How Do I Read the Church Fathers and Mothers?


You’ve heard their names in class—Augustine, Origen, Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich. Still, you’ve stayed away, because finding resources on the Church Fathers and Mothers is difficult! How do you know where to locate translations? And how do you know if the translation is any good? This Wednesday, the library ran a workshop to address precisely these questions.

What is the bare minimum you need to begin researching one of the church mothers or fathers? First, you need to know the person’s name, being specific as possible. Augustine of Hippo and Augustine of Canterbury may share the same name, but they are separated by an entire continent and at least two centuries. Second, you need to know the name of the author’s works—it is helpful to know these titles in both English and their original language (Latin or Greek), since translators will often leave titles untranslated.

There are two big questions you should ask yourself as you asses a translation’s value. First, what kind of translation is it? This entails knowing a little bit about the author (do they have a history of publishing on this topic) and his or her perspective (are they writing Thomas Aquinas as a philosopher or a theologian)?  Second, when was the translation written? Older translations, while often still useful, do not take into account new information that has come to light (such as newly discovered manuscripts or resources).

To cover your bases, always read the translation’s introductory material as well as the foot or end notes. These can give you clues to the translator’s choices and perspective. Consult reviews of the book (no one likes critique more than language scholars!). Finally, if possible, compare translations—points of difference can often be a productive place to begin research. Below you will find links to print translations in a series, as well as online translations. Keep in mind that standalone translations (single volumes) may be the best and most current translation available– look in reference works or speak to a librarian to help find these editions!

Here is a list of several print collections of historical works in translation—many available in the Pitts Reference section.

  1. Ante-Nicene Fathers as well as Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (early church)
  2. Classics of Western Spirituality (early church up through late medieval– shelved by author, not as a series. Julian of Norwich translation is linked as an example!)
  3. Library of Christian Classics (early church through late medieval)
  4. Loeb Classical Library (Classical Greek and Roman authors, some early church– Augustine is linked as reference. Original language and English translation included.)
  5. Fathers of the Church (early church– housed both in a series in Reference and with individual authors in the stacks– Ambrose is linked as an example)
  6. Works of Saint Augustine (all of Augustine’s work in translation)

Here is a list of online resources—always investigate the age of online translations!

  1. Loeb (digital)
  2. Perseus Digital Library (including texts, dictionaries, and morphological analysis of Greek and Latin words)
  3. New Advent (translated early and medieval texts– including Thomas’ Summa theologiae)
  4. Christian Classics Ethereal Library (resources for biblical study, many early and medieval Christian authors in translation)
  5. Fordham Sourcebooks (collections by era (ancient, medieval, modern), by geography (Byzantium, Africa, Mediterranean), and by topic (Judaism, slavery, etc.))
  6. (extensive resources specifically on Tertullian)

Feel free to check out the powerpoint slides from the workshop, as well as the handout (with fun flowchart on choosing a translation!).  As always, please feel free to contact reference librarians for advice about finding and citing these resources!




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