The Digital Document Detective Episode 2: Ancient and Medieval Backgrounds

You can find many important ancient, medieval, Renaissance/Reformation and Modern primary documents online. The scene is changing all the time, and sometimes documents you could find earlier disappear. But more often the trend is towards greater availability, and other parties such as European libraries and universities are catching up to Google in providing materials online. Top-notch critical editions and recent scholarly publications are the two categories of documents usually not available online except behind paywalls. Older materials, private translations, book previews, online journals…there is still much that is useful that can be found online for free. Here is merely a sample list, stemming from things I was looking for in my own research:

  • The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature ( Sumerian literature belongs to the third millennium BC, prior to the rise of Sargon of Akkad and his Semitic culture in Babylonia.
  • The Sibylline Oracles at Early Jewish Writings ( a ‘rolling corpus’ of supposed pagan prophecies (with various seeming Jewish and Christian influences) that had considerable authority in the eyes of some early Christians.
  • From the same website (, the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo, a generation older than Jesus, whose thinking was so important for the formation of patristic Christian thought.
  • The Soncino Babylonian Talmud ( Have you ever seen a print edition of the Talmud, the largest corpus of late antique Jewish law? It’ll crowd out your old National Geographics for sure. Check it online!
  • The Suda, a medieval encyclopaedia from the Byzantine culture, preserving much knowledge and lore from the ancient world (
  • The Enneads of Plotinus, the main man of Neoplatonism ( a resource for understanding the philosophy that partly explains the fabric of Christian thought in the patristic and medieval eras. I can’t emphasize enough how indispensable some understanding of this philosophical background is for church history and the history of theology, though you should begin by reading simple dictionary articles to get an overview.
  • The Online Critical Pseudepigrapha (, containing all of those weird books that sound as though they could be in the Bible but aren’t, because they are later, imitative works. Examples are the well-known 1 Enoch and the Sibylline Oracles. A classy-looking project.

These are all primary documents, so let me finally add a single example of a secondary resource related to the patristic or antique period: an online archive of one of the important journals of patristic scholarship, the Revue d’Etudes Augustiniennes et Patristiques ( Such online past issue journal archives can be gold, especially for a foreign-language journal not held in many places in an English-speaking country.

Perhaps one counter-example is not out of place. You can’t get everything for free online! When I’m having happy dreams I dream that I own a brand new and complete Loeb Classical Library, featuring numerous ancient works in original language and English translation on facing pages. Well, you can get to them online at But you get just a taste of each dish before it’s whipped away like an Oliver Twist lunch meal. You have to pay for the real thing or find it in a library.

Well, these are some of the prospects for finding ancient primary documents related to Christian history. Perhaps you might like to check my Pinterest board on the topic as a supplement to what’s written here: Perhaps you might like to check my Pinterest board on the topic as a supplement to what’s written here: Our next episode, God willing, will feature some related to more recent centuries.

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