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Can We Reconstruct the Entire New Testament from Quotations of the Church Fathers?

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QUESTION:

Recently you mentioned that your early work involved analysing patristic citations of the New Testament. I believe it has been said that virtually all of the NT could be recreated from such mentions if the need ever arose. Do you believe that this would, indeed, be possible, please?

 

RESPONSE:

This is a very interesting question.  I may need to unpack what it means before giving an answer.

As most of you know, we do not have the original text of any of the books of the New Testament, only copies made many years (centuries) later.   We have over 5600 copies in the Greek language in which it was originally written, and these are our primary sources for reconstructing what the authors originally wrote.   But there are two other kinds of evidence:  early versions and patristic citations.

The versions are the translations of the New Testament into other ancient languages.  The earliest translations were Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, probably all beginning to be made in the 2nd century or so, and there are a bunch of later ones (Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, etc.).  There are enormous problems with using these to figure out what the original Greek authors wrote.  The manuscripts in these languages are themselves centuries after the originals, even if the translations themselves were centuries earlier.  And so we cannot know how these later manuscripts have been changed over the years of copying away from what the original translations said.

But in theory, if you can use, say, the Syriac manuscripts that survive to reconstruct the Syriac “original” version, then you would have some purchase on seeing what readings were in the *Greek* manuscripts available to the original Syriac translator, and that would tell you what some of the Greek manuscripts in second century Syria looked like.  That’s extremely helpful.

The problem is even bigger, though, because some elements of Greek cannot be detected by means of translation.  For example, there are lots of instances where two different Greek grammatical constructions of a sentence could theoretically be translated the *same* way in many of the versions.  And so if you have two different grammatical ways of expressing a sentence for a verse in, say, John’s Gospels – -that is, some Greek manuscripts read one way, others another – and both readings could in theory be translated the *same* way in Latin, then the Latin manuscripts will not tell you which of the two ways was found in the original Latin translator.   Isn’t textual criticism fun?

The other source of information for reconstructing the text of the New Testament are the “patristic” citations.   “Patristic” refers to the writings of the church fathers.  These writers often quote the New Testament, and when they do so, we can tell what form of the New Testament (verse by verse) the authors had in the manuscripts available to them in their time and place.  This was the topic of my PhD Dissertation (The Gospel Text of Didymus the Blind), and it is an unusually complicated matter.  But I don’t need to go into all the problems here; I’ve talked about them on the blog before, if you want to pursue it: https://ehrmanblog.org/patristic-evidence-for-the-new-testament/

The question that I’m being asked here is whether it is true that even if we didn’t have any manuscripts or versions, we could reconstruct virtually the entire New Testament from these quotations of the church fathers, the “Patristic citations.”   That is a claim you often hear from conservative Christian apologists who want to assure their readers/hearers that there is no doubt at all about what was in the original New Testament.   And it certainly sounds impressive!

But I’m afraid the idea is rather naïve, and is almost always made by people who have no clue what is involved in undertaking the task.

As I’ve said, this was my original area of scholarly expertise – I spend many years working on it.   In addition to my first book on Didymus, mentioned above (a published form of my dissertation), I did a second book, co-authored with Mike Holmes and Gordon Fee (well: co-researched with them; I actually wrote the book; but I couldn’t have done it without them – they did tons of the work with me), on the Gospel of John in the writings of Origen.  In that book we tracked down and listed every quotation of the Gospel of John in the voluminous writings of Origen, the significant third-century theologian.  From these quotations we reconstructed (and printed, in Greek) a huge chunk of the entire Gospel of John.

But here are insurmountable problems with saying that we could reconstruct the entire New Testament just from the Patristic citations:

  1. I should stress that Origen himself is highly exceptional. He quoted lots and lots of the NT and we have tons of writings from him.  So yes, we could do what we did with his quotations of John.
  2. But we could do this because we ourselves have a Greek Gospel of John that we can compare Origen’s writings to. In other words, if we didn’t have a Greek text of John before us, in many places we would’t know that what Origien was writing actually was a quotation of John.  Church fathers usually don’t say things like, “As is found in the Gospel of John”; they say something like “As we know from Scripture” or “As the Lord once said” or they just quote something without even telling us they’re quoting it.

I’m not sure if I’m explaining the problem well.  But if you read a newspaper article that says, something like “As we all know, you must be born again to inherit the kingdom above” – there would be nothing in the sentence to make you think, “Oh, this author is quoting John 3:3.”

To use the quotation to see if it is an accurate quotation of John 3:3, you have to actually have a copy of the Bible with John 3:3 in it.  Without that Bible, you can’t reconstruct that verse of the Bible.  See what I mean?  You wouldn’t know it was John 3:3 – or even from the Gospel of John, or even from the Bible.

  1. Relatedly, the church fathers never cited passages by chapter and verse, because they didn’t have chapters and verses. So if you have a church father like Tertullian, say, who quotes the Gospels a lot, you would certainly have his quotations, and maybe most of the time (?) you could figure out they were quotations of the Gospels, but you usually would have no way of knowing how the quotations were to be arranged, in what sequence, from beginning to end.

Let me illustrate the problem.  Imagine you decided to cut up a Charles Dickens novel with scissors, cutting out whole sentences sometimes (never more than two or three at once), but far more often just clauses or phrases.  You then shuffle together the tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of scraps you have, and then you try to figure out how to arrange them to create the novel.  You could do it if you already *have* the novel to compare the scraps to, but you couldn’t do it (or at least know that you had done it right) if you did *not* have the novel.  So without the novel, you couldn’t reconstruct the novel.

  1. And what if you didn’t cut these scraps from a single book, but from hundreds of different copies of the novel, and each of the copies you used was different from each other?

That’s what we have with the patristic citations.  The church fathers all quote the passages of the New Testament in *different* ways – either because their own manuscripts of it differed from one another, or because they were quoting it from memory and got a few words wrong (as people always do; and the church fathers absolutely did – no question about that one!  Origen himself would quote the *same* verse in many different ways!), or because they were adjusting the quotation to the context of what they were talking about.  If you’re alert, you will have noticed I did that very thing when I quoted John 3:3 above.  It is not actually an accurate citation.

But suppose that my quotation of John 3:3 was the *only* quotation of John 3:3 that survives, and we didn’t have any manuscript or printed text of John to compare my quotation to.  You would not know the quotation was from John; you would not know it came in what is now in chapter 3.  You would not know that it followed what is now verse 2 and came before what is now verse 4.  And you would not know if that’s what the author originally wrote or not.  The problems are enormous and, I’m afraid, insuperable.

And so, in short, in theory, yes, the church fathers do quote most of the New Testament.  But could we reconstruct the New Testament from their writings?  No, I’m afraid not.

 

 

 


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 1, 2019

    Would what we get be closer to the sayings-gospel of Thomas? Do you think the parable of the goats and the sheep goes back to Jesus or is that a later invention?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2019

      I don’t understand your first question. Second question: yes, I think it goes back to Jesus. But I think it’s widely misunderstood. I’ll have to look to see if I’ve posted on that already.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  September 4, 2019

        Sorry if I was unclear.

        If we tried to reconstruct the gospels from patristic writings, would we get something like the “sayings” Gospels that only contain a series of sayings?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 8, 2019

          Ah. No, Patristic sources also describe the deeds of Jesus in the Gospels, not just the sayings.

  2. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  September 1, 2019

    “But in theory, if you can use, say, the Syriac manuscripts that survive to reconstruct the Syriac “original” version, then you would have some purchase on seeing what readings were in the *Greek* manuscripts available to the original Syriac translator, and that would tell you what some of the Greek manuscripts in second century Syria looked like. That’s extremely helpful.”

    has there been a case of greek manuscrips being dependant on non-greek translations?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      Not directly, I think; but possibly the text of, say, the Latin text of a bilingual manuscript (like Bezae) may have influenced the scribe’s decision about what to write for the Greek text. It’s possible at least. (Though not particularly likely, in my view)

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 1, 2019

    Very interesting. Thanks. So, one cannot reconstruct a Gospel from random patristic quotes unless one already has a copy of that Gospel to get the order of the quotes straight.

  4. Avatar
    wannes  September 1, 2019

    You could also use this the other way around: Are there any significant verses of the NT that are not attested in the writings of the church fathers. I seem to remember this being one of the arguments against originality of the Pericope Adulterae? Any other interesting verses where this is the case?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      There are some, but not many. I’m not sure which, but they are ones that most people would consider a bit obscure. The Pericope Adulterae is frequently discussed by church fathers.

  5. Avatar
    Silver  September 1, 2019

    Thank you for this detailed answer. To know that you have undertaken such an exercise with the Gospel of John underlines for me the authority you bring to all your responses.

  6. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 1, 2019

    Are there discrepancies between what the Church Father’s quoted and what is in the copies of scripture we have? In other words, do the Church Fathers quote scripture that is not in the scriptures as we have them today?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      Absolutely. So does the NT itself. (E.g., Matthew: “He shall be called a nazarene”) More often they quote the text with different wording from that in the manuscripts — that happens all over the map.

  7. Avatar
    Lebo55  September 1, 2019

    Have you taken a look at Catherine Hezser
    The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine (Oxford Handbooks)

  8. Avatar
    Lebo55  September 1, 2019

    Also are Kurt and Barbara aland, Wachtel a good read I was reading

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      They are among the world’s experts, highly significant scholars in the field. (None of them has published much on Patristic citations per se; but they are text critics extraordinaire)

      • Avatar
        Lebo55  September 2, 2019

        How about the rest of Europe and America, some one did recommend DR. Ehrman.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2019

          I’m not sure what you’re asking. But yes, most of the significant work in Patristic citations of the NT has been done in America; a prominent figure int he field was Gordon Fee.

          • Avatar
            Lebo55  September 3, 2019

            I was asking if their were other new testament critics like the Alands and Wachtel in Germany, Parker in England, Epp in America. Are there any new testament textual critics in France?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 4, 2019

            Do you mean throughout the world? Yes, there are, in various places in Europe, most notably over the past few decades in the Netherlands (Tjitze Baarda) and France (Christain Amphoux). But the bulk of the work is done in Germany, England, and America.

          • Avatar
            Lebo55  September 3, 2019

            I got the name I was looking for, Christian Amphoux, I was listening to a debate you and James white had and in cross examination you were giving him a list of the leading New Testament textual critics in Europe who did not believe there was an original NT and one of them was Amphoux but because of audio and his being a foreign name I could not understand what you said. If there are others in this field pls feel free to let me know.

            I could not find any of his work in English

          • Bart
            Bart  September 4, 2019

            He’s a nice guy, but I don’t hear about him any more these days. I’m not sure he’s still active in the field. He and I agreed on almost nothing when it came to textual criticism! The only think I know of from him in English is his reworking of L. Vaganay’s introductoin to Textual Criticism, which sets out Amphoux’s views.

  9. Avatar
    Matt2239  September 1, 2019

    The process described could unearth missing pieces of scripture too. For example, if the writings of five church leaders all paraphrase or quote directly what we now call John 3:3, then we can conclude that John 3:3 is a valid representation of what was originally written. What if all five (or fifteen or fifty-five) early scholars cite as given or as widely understood an idea or parable that is nowhere to be found today? Wouldn’t that suggest a piece of scripture that once existed but was lost to antiquity? I believe it might.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      Yes, it might suggest that. That’s part of what’s interesting in these quotaitons: finding things we don’t expect. It’s almost nothing as huge as an entire parable though.

  10. Lev
    Lev  September 2, 2019

    I can’t remember if you’ve given us your view on this or not, but where do you stand on the original language of Q?

    By the way, BBC News is telling us North Carolina has declared a state of emergency and there’s a chance that monster of a hurricane could reach you guys. I hope you and yours stay safe and well, Bart.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      Definitely Greek. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the word-for-word agreements between Matthew and Luke precisely in Greek. And thanks: I’m supposed to fly to D.C. on Friday for an all day Smithsonian Seminar on Saturday: fingers crossed.

      • Lev
        Lev  September 2, 2019

        Do you think it’s possible that it was originally composed in Aramaic, but Luke and Matthew used a common Greek translation that was in circulation?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2019

          Sure, it’s possible. But you’d have to adduce some evidence for it. (Same is true of any piece of literature, past or present: it *could* be a translation from some other language, but what would make you think so?)

  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  September 2, 2019

    I read an article that quoted Frank Turek’s book, *I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist,* where this claim was made in 2004. When it was all said and done, Turek had quoted *A General Introduction to the Bible* (1986) that quoted *Our Bible: How We Got It* (1898) where an anecdote was related about Dalrymple—a man who worked on the issue for two months and reconstructed all of the NT except for 11 verses.

    As it turns out, the anecdote was miscommunicated because Dalrymple’s made notes about his work. He spent 4 years on the problem, not two months, where he found 3620 out of 7956 verses which equals to 46 percent of the NT, and this came from two of the church fathers. He also noted that he found all but 11 verses out of the first two chapters of John—so completely different than the related anecdote above!

    I’ve heard a few Christian apologists make the claim that the NT can be reconstructed in its entirety, and I just wonder if Turek is the one who started it all. If not him, then where are they getting this from because I haven’t seen any references to back up the claim.

    The article—https://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2019/06/can-we-reconstruct-the-new-testament-from-the-writings-of-church-fathers/

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      Very interesting. But no, we were all saying that when I was an evangelical in the mid 1970s!

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  September 2, 2019

    Just to add to my previous comment:

    I think what Christian apologists are trying to say is that much of the content of the NT is quoted by the church fathers so that it matches what we have today. The fathers may have had some original work, or at least some very early sources, so that the original words/meanings are not lost. I think there’s merit to that considering how contradictory some of the material is when one author is compared to another. Each author’s tone/voice is unique as well which lends even more credibility that much of the NT has been preserved. Without having the originals, the rest of their confidence would need to rely on faith—I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    Dan Wallace stated in a debate that he gave his students an exercise where they had to work on a textual issue and arrive at the original wording. They were able to do so 99 percent of the time. I have seen my own students do amazing things when working together. They can be given a very difficult task/problem to solve, (not just math, but real-world scenarios) and they can just about always solve it when working as a group, not so much independently. It’s a very strange phenomenon that I’ve seen work successfully multiple times. FB groups like NTTC are invaluable when it comes to this sort of thing, but it would be so much better if they were able to work together in person. All in all, I think we do have *a lot* of the content from the originals, but I wish apologists would make their point in a different way, or at least tell us where this reconstruction theory came from.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2019

      That’s amazing that Dan Wallace’s students know the “original reading” 99% of the time. I wonder how Dan Wallace knows the original reading in all those instances….

  13. Avatar
    rburos  September 2, 2019

    ANOTHEN LOL

  14. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  September 2, 2019

    This blog is absolutely fascinating and the expression ‘lost in translation’ comes to mind. I fully get the fact that we need the original in order to understand when (in many cases) passages are being quoted. On a (slightly) related note, I have heard that there is an expression used in Acts (26.14): “It is hard for you to kick against the goads”, which is itself a quotation from Aeschylus’ play ‘Agamemnon’ (although a similar expression appears in one or two other ancient Greek tragedies, so it may be in fact a figure of speech). I imagine quotes such as that in Greek, from earlier Greek works, don’t always work well in other languages, such as you might find, say, if a modern French novel were to quote Shakespeare in French.
    PS. Good luck re. Hurricane Dorian and your travel plans.

  15. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 2, 2019

    Assuming that the Charles Dickens book cut up was the original book, it is possible. However, that is not the case. As you mentioned, we do not have the Originals. Reconstruction can only at best be that of a copy ( and then which copy of a copy…)?

    Dr Ehrman

    If we took any of the Gospels and allowed it to stand on its own independently, ( making the assumption that there were no other gospels except the one ) Could it reveal the doctrines of today ?
    It seems like we need all 4 specially leading up to John.

    Any ( one gospel in any order, even John ) would need some if not lots of reliance on the Old Testament and the Old Testament would need at least one Gospel. ( predictions and fulfillment or not )
    Even the Old Testament within itself needed reliance from within -from the Abrahamic scripts to the David Psalms to Moses’ Torah or scripts back and forth to validate each other. Moses validates Abraham. David validates Moses and or vice versa. Later prophets validate earlier ones and earlier ones predicted future prophets and events to come making it authentic.

    The question is, if the Gospels relied on the Old Testament. and the Old Testament needed reliance on a Gospel or the Gospels, why would it be unfathomable or incomprehensible to rely ( in some degree ) on a later book of revelation which claims to be from the same source as the NT and OT, to be studied and researched in order to see if it authenticates the New and Old Testaments? or even authenticate itself in conjunction with the other / s ?

    Your thoughts

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2019

      I think you would need far more than the four Gospels to come up with the doctrines of the Christian church today.

      Yes, if Christians want to maintain that one needs the NT to understand the OT then logically someone else could say we need a book subsequent to the NT to understand it.

  16. Avatar
    mikezamjara  September 3, 2019

    amazing post. I havent thought that.

    About the numbers of the verses, who put them?, who and when divided the text in verses and chapters? All the christian denominations seem to disagree with almost everything except in division of the bible. Isn’t it curious?

  17. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  September 3, 2019

    [[ NOTE: This is the identification numbering of perhaps the two most significant Greek manuscripts]] in the Matthean gospel Jesus is speared before his death and dies as a result. This contradicts the unanimous Johannine text where the spearing follows the death cry” (19.30). He then provides several examples of this known tradition:   1. Chrysostom. Hom in Mt 88.1 [PG LVIII. 776] 2. A Pseudo-Cyprian text: De Montibus Sina et Sion 8 (G. Hartel, S. Thasci Caecili Cypriani Opera Omnia; in CSEL III/ 3, Appendix, p. 11212) 3. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 36.6 4. One manuscript of the Epitome of the Apostolic Constitutions 8.24.4 [Text from F.X. Funk, Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum (Paderborn, 1905), II, p. 8824 and critical apparatus 5. Tertullian in Adv Marc 3.7 (7) 6. Acts of John 97 7. Acts of John 101 8. εἰς 164-166 9. A report by Abd al’Jabbar in AD 995

    Alter, Michael J.. The Resurrection: a Critical Inquiry (Kindle Locations 5737-5749). Xlibris US. Kindle Edition.

    Dr Ehrman, i didn’t know this. can you please tell me if the information is accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2019

      I wouldn’t be able to without digging around for a few hours to look up all the references. But I don’t understand what you mean by “examples of this known tradition.” Both traditions you mention are known already from Matthew and John, no?

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  September 3, 2019

        it may mean that the people who injected the spearing into matthew knew the tradition, not that matthew knew it.

        • Avatar
          Iskander Robertson  September 3, 2019

          so there is manuscript evidence that jesus was speared while he was still alive….contradicting john ?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 4, 2019

            Yes, in some manuscripts of Matthew, a you pointed out — including some of the oldest and best — the verse can be found after Matthew 27:49, while Jesus is still living. It is usually thought that Matthew did not originally have the verse, however, but that scribes inserted it, being familiar with it from John.

  18. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  September 4, 2019

    the scribes was not happy that jesus got stabbed AFTER his death?

  19. Avatar
    barackobush  September 24, 2019

    What century or centuries do these 5600 New Testament manuscripts come from?

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