A question about historical method/historiography, as this pertains to reliability of sources.

A question about historical method/historiography, as this pertains to reliability of sources.

I'm interested in the history of early Christianity, particularly the early Fathers (mostly post-Apostolic, e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Origen of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, but also some Nicene and post-Nicene guys, like Jerome, Augustine, Chrysostom etc.). These guys are oftentimes cited as reliable witnesses for legitimate apostolic tradition by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and paleo-orthodox Protestants. I'm interested in conducting amateur historical research into these claims.

Can any of you guys direct me where to look if I wanted to research on my own, the likelihood, according to commonly accepted standards of good historical research, of these guys actually having come into contact with genuine apostolic doctrine - or perhaps, more significantly, the possibility of them having not come into contact with such doctrine (I'm a Protestant, and I've studied the issue a bit, and some of their claims seem a bit fishy to me, especially in light of many of their "traditions" being clearly false by virtually anyone's standards, for example, the claim by adherents of the Alexandrian catechetical school that the Epistle to the Hebrews was originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew, and then translated into Greek).

What kinds of factors would I have to take in mind? I'm thinking I'll have to concern myself with questions of geography - where the original disciples of Jesus (the Apostles) lived, as opposed to where the early Fathers lived, how they would have received such information, the possibility of them having not done so, information entropy, reliability of oral tradition over that long a period, etc.

For example, a poster on Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog posted a comment of Irenaeus, that is obviously false.
Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information.​
(Against Heresies 2:22:5).

Irenaeus is claiming that Jesus is 50. What accounts for such error? One of the things I'm most interested in, is comparable studies of recent events, such as social or religious movements, where we have been able to detail and observe, much more intimately and accurately, how rapidly a doctrine can go astray from its original proponents, and on how wide a scale this is capable of happening in so short amount of time. I think I remember D.A. Carson also commenting in one of his works, I think his commentary on the Gospel of John, about how we do have records of how quickly disciples can depart from their teacher's original teachings. While it's intuitively plausible that, temporally and historically nearer the original source we get, we become more accurate, are there cases where it's simply not that simple, and this becomes a historically naive perspective to take, in need of restorationist approaches (for example, the exegetical work done on Scripture which contradicts the tradition of the RCC and EOC)?

Is there any historiographical or historical/methodological literature which specializes in this sort've thing? Is there any literature on whether or not the ante-Nicene Fathers were (or could not have been) reliable witnesses to what the Apostles originally taught? How would I go about researching this on my own?
Last edited:
Apr 2010
Re: A question about historical method/historiography, as this pertains to reliability of sources.

It is really difficult to take anything the early Church Father's have to say with any degree of veracity. Sorry. Eusebius is an interesting source, but he cites Christian "historians" who are obviously wrong. But Eusebius is important because he had access to the Royal Roman library at Caesarea before the fall of the empire. There are few sources he mentions of note that are not available to us. In fact, it is likely that every major contemporaneous Roman and Jewish historical source from the period of Jesus' ministry to the end of the Jewish revolt is available to us to peruse (with the possible exception of Plutarch's history).
One example is Tertullian, who asserted that Emperor Tiberius, after learning of Jesus' resurrection, wanted to Roman Senate to declare him a god. Pure nonsense!
I would recommend as a good historical start, a couple of books by John Hagan, "Year of the Passover" and "Fires of Rome." All the ancient sources are reviewed and a chronology determined.
The histories developed by the majority of early Church Fathers are interesting in themselves, but hardly rigorous and probably mostly false. I think your time could be spent better on other aspect of historical Christianity.

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