What other resources do we have to figure out what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote, if we don’t have their actual writings themselves?

In this post I move into a very brief discussion of one other area of evidence for the text of the New Testament, the Patristic sources.  The term “patristic” stands for “fathers” (Latin: patres) of the church – that is, the early church authors who quoted the books of the New Testament in the course of their writings.  This too is an exceedingly thorny area of scholarly investigation, and one that I have long been deeply interested in.  It is the area that I did my PhD research and dissertation in.

So here’s the deal.   As I have pointed out before, we don’t have complete manuscripts of the New Testament until the middle of the fourth century – some 300 years after the books were written.  We do have earlier fragmentary papyri manuscripts of this, that, or the other part of the NT, and for that we are all exceedingly grateful.   But one problem with manuscripts is that we almost never know exactly when or where they were produced.  And yet, that kind of specificity is very important for us if we want to know about how the text of the NT was transmitted over the years and centuries.

Here’s why.  Suppose we have a verse that is worded in two different ways in various manuscripts (the differences may be large, they may be small, but they are in any event differences). If we know exactly where and when every single manuscript attesting both forms of the text were produced, that might help us decide which form of the text is the older one and which is the later “corruption.”   If, for example, we could determine that all the manuscripts that have one form of the text come from the area around Rome starting in the fifth century, whereas the other form of the text is found in all sorts of manuscripts from all sorts of times and places, then we could probably argue that the former form is a local corruption.

The problem is that we don’t know

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when and where the vast bulk of our manuscripts were produced.  The scribes don’t tell us their dates or locations.   If manuscripts are written in Greek, then obviously they were produced in the Greek-speaking part of the empire; and we can date manuscripts palaeographically, at least in theory, within about 50 years.   So that’s good.  But it’s not as good as we would like.

This is where the citations of the church fathers become most useful.  My dissertation was on the quotations of the Gospels in the writings of Didymus the Blind.  We know exactly when Didymus lived and died.  And we know exactly where he lived.   And so in theory, if we analyze his various writings – we have a handful of biblical commentaries that he “wrote” (he actually dictated them, since he was, after all, blind) – and isolate all of his quotations of the New Testament, we are able to compare them with our surviving manuscripts (say, Greek, Latin, and Coptic) to see which manuscripts are closest to the ones that he most likely had at his disposal.   And that would tell us what the manuscripts were like in his precise time and place (in his case, in late fourth century Alexandria Egypt).

If we could do that with an entire range of Patristic sources, it would allow us to see how the text was changed by scribes even in times and places for which we do not have any manuscripts.  And that would allow us both to see how the text got changed over the years (and possibly why), and where it got changed, and when, and, as a result, what the “unchanged” text (i.e. the text written by the author) probably looked like.

So this kind of evidence is extraordinarily important.  But it is also unusually complicated.  In part that’s because we don’t have the original writings for any of the church fathers (this should start sounding familiar) but only manuscripts from later times that were produced by scribes who sometimes changed the texts they were copying.  So the text of the church father has to be reconstructed before it can be analyzed for text-critical purposes.  And there’s a particularly thorny issue involved with this:  if a sixth century scribe was copying the writings of a fourth century author, he, the scribe, may well have changed the wording of the author’s scripture quotations to make them conform with the text as he, the scribe, was himself more familiar with.

But also, even more problematic, the church fathers – in their surviving writings — often do not quote their New Testament texts accurately and did not mean to do so.  *Sometimes* they give long quotations that appear to be word-for-word what was in their (now no longer surviving) manuscripts.  But at other times they quoted their texts loosely (as preachers and others do today still); other times they simply paraphrased their texts; other times they simply referred to or mentioned passages.  All of these quotations, adaptations, and allusions have to be examined carefully, to see if they probably represent the actual texts sitting in front of the author or not.

To complicate matters further, some of our Patristic texts are not in the language that the authors actually wrote in.  Most of the writings of the late second-century Irenaeus are preserved only in Latin, even though he wrote in Greek.  So too with much of the voluminous output of the early third century Origen.  And so on.

Each father presents still other problems.  Origen, for example, who is probably our most important early patristic source, moved from Alexandria to Caesarea part way through his life.  So it’s important to know which books he wrote in which location, and to ask: did he take his Alexandrian manuscripts of the Bible with him, or did he start using the manuscripts that were available to him in Caesarea?  And take Didymus, my guy.  He was blind.  So how do we know what his manuscripts looked like if he never actually saw one himself?  And so on.

So, the short story is that this is a very difficult field of research.  But it’s also a highly important one.