If you have ever needed a fast and handy source for an early Christian text, chances are you have come across Peter Kirby’s popular site Early Christian Writings. To celebrate ECW’s recent expansion, I asked Kirby some questions about the origins of the site and the challenges it has posed for him over the years.
Early Christian Writings describes itself as “the most complete collection of Christian texts before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.” At last count, the site features 226 entries, arranged in chronological order from the hypothetical Passion Narrative in 30-60 to the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies in 320-380. Included are all New Testament texts and some of their hypothetical sources (e.g., the Signs Gospel, Q), a large variety of Christian Apocrypha (as well as Christian-authored Old Testament Apocrypha, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs), Gnostic Apocrypha (newly added in January 2014), and significant non-Christian authors writing on Christianity (such as Josephus and Pliny the Younger). The entry for each text features at least one English translation (the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, has five), links to online resources, a short bibliography of print scholarship, and a brief introduction.
Kirby created the site almost 15 years ago when he was in college working on a Computer Science degree. In his spare time he participated in New Testament-themed listserv discussions, such as Internet Infidels and Crosstalk. To hold his own in such discussions, Kirby produced an online crib sheet of the relevant early Christian texts. “I enjoyed the discussion online,” Kirby said, “and I wanted to know it as well as I could if I were going to spend my time talking about it. With a different set of circumstances, perhaps I would have had a website about coin collecting or science fiction instead.”
The site began simply as a list of the documents with rough estimates for when they were written. Over time he added the translations and other resources. “You could find most of the texts already online,” Kirby said, “but not all in one place and not with typical introductory material situating the text in a historical and chronological context.” Along with Early Christian Writings, Kirby also maintains Early Jewish Writings, his own self-titled blog, the Early Writings forum, and Christian Origins, a platform for essays by Kirby and others.
Finding content for ECW and EJW, all of which is taken from public domain sources, can be difficult. Kirby said, “Sometimes it is hard to find versions of texts that can be used. Recent discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls don't have any public domain translations. A couple of the hypothetical texts on my site, such as the pre-Markan passion narrative and the Kerygmata Petrou, don't have a public domain translation. But I was able to offer translations by using a pastiche of the sources (the Gospel of Mark and Pseudo-Clementines, respectively) that have been translated long enough ago to be in the public domain.”
Response to Early Christian Writings has been uniformly positive. The glowing testimonials collected by Kirby over the years include:
“It is a pleasure to look at your website.” (Gerd Lüdemann)
“By the way, during Spring semester I found your amazing Web site on Christian Writings. Many, many thanks for this site. It is a gold mine for everyone! I have all of my students use it, and I have been giving the URL to all of my colleagues.” (Vernon K. Robbins)
“I enjoyed looking at your new site on Early Christian Writings arranged chronologically. It looks like it is going to be a very useful resource—congratulations. . . Thank you again for your work on this site.” (Mark Goodacre)
As for future projects, Kirby is working with Chris Weimer (a graduate student at City University of New York) on an Early Latin Writings site to be launched later in 2014; the two are considering creating also a companion site for secular Greek texts from antiquity. And Kirby may apply his presentation of the “Collected Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas” (each saying features the morphologically marked-up text in its original language, various English translations, a collection of quotations from scholars, and commentary from site visitors) to other texts on the site. As for other achievements, Kirby remarked, “It’s funny, but these websites more or less happened by accident. As a kid in high school my two dreams were to get married and to make computer games. February two years ago I got married to my beautiful wife Liss, so now that dream is for us to have a good life together. And, fortunately, she likes games too, so it's not going to be a problem there to start working on that other dream.”
A frequent user of the site myself, I add my voice to Kirby’s other supporters in saying that Early Christian Writings is an excellent resource for the study of the Christian Apocrypha, particularly as a one-stop location for students to find and become acquainted with the texts. Thanks Peter for all of your work over the years.