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Patristic Evidence for the New Testament

Yesterday I discussed very briefly the benefits and difficulties of versional evidence for establishing the text of the New Testament.   As it turns out, it is a very big and complex issue, or rather sets of issues.   There are large and difficult books written on very small aspects of the versions.   One, still authoritative, treatment of the whole shooting match, with extensive bibliography (which is now, of course, out of date), is one of the magna opera of my mentor, Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (1977).   It’s a great book, arguably his most impressive.

In this post I would like, to 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).

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Kinds of Changes in our Manuscripts
The Versional Evidence for the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 22, 2015

    It seems like an inexact science to put together a better understanding of the NT via the early church fathers, but I suppose it is a way of getting closer to manuscripts of a earlier origin. I would not want to do that—it looks like it would be incredibly tedious! Working at it would be at a glacial pace at best. Where are those ascetic monks when you need them?

  2. Avatar
    Jason  July 22, 2015

    Being Alexandrian did Didy and Origen write about “Mark” more than the other gospels (given his alleged/traditional relationship to the city?)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2015

      That’s an interesting question. As it turns out, both of them quoted Mark far, far less than the other Gospels. (I’ve never been convinced Mark was written in Alexandria; but still, it is interesting that it’s not quoted much there) (or anywhere else for that matter).

      • Avatar
        Jason  July 22, 2015

        Do you think “St. Mark” really founded the first or first proto-orthodox churches in Alexandria or was in any way influential there?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2015

          Nope, not at all. I think that’s all just later legend.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 22, 2015

    Scripture quoters beware: Such quoters may not know the reliability (and the difficulties of determining that reliability) of what they are quoting.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  July 22, 2015

    I would assume misquotation was no less uncommon in that era than it is today. I mean, how many quotes by Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain or P.T. Barnum or Will Rogers have been mangled in popular parlance–or were never said by them in the first place.

    For years now, I’ve been trying to find the origin of a quote I read in grad school, studying European History–I run variations of it through google, and I can never quite find it. I know it’s French, and it’s relating to the struggle between Catholicism and the new secular forces there–might be from Voltaire’s time, might be from the Third Republic era. The essence of it is that somebody is mocking the attitude of the conservative churchmen, saying that they are telling the secularists that “If you say all men have the right to believe and express themselves as they wish, even when they disagree with you, we shall hold you to that, because that is your policy. But if we regain power, we shall deny that right to you, because that is our policy.” I originally thought it was said by the liberal Catholic Lamennais, who supported French Democracy while holding to his faith, but I can’t confirm that. And if he did say that, he might well have been quoting someone else.

    It just seems like a terribly relevant saying for our time, and I wish I could find out who said it. It’s up there with “I may disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”–which was not said by Voltaire, ever–that was a much later writer, summarizing her interpretation of what Voltaire was saying.

    So the point of all this, if there is one, is that we could obviously have many sayings of Jesus and other early Christian figures that were imputed to them, without their ever having actually said them. The odds of our having their exact words, if they themselves did not write them down, are basically nil. Still, it’s the general essence of an idea that matters most, not the exact wording. I’d like to think. If it’s true, what does it matter who said it?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2015

      Great points and question! On the last point, yes, critical scholars completely agree: just because a church father *says* that a saying of Jesus was found in the Gosple of John does not mean that it really was in the Gospel of John; and just because a saying of Jesus *was* found in the Gospel of John does NOT mean that he actually said it.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  July 30, 2015

      Cary Grant never uttered “Judy Judy Judy” in any of his films.
      James Cagney never uttered “you dirty rat” in any of his films.
      And on and on.
      But lotsa persons have said or written that they did.

  5. Avatar
    madmargie  July 25, 2015

    If this person was blind who dictated the scriptures, did he have them memorized…or how could he dictate them?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2015

      Yes, he appears to have memorized most of the Gospels; he was reputed to have an extraordinarily good memory!

  6. Avatar
    evanball  July 29, 2015

    Doesn’t Paul misquote the Old Testament? Is this because he’s using a variant reading or because he bends the text to his purposes?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2015

      I’m not sure which passage you’re referring to. It’s hard to know about ancient quotations of the OT, since different authors had the OT in different textual forms.

  7. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  September 1, 2019

    I am currently going through both the New Testament and the Book of the Dead(Resurrection). There may be pieces of truth in most of the books.
    I have decided not to focus on the Old Testament, because it won’t get me where I want to go. Applying this to my own life, I have to stop focusing on the old me, I did my best and now I have to create a better present and future.

    I actually think we need to say daily prayers that focus on good more to overcome evil and sin. It is selfish not to because it harms you and others.
    Likewise, it is also harmful to practice inequality, discrimination, unequal pay, non-living wages, poverty, etc.

    I think God wants us to be prosperous and to help others. God wants us to be able to tithe and give (result of crying babies when unable to tithe because of no income). So it harms people.
    If someone hated God, they may try to discriminate, make people impoverished, etc… to hurt God.

    So you have good ways that will get you back to eternal life (you were born with), and you have others taking the opposite approach.

    You can’t hate the enemy because they were born in the light also and have learned harmful ways, and they can change and go to heaven. We have to help ourselves and others, protecting us from the harmful, doing the least harm as possible. Therefore, pray to create goodwill as much as possible, to overcome people doing the opposite (intentionally or unintentionally). Living God with friends and enemies on earth.

    There are clues from the past that are helpful, you just have to choose the clues that help to create the world you want.
    So, I can use useful clues from the past that are helpful. This is like finding the pieces of Osiris (Asar… I like to say Astar) that are scattered.

    We were all created worthy, good, connected, in the image of God, with goodwill towards all. To argue with this is to argue (or struggle) with God. Say prayers affirming God’s goodwill toward you and all. You are worthy. compassionate (loving-kindness), triumphant, and with a good heart.

    We have freedom of religion (beliefs) and need to use it for the best of all, including ourselves. God gives us free-will and the ability to change beliefs and ways.

  8. Avatar
    mombird903  September 2, 2019

    So, what an eye opener (and shock) to learn that an entire religion was cobbled together like the Frankenstein monster from fragments, bits and pieces, and then turned loose to terrorize the world as the very work of God. Wow, this is really a great article Bart. I have learned so much from you which has resulted in a complete and amazing make over about the Bible, religion, and my world view. Great work.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2019

      I’m not sure that’s what I was saying. But thanks!

      • Avatar
        mombird903  September 3, 2019

        I know and I’m sorry for being snarky but after years of being told that we are all sinners and going to burn in hell and that the Bible is God’s word, well I just couldn’t resist pointing out the fallacy of it all. Thank you for adding to my arsenal of weapons against religion even if I did manage to tweek them a bit. I will confess to this and promise to sin no more!

        • Bart
          Bart  September 4, 2019

          You are forgiven, my child. Go forth with my blessings and live the immaculate life!

          • Avatar
            mombird903  September 4, 2019

            “Immaculate life,” oh no please not that!! 🙂

          • Bart
            Bart  September 8, 2019

            OK, then take Martin Luther’s advice: “If you must sin, sin boldly!”

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