumptions which are not our own. I think the reason why a lot of people don't get into patristics is because it is daunting. So I wonder what we can do to help that.

Lastly, on the subject of patristic blogging, while grateful for Tim's praise, I can't help but see the down-side. We are, as Tim pointed out, far off from where the Biblical Studies Carnival is. That makes sense because that Carnival has been going on for a long time as has biblioblogging. Patristic blogging is rather a more recent phenomenon.

I think one main difference which worries me is that we don't seem to be getting a large number of academics weighing in on patristics. Now, patristics per se is perhaps not a popular field (its secular equivilent of Early Christianities is much more so), so I see problems in this. Simply stated, I don't know how to bridge the divide bewteen Early Christianities people and patristic scholars nor am I entirely sure that there is the will to try. Any thoughts?

Well, keep it coming!


Jim said...


Thanks. :-)

I suppose that one valid question is: what are the objectives of Patristics and what are the objectives of Early Christianities. If there is some set of shared goals, then bringing the fields together at some level (symposia online?) makes sense otherwise perhaps not.


Phil Snider said...


I think the best way to describe the difference is that it is analagous to the difference between theology and religious studies departments. They both study the same subject matter, but in fundamentally different ways. Theology studies God and our understanding of Him from the inside, as it were. It looks at these beliefs from a specifically Christian tradition. Religious studies looks at the same beliefs from the outside as something to analyses from a presumed position of objectivity (I say presumed for a reason- I don't think religious studies is actually objective, but rather originates from a very post-Enlightenment worldview).

A more pungent way of putting is a comment of Stanley Hauwerwas (the favourite theologian of both myself and my wife) who (to paraphrase) said that religious studies can only study something which is dead or which it has killed. Perhaps unfair, but not without some point.


Maureen said...

We need full-cast dramatizations of more of early Christian literature. Unfortunately, my friends and relations won't get near the microphone, so it's up to others who have more cooperative minions! (Or graduate students.)

o1mnikent said...


Have you heard about an electronic edition of the Patrologia Graeca from Logos?

An electronic edition like this, which solves some of the problems associated with reading these texts from pdfs, is enormously beneficial. This particular edition will be searchable, useful for comparative grammar, and links to English translations in Schaff's ECF will make important texts easy (well, easier) to read and more accessible to more people. Not to mention the possibilities of morphological tagging, if there is enough interest.