Can We Reconstruct the New Testament from the Writings of Church Fathers?

Can We Reconstruct the New Testament from the Writings of Church Fathers? June 10, 2019

Christian apologists sometimes say that the historical record for the New Testament is so robust that the New Testament could be recreated from the writings of the early church fathers alone. Does this popular claim hold up?

For example, here is Frank Turek in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p. 228:

The early church fathers—men of the second and third centuries such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and others—quoted the New Testament so much (36,289 times, to be exact) that all but eleven verses of the New Testament can be reconstructed just from their quotations.

There are 7957 verses in the New Testament, so “all but 11 verses” means that 99.9 percent could be reconstructed. Also, note the word “reconstructed.” That means to recreate the original words or at least the identical meaning. These are bold claims.

Let’s track down the evidence that supports this claim. As we do so, note the difference between repeating a claim that supports your position, even if from a well-respected source, and verifying that this claim is valid.

Step 2

Where did Turek get this information? He cites A General Introduction to the Bible (1986 edition) by Norm Geisler and William Nix, p. 431, where we find a rephrasing of the claim and a reference to Sir David Dalrymple as the source of the “all but 11 verses” quote.

Step 3

And their source? They cited Our Bible: How We Got It (1898) by Charles Leach, p. 35–6. Leach related an anecdote about Dalrymple being stumped by the question of how much of the New Testament could be recreated from Christian writings of the second and third centuries, spending two months on the problem, and concluding, “I have found [in these early church writings] the entire New Testament, except eleven verses” (italics in original).

Step 4

Though Leach doesn’t cite a source, his story is similar to an anecdote from the 1841 book, The Life, Times, And Missionary Enterprises, Of The Rev. John Campbell by Robert Philip, which claimed to document an anecdote from the late 1700s: at a gathering of literary friends, one asked, “Supposing all the New Testaments in the world had been destroyed at the end of the third century, could their contents have been recovered from the writings of the three first centuries?” Dalrymple was in attendance and was stumped along with the rest.

Two months later, he presented his conclusion to Rev. Walter Buchanan, who had been at the gathering. Buchanan remembered the meeting this way.

Pointing to a table covered with papers, [Dalrymple] said, “There have I been busy for these two months, searching for chapters, half chapters, and sentences of the New Testament, and have marked down what I have found, and where I have found it; so that any person may examine and see for themselves. I have actually discovered the whole New Testament from those writings, except seven or eleven verses, (I forget which,) which satisfies me that I could discover them also.”

Dalrymple was saying, not only that he was able to recreate all but eleven verses (let’s assume it was eleven, not seven) but that he was confident of there being passages to recreate those last few as well.

Let’s let this remarkable claim sit unchallenged for a moment while we consider how tenuous the anecdote itself is. We aren’t reading Dalrymple’s own words. Instead, this anecdote about Dalrymple comes from Buchanan, and that was retold by Rev. John Campbell, and Robert Philip finally documented that in his 1841 book. And Campbell was recollecting a story he’d heard fifty years earlier.

We do have Dalrymple’s notes, and he was indeed working on this problem, though not for two months as in the anecdote above but for at least four years (1780 – 1784). He never published his work, but collecting the lists from his notes, he had found matches for 3620 verses out of the 7956 verses in the New Testament, or 46 percent. That’s very different than “all but 11 verses.”

Step 5

There’s one final link in this chain. Though Dalrymple was working on this problem in the 1780s, the book about his conclusion wasn’t published until 1841. A collection of sermons by Rev. Edward Burton published in 1832 has a different version of the project:

If we could suppose all the copies of the New Testament by some sudden catastrophe to be destroyed, I have little doubt that nearly the whole of it might be recovered by gathering together these numerous quotations [from early church fathers]; and I say this with more confidence, because, upon referring to two only of the fathers, Tertullian and Origen, who lived in the former part of the third century, and taking as a specimen the two first chapters of St. John’s Gospel, I find that, with the exception of eleven verses, the whole of them is to be found in those two authors only.

This claim is much narrower: It has the “all but 11 verses” claim, but it’s talking about recreating just chapters 1–2 of John using the writings of just two early church fathers. Since Dalrymple’s own notes don’t make anything like the “all but 11 verses” claim but Burton’s book does, it’s likely that the Dalrymple anecdote published in 1841 is a conflation of this 1832 claim. Perhaps we’ve finally found the source.

Remember the Frank Turek claim that we started with: “The early church fathers . . . quoted the New Testament so much . . . that all but eleven verses of the New Testament can be reconstructed just from their quotations.” This remarkable claim should’ve provoked skepticism—or has Christianity broken Turek’s skepticism meter? Maybe vivid claims are more important to him than accuracy.

There’s more to be said, and that will be covered in part 2.

Because he refuses to cloak
the reality of the world’s suffering
in a cloying fantasy of eternal life,
the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is—
and, indeed, how unfortunate it is
that millions of human beings suffer
the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness
for no good reason at all.
— Sam Harris

.

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  • RichardSRussell

    Surely this is a question that would be tractable to the same text-comparison services that college professors use to detect plagiarism in supposedly original papers submitted by their students. I wonder why no fundagelical has tried to give it a spin. Perhaps they’re afraid of what they’d discover.

    • As a manual process, it sounds daunting. Take a sentence and ask yourself if it sounds like anything in the entire NT. Then do the same for the next sentence. And so on.

      But yeah, since everything is electronic, that sounds like a good idea. It might bring up other problems, where vague connections are made between ideas or phrases, and then you’ve got to go through and rank them as a direct quote, a plausible lifted phrase, maybe a borrowed allusion, or just similar wording on an idea that’s in the public domain. The lack of any ranking at the link I provided (“3 words are used that match–that’s gotta be deliberate!”) is a problem IMO.

      • Greg G.

        A quote of Leviticus 19:18 would give verses from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Galatians, and James. A quote of Genesis 15:6 would give verses from Romans, Galatians, and James. If you were certain you had a hit on a verse, how do you know how many times to use it?

  • Die Anyway

    I’m inclined to say, “so what if you could?” It would not prove the veracity of the text any more than reconstructing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or To Kill A Mockingbird from reviews and articles would prove them to be true stories.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Which New Testament? The various branches of Christianity all have different collections of books in their NTs.

    Wikipedia

    • Great point. Maybe the compilation process would reveal which NT was the correct one.

      • Len

        Yes but then the stars would start to go out.

        • Die Anyway

          Ahhh, I see we have some Arthur C. Clarke fans here.

      • Mr. James Parson

        We could check the Book of Mormon too.

  • Die Anyway

    I’m inclined to say, “so what if you could?” It would not prove the veracity of the text any more than reconstructing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or To K___* A Mockingbird from reviews and articles would prove them to be true stories.

    *Original comment held due to forbidden word.

    • Yes, good point. Presumably they’re starting with the “The NT has 25,000 manuscripts !! :-)” argument and trying to add to that with “and furthermore, we could recreate the NT with other writings !!!”

  • ThaneOfDrones

    The verses that cannot be so reconstructed include some real favourites, like the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, which was added literally centuries later.

    There are other favourite Bible verses that cannot be so reconstructed because they are not in the Bible at all, such as God helps those who help themselves

    • Whaaa … ? What about “A stitch in time saves nine”? I’m sure it rhymed in the original Greek. Or “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”? Or “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”??

      My world is crumbling.

      • eric

        That last one is Aesop, not Jesus. 🙂

        • At least you gave a pass to my “a stitch in time saves nine.”

        • Cozmo the Magician

          The early worm is giving you the bird. /s

        • Michael Neville

          While the early bird gets the worm, it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.

        • Len

          That was Norman Wisdom.

      • Cozmo the Magician

        “ghaHmo’ lach UFOmeyqoq HeghwIj.”
        M. Twain
        (Everything is better in the original Klingon)

      • Len

        Those who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones. (Although that might not be exactly what the original said, its close enough.)

        • Phil Rimmer

          At an award ceremony bash, meeting the gorgeous Emma Thompson, I was warned people is class trousers shouldn’t show bones.

        • Len

          HERESY!!!

        • I believe you’re thinking of the well-known aphorism, “Those who live in grass houses shouldn’t throw flaming torches.”

        • Jack the Sandwichmaker

          How am I ever going to learn to be a world class juggler that way?

      • Pofarmer

        Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”??

        You’d think they could apply that to the abortion debate. ?

      • epeeist

        Or “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”??

        There were two noblemen who lived on opposite sides of a valley. One of them, the white count, was very rich, generous and kind to his tenants. The other, the black count, was a villain and also very poor.

        The black count got together a set of mercenaries and captured the white count’s castle quite easily. However the white count had hidden all his money and wouldn’t reveal where it was despite being tortured.

        “Look”, said the black count, “If you don’t tell me where the money is I am going to cut your head off.”

        “Go ahead”, said the white count, “I’ll never reveal where it is.”

        “Fine”, said the black count, “Executioner, chop his head off.”

        The executioner raised his axe and started bringing it down.

        “Stop”, said the white count, “I’ll tell you.”

        But it was too late, the axe did its job and the white count’s head was parted from his body.

        And the moral of the story? You should never hatchet your counts before they chicken.

  • eric

    Couldn’t we answer this definitively now? Just plug the NT + [other doc] into some plagiarism checking software, note which parts of the NT are covered, then rinse and repeat for all the docs you want to check. That might still take a lot of time, but it will be much much faster than actually reading through all those docs by hand. And if publications like (I’m making up an example here) “The collected works of Origen” exist, then it might only take ten to twenty repeats to cover all the major writings of the church fathers cited.

    I mean it’s fine to do the historical research and discover that the quote is an error based on conflation of two other quotes, but I don’t really trust the accuracy of the original by-hand research that came up with the 3,620 number either. I’m not saying I think the real number is lower or higher, I’m saying I am skeptical as to its accuracy. So why not reproduce the original textual analysis with the much faster and much more accurate tools we have available now?

  • Paul D.

    There’s actually a multivolume academic publication (whose title escapes me) that lists every NT quotation in the church fathers. I’m sure much more than 11 verses are missing from the first few centuries of quotations, and there are many passages whose quotations vary greatly, calling into question what the original documents actually said.

    • Pofarmer

      That’s pretty interesting. Not interesting enough for me to actually, ya know, look for it. But damned interesting nontheless. d;))

  • NS Alito

    I enjoyed Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors are Not Who We Think They Are (2012).

    It seems that writing gospels was something of a cottage industry, including some late works that were “discovered” many centuries after the canon was selected. The nerd in me enjoyed learning the terminology and concepts associated with determining provenance of written material.

    • Cozmo the Magician

      That was an interesting read. Makes me laugh everytime some buybull humper tells me that the LORD wrote those books. Uh huh, and Lois Lane wrote all those Superman comics…

      • NS Alito

        I laughed out loud when reading how the writer of one of the gospels, pushing its own unusual theological features in the early centuries, was outed by a bishop who was more than familiar with that crank’s specific theocratic assertions. It made me think of being able to recognize the same nutjob commenter even though they change their posting ‘nym.

  • Ann Kah

    You’ve lost me here – is there anything to be gained by “reconstructing” the testament from writings from the third century? Let’s ask them to verify it instead.

    • Jack the Sandwichmaker

      It would validate that the quotes from the Bible are at least as old as the writings of these church fathers.
      Though it’s possible, I suppose that the church fathers could be the origins of those quotes, which were then incorporated in to the Biblical Scripture in the mouths of Paul or Jesus.

      • Ann Kah

        I suspect your second option is closer to the truth. It is still a story, and finding the origin of a story doesn’t tell us that the story is true.

        • Greg G.

          finding the origin of a story doesn’t tell us that the story is true.

          But it can tell us the story is false. If we have a story about Abraham Lincoln killing Hector in a head-to-head, one-on-one duel at Troy, and we know there is a story of Hector dying in such a manner at Troy at the hands of somebody else that is centuries older than Lincoln, we know the story is false.

      • The dating of all the writings is debatable. I’ve been intrigued by arguments about a late dating of the gospels (after the Bar Kokhba revolt in c. 135) but haven’t researched that.

        • Pofarmer

          The problem here, as you well know, is that the dating of the Gospels, and the other works is pretty much circular, resulting from a mention of “Pilate” somewhere in one of the later works. Apologists acting as scholars have then attempted to get the dating back as closely as possible to the known reign of Pontius Pilate.

        • Greg G.

          Apologists acting as scholars have then attempted to get the dating back as closely as possible to the known reign of Pontius Pilate.

          And that is so they can pretend the gospels come from eyewitness accounts so they have to be within a lifetime of Pilate’s reign as governor, which can be historically dated.

        • I’ve heard something like: Acts doesn’t mention the fall of Jerusalem or the deaths of Peter and Paul, so it must have been written before those events, and Luke was before Acts, and Mark was before Luke, so Mark takes us back to the 50s!!!!

          But this is like misdirection for a magician. Even if Mark was from the 50s, who cares? It’s still 20 years away from the events it claims to document, and it’s full of magic. Who’d believe it?

        • Greg G.

          I’ve heard something like: Acts doesn’t mention the fall of Jerusalem or the deaths of Peter and Paul, so it must have been written before those events

          Likewise, any text that does not mention planes crashing into the towers of the World Trade Center must have been written before 9/11/2001.

        • Damn you! You just time-traveled my entire blog to 20 years ago.

        • Ignorant Amos
        • Bob needs a little homework, apparently?

          Thanks.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Not at all mate…remember there are others observing.

          The articles make reasonable arguments for why there is no mention of the temple destruction or Paul’s demise. Am sure you are already aware of them.

          Even though Harnack flip-flopped from a late dating of Acts to an early dating, he couldn’t actually explain away his previous reasoning for the late dating.

        • I do appreciate the links, seriously. That saves me work.

          My to-be-read pile is large. (You know how much more manuscript evidence there is for the NT than the writings of, say, Caesar? Well times that by a bazillion, and that’s how much I’ve got to read. And all on scraps of disintegrating papyrus, for some reason.)

        • Ignorant Amos

          Haa…all jokes aside, I hear ya. I’ll be toast before I get through reading what I’ve currently already got to get through. And I can’t help but keep getting new stuff to get through. At least it’ll be a legacy for the grand wee’n’s should any of them become interested and curious enough.

        • MR

          Oh, geesh, that’m fault Ig. Sorry about that. :S

        • Ignorant Amos

          Ha…I’ve unread books and unlistened to audio books from well before your recommendations arrived }8O)~

          If I could just get away from the catnip that is online forums, perhaps I could make a dent in them. Bed time reading only exists on no more than two nights a week, that just leaves the daytime…remove the weekends and the three days a week a get the grandchildren to look after…well, ya can see the dilemma.

        • Greg G.

          You have two eyes and two ears. You can listen to two audio books, read one on Kindle, and one hard copy at the same time. That would cut your reading list down from 40 lifetimes to ten.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Unfortunately that would involve multi-tasking. That is not within the purview of most males.

          I struggle with just one book at a time ffs. Especially these kind with all the big words and intellectual thinking.

        • Aside: how old are the grandchildren? I’m in awe of anyone who tends to children 3 days/week.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Katie is 2, Alex is 5, and Tyler is 9…I have them Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I get Shaunagh, who is also 9, on a Tuesday, but apart from her home work, she does girly things with my partner, mostly.

        • !

        • Ignorant Amos

          They’re a hoot Bob…the wee one could buy and sell ya and as for using tech, what she can do on a tablet at 2 year old blows me away.

        • I don’t doubt it. I used to work in tech, but that was a while ago.

          It won’t be pretty when the Borg assimilates us, but we’ve got a few years left, I imagine.

        • Ignorant Amos

          It’s 1:58…am pished..ave been binge hammering the the Amazon series show “Good Omen” and am 3 episodes in….it is feckin hilarious…but only those that ken, ken….religious believers just won’t get it.

        • Pofarmer

          We will probably watch episode 4 tonight. It’s pretty good. David Tennent is fun in his role.

        • You’ve heard the Christian whining about how Good Omens is rude or something?

          After hearing the Christian demand that Netflix stop the show, Netflix promised not to make more episodes of Good Omens, and Amazon Prime promised to cancel Stranger Things. (Of course, each network makes the other show.)

    • That’s basically my thought. As far as I know, there’s not a lot of dispute about the age of the New Testament writings. Now, fundamentalists believe that the names on the books are the real authors, but most educated Christians know better. But even if there have been very few changes since the last of these books was written in the late 1st or early 2nd century, it doesn’t make it any more than mythology. That the book is truly ancient doesn’t prove anything.

      Christians do not consider the Book of Enoch to be scripture, even though Jude quotes from it and 1st century Jews (except for the Sadducees) seemed to think it was inspired scripture. How, by their own logic, can they deny it?

  • JBSchmidt

    1) You have a problem with Frank Turek. Noted.

    2) Unless part 2 is you going through the writings of the church fathers and disproving the statement, this is little more then you writing down your tantrum.

    • 2) Uh … you’re saying that Turek’s statement isn’t already disproved?

      • JBSchmidt

        No, you haven’t proven anything. You have statements that don’t line up and a reference from an Islamic group. If the evidence has a couple of possible outcomes, you don’t get to choose the one that fits your narrative.

        Further, based on the title and intro paragraph, Turek isn’t the focus. You just use him as a straw man.

        • epeeist

          If the evidence has a couple of possible outcomes, you don’t get to choose the one that fits your narrative.

          https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-2nGiu4J9ETs/TawxD9XXIpI/AAAAAAAAAIM/4TNNuzhOxl4/s1600/roflmao128629864358935877.jpg

        • MR

          What evidence would you need to believe Turek’s claim?

        • Jack the Sandwichmaker

          Well, Turek made the claim, apparently conflating the results of two separate attempts at constructing the Bible from other writings….

        • Kodie

          Where is this new testament reproduced?

        • MR

          A proper response would have been to supply a link to the site where it’s already been done.

        • Right–Turek isn’t the focus. I could’ve found some other apologist and used his version.

          you haven’t proven anything.

          Turek make the “all but 11 verses” claim, and I shot it down. But you disagree? You say that the New Testament can indeed be reconstructed from the early fathers’ works except for 11 verses? Show me the error in my reasoning and sketch out how the New Testament can be reconstructed.

          You have statements that don’t line up and a reference from an Islamic group.

          What statements don’t line up?

          Not sure what the Islamic group concern is. Are Muslims inherently biased? I don’t know why a Muslim critiquing a Christian argument is any more suspect than a Christian critiquing an atheist argument or an atheist critiquing a Muslim argument.

          In part 2 (6/12/19), I praise Daniel Wallace for his concerns about Christian writings being poorly researched and note that he was were I found the Islamic source that unwound this puzzle. If it’s an OK source for Daniel Wallace, shouldn’t it be OK for you?

        • JBSchmidt

          I don’t trust either you for research. I never said Turek was right, simply you didn’t have any proof yourself. I would have been skeptical of the 11 verses claim; however, until you posted it, I hadn’t seen it. So I did some research and found the following:

          An article written in 2012 that looks a fair bit like yours, including the same sources? Even the obscure Islam link.
          https://theosophical.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/modern-myth-all-but-11-verses-of-the-nt-could-be-constructed-from-the-writings-of-the-early-church-fathers/

          And this, which is a list of NT passages quoted. It is a little bit higher than the Islamic total at 62%.
          https://www.biblequery.org/Bible/BibleCanon/EarlyChristianNTQuotes.xls

          Now obviously Turek was wrong, you apparently just ‘reconstructed’ the work of others and the end results of 62% (which I can prove through the diligent work of others) is an impressive amount by historical standards.

          How many other apologists use this stat?

        • Jack the Sandwichmaker

          Your spreadsheet looks far less than 62% to me. The gospels look pretty well covered, but big gaps in the other books and many stop a few chapters in.

          By complaining about the “Islamic” site, you have made the case ever worse.

        • And the other issue is that, just because one scholar has paired up a large fraction of verses, that doesn’t mean that (1) other scholars would agree (maybe it’s a common idea and could’ve been gotten from somewhere besides the NT) and (2) that doesn’t mean that the NT verse could be reconstructed from that matched-up passage.

        • I don’t trust either you for research.

          You don’t have to. I provide links. You can follow up and check. Or is it easier to simply dismiss what I write without all the bother?

          Now obviously Turek was wrong, you apparently just ‘reconstructed’ the work of others

          Since you had never heard of this, I apparently just “popularized” the work of others. You’re welcome—I’m happy to have brought this to your attention.

    • Lark62

      And you have no problem when the people you agree with tell blatant lies. Got it.

      Turek repeated a claim that he made no effort to verify, and the claim is false. People with integrity tend to prefer accurate information. I understand how this could confuse a person.

    • 1) You have a problem with Frank Turek. Noted.

      Because Turek is a lousy, and lazy, apologist. He tries to be a more approachable version of William Lane Craig, Frankly, I’ve always found him to be more flash than substance. His primary tool seems to be one liners and quick quips that appear to break down an opponents position, but are more often than not addressing some straw-man version of a skeptic. What’s more disgusting is that his fans don’t seem to care.

      • For some months now, Turek has used video clips of him responding to questions from college students at his live events. I’ll read a blog post, and I’m sure there’s nuttiness in there that could do with a little illumination (or ridicule), but I just can’t bring myself to watch. Too much crazy in one bitter pill …

        • I’ve been following Frank Turek for just over two years now. The videos of college students asking questions have been a mainstay of his social media platform for as long as I can remember. Clearly his efforts are focused on trying to stop the ship from sinking altogether, largely by touring around college campuses.

          I’ll give Turek a little bit of credit. He at least recognizes that large numbers of students are having their worldview altered when they come out of post-secondary education, and are leaving as non-Christians. I think there are a lot of reasons why this is happening, and I don’t see that Christian apologetics can stop the house from caving in. Ignorance and superstition are losing the war.

          I’ll say, as a side point, one of my biggest frustrations with Turek is how he either completely ignores the scientific position (he doesn’t accept the Theory of Evolution) or accepts tiny bits and cherry picsk out the bits of science that support his conclusions, even though the scientific consensus doesn’t agree with him (that the Big Bang was the origin of the Universe from some absolute nothing.) He’s clearly a smart guy, and very quick on his feet, but his distortion of facts drive me crazy.

        • Ignorant Amos

          He’s clearly a smart guy, and very quick on his feet, but his distortion of facts drive me crazy.

          Indeed.

          Distortion of facts through ignorance is excusable, Turek can claim no such defence. He also outright lies like a cheap second-hand watch.

        • When you think of how insanely different the two positions are–natural explanations are sufficient vs. God did it–it is hard to imagine them coexisting for so long after the successes of modern science.

          Turek doesn’t accept evolution, but in terms of frustration, Greg Koukl is worse for me. I’ve listened to a couple of his podcasts where he talks about his chats with Disco Institute guys and how evolution is on the ropes, and so on. Only because he’s in his little bubble, unperturbed by actual science or naysayers like me, can he continue with his nutty beliefs. The fact that he’s a not-scientist setting himself up as Judge of All Science doesn’t seem to bother him.

        • Greg G.

          I’ve listened to a couple of his podcasts where he talks about his chats with Disco Institute guys and how evolution is on the ropes, and so on.

          In 1975, I was told that evolution would be overturned in 10 to 15 years. As a Christian, I was a little skeptical. In 1995, I was told the exact same thing. As an atheist, I laughed. I read that in the 1820s, when Darwin was but a teenager, a preacher wrote that uniformitarianism (in geology) would be overturned in 10 or 15 years.

          Yet those who keep saying that will tell you that Jesus is coming any minute now. Maybe Jesus is waiting for the science of geology to come to its senses.

        • Yet those who keep saying that will tell you that Jesus is coming any minute now

          This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest failures of Christianity. I’ve written about this before. How long will it take before Christians are willing to admit that Jesus isn’t coming back? At what point will they admit that their supposed prophecy is wrong?

          Would anything ever convince these people that Jesus isn’t coming back, let alone soon? I seriously doubt it.

        • I’ve mentioned this before, but my favorite example is Michael Denton’s Evolution: A theory in crisis (1985). The 30th anniversary edition is titled, Evolution: Still a theory in crisis.

          My suggested subtitle: Why won’t this damned theory die already??

          Their own books admit the impotence of their agenda.

    • RichardSRussell

      Seems to me that you’ve got the burden of proof backwards here. These guys claim that they can reconstruct all the originals from subsequent quotations of them. Where have they done this? Where are the verse-by-verse analyses published? You don’t suppose that this might just gasp be a completely groundless claim, do you? That would entail that they simply made it up! Surely not, right? Are these not men of God?

    • Ignorant Amos

      1) You have a problem with Frank Turek. Noted.

      The problem is with his dishonesty. He’s a bare-faced liar for Jesus.

      2) Unless part 2 is you going through the writings of the church fathers and disproving the statement, this is little more then you writing down your tantrum.

      Oh ffs.

      Is part one in accurate?

      Can you point to evidence that supports that lying toerag Turek you have such a hardon for?

      Or is this a navel gazing prophetic exercise you are engaging in here?

      Perhaps it would’ve been a wee bit smarter and prudent to wait for part two…saves getting that egg on yer face.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    My canadian girlfriend says that she was able to reconstruct 84.68% of the entire Harry Potter series just by reading posts made by Lord of the Rings fans. This proves that Harry Potter was really a Hobbit.

    This game is FUN! Anybody can play {;

    • Greg G.

      I wonder if my Canadian girlfriend knows your Canadian girlfriend?

      • Taneli Huuskonen

        I asked my Canadian girlfriend. She said, “Yes, of course I know myself!”

        • Greg G.

          Uh-oh!

  • I’ve heard these kinds of claims and wasn’t sufficiently skeptical – but thinking about why, I guess I must have assumed that the church fathers had some verse-by-verse commentaries which included the complete text of the book they were commenting on. The church fathers were a black box to me back then, and still mostly are. Interestingly, I’ve read more of them after becoming an atheist than as a Christian. Though not a lot more…

  • When you look into the sources behind many things, that’s what we get. Also, the mere fact they felt an anecdote like this is enough isn’t impressive.

    • Even when you get back to the original Dalrymple quote, the first question is (or should be, if you’re looking for the truth rather than a happy story): so that’s one scholar’s claim from the 1780s. What do modern scholars say? Where is the modern equivalent that backs up this story?

      • Yes, also a good point (I had thought of noting this but didn’t). Just as we wouldn’t cite science from that long ago, generally it would be a bad idea with other fields too.

        • Robert M. Price argues that just because a source is old doesn’t make it wrong. That’s been a helpful correction for me against chronological snobbery. Nevertheless, a sweeping claim like the one we’re investigating would have, if correct, modern scholars’ successful versions of the same experiment.

        • That’s true. I didn’t mean that, but the scholarly consensus is usually different from centuries ago, as we keep learning.

      • Ignorant Amos

        Even with modern computers, Ehrman states that the number of errors between existing mss is not yet known.

        Ehrman begins his critique with the fact that we do not have the original documents, called autographs, of the New Testament Gospels, letters, and other documents. Nothing new here; this is acknowledged by virtually everyone. But he goes on to add that the copies we do have, even the earliest copies, aren’t accurate representations of the originals, and, as a result, what the NT authors wrote has been lost. Ehrman and others note that the approximately 5,700 Greek NT manuscripts we possess differ from one another in as many as 400,000 places even though there are only around 138,000 words in the NT. Ehrman writes, “How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly?”

        Seems to me that the exercise is a retcon. We don’t have an original NT to compare the writings of these patriarchs, what is being compared is a book compiled after. Compiled no doubt with the use of the patriarchs influence. What came first, the chicken or the egg?

        What I’d like to know is the size of the pool from which the all but 11 verses was pulled from? What other stuff is being disregarded because it isn’t in the NT?

        • The biggest issue IMO is that this experiment imagines that you have an NT to compare your patristic fathers’ quotes to. But a fair test would be to start with a blank sheet of paper and a big stack of writings. From this you’ve got to recreate the NT, contradictions and all.

          What is actually doable is to find in the patristic writings parallels to a large fraction–say 50 or 60%–of the NT verses. Uh, OK, that’s nice, but so what? In the original experiment, we started with “suppose the NT were destroyed,” and undoing that is clearly impossible.

          All it shows is that there are lots of early Christian writings, and the authors quoted lots of other books (some of which were even books/epistles that would eventually be canonized). Is this surprising? Novel? Interesting? Relevant? Useful?

          Nope.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Another analogy would be to having 60% of a jigsaw puzzle mixed with x amount of jigsaw pieces from x number of jigsaws puzzles, with some of the pieces fitting into more than one specific place, then being asked to fit the 60% together without the picture from the box lid. Then receiving an x number of box lids after ya’ve did yer best and picking the one that best matches up to what ya’ve stuck together.

          Probably not even.

        • Greg G.

          But all the puzzle pieces are rectangular so you can’t tell a corner piece from an edge piece from a middle piece. You must take the pieces from other puzzles called the writings of the church fathers but you can’t even tell which puzzles are church fathers and which are not because you don’t have a Bible puzzle to work from.

        • Good point about the mixing in of different puzzles. Now imagine that the ink on the puzzle pieces is water soluble, which has distorted some of these very old pieces.

          If you gave a scholar a NT box top, they couldn’t recreate the NT picture, but they could at least convince themselves that there was overlap. But then if you gave the scholar a gnostic or Marcionite or other box top, they could find that as well!

        • MR

          I really like this analogy. It just kind of lays bare how idiotic the claim was in the first place.

  • Jack the Sandwichmaker

    I wonder how many quotes from those early church fathers came from books that never made it to the canon.

    • I Came To Bring The Paine

      One author quoted that Jesus was born in a cave, which is only depicted in the Infancy Gospel of James.

      Edit: Also, the legend that Paul was martyred in Rome is depicted only in the Acts of Paul.

      (So either these “church fathers” got their material from these books, or it was the other way around.)

  • Grimlock

    Suppose all the pieces of what we now consider the most accurate NT could be found in the writings of the early Christian writers.

    What makes someone think that they can place all the pieces in the right order?

    • Jack the Sandwichmaker

      And how many times did those early Christian writers contradict each other about those quotes..

      • Even if you dismiss that problem, the NT itself is contradictory. The challenge is to put the NT back together, contradictions included.

  • Solmead

    The other issue I see here is that the original research done (based on the story of the guy who put the papers on the table) was to see what verses could be recovered from what the church fathers said. The issue is that would be like cutting up every bible page into multiple pieces of differing lengths and sizes, matching them up to a complete bible and saying “see they are all here” it doesn’t answer the question of how are we going to stitch all these back into the correct order, without the use of a reference bible?

    • Other commenters have mentioned plagiarism-detection software, and tools like that could be used to find the matching pieces. Problems: (1) That’s cheating, because you’re starting with the NT rather than reconstructing it using just the early fathers’ works, and (2) yes, your point about the lack of order is very relevant. A parallel might be to jumble up the sentences in a long novel the same size as the NT (180K words) and demand that the Christian scholar put it back together.

  • So, to save you some time, this guy compiled nearly all of the NT references by the Ante-Nicene fathers. Some code limitations, of course, but definitely one of the most comprehensive attempts.

    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/e-catena/

    • Yes, that’s an excellent source. I used that for my part 2 post.

      It still leaves open in my mind the justification for each of these pairings. Something like, “As has been written, ‘(a NT verse verbatim goes here)'” is convincing. A shared reference to a vague or popular idea (“shine like the sun,” for example) is less certain.

  • **My first attempt at a reply is hung up in limbo**

    You said “Islam.” Patheos is trying out a new filter that makes comments moderated if they use words on a bizarre list. You can misspell it to avoid the filter or wait for me to notice the problem and let the comment pass.

  • Let’s review.

    JBS: 2) Unless part 2 is you going through the writings of the church fathers and disproving the statement, this is little more then you writing down your tantrum.

    Bob: 2) Uh … you’re saying that Turek’s statement isn’t already disproved?

    JBS: No, you haven’t proven anything.

    JBS: Obviously Turek was wrong

    I’m confused. Perhaps this is your way of saying “Sorry!” or “Whoops!” A little honesty would be appreciated. That’s one of Christians’ superpowers, right?

    • JBSchmidt

      Interesting that you are claiming Turek’s ignorance/deception for using a source that he hasn’t researched and turns out to be false. You did this be reconstructing someone else’s article from 2012 that also sites sources that are inaccurate.

      But I’m the bad guy for demanding you do your own research and them finding the information you needed. I am the only person being honest. You and Turek suffered from the same confirmation bais.

      • No idea what you’re talking about. If I’m to understand your point, you’ll have to fill in the gaps. I’m a stupid atheist, remember.

        But you’re the hero in the story–that much I can figure out–so that’s great to hear. Congrats!

        • JBSchmidt

          I understand. Let me try this.

          You: The idea that we can reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT via the work of early church fathers is improbable. Turek claims this by quoting a source.

          Also you: Took a 2012 article and reconstructed it to call it your own. In it, they had a story that could question the authenticity of the 11 verses claim Turek sites and included a link to an Islamic site claiming to have done the cross referencing.

          Me: You haven’t proven anything. You have a story and a questionable source. (Which turns out not to be yours)

          Also me: Here is the actual list of cross reference NT verses and church father quotes. They actually prove both Turek and your source wrong. In addition, I included the 2012 article you appear to have reconstructed.

          You: Why can’t you be honest?

          In the end, the story of a guy claiming (or not claiming) to have done the work is irrelevant. The actual cross referencing of quotes with verses is relevant. The source the 2012 articles uses for this was wrong. Hence you had no proof.

        • MR

          What proof would you need to believe Turek?

  • MR

    Obviously Turek was wrong

    So all that mental masturbation was for nothing.

  • Allen T Coffey

    I love seeing pseudohistorical claptrap being debunked. Thanks Bob.

  • Connie Beane

    In logic, when you start off with a faulty premise, your entire argument is deemed false.

    This is relevant here because “the New Testament” was not a single book created by the Apostles, or even the first generation of believers. It is and was a collection of writings, cherry-picked from a heterogenous mass of similar materials created by a gaggle of writers over several generations, and assembled by a committee to conform to the social, political and ethnic preferences of their time. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find enough evidence to fully reconstruct 99.9% of the writings which were not absorbed into the so-called New Testament, too.

    • In logic, when you start off with a faulty premise, your entire argument is deemed false

      Really minor nitpick, because I’m that guy…
      Only propositions can be true or false, and arguments aren’t propositions. The argument would be deemed either invalid, or unsound (depending on exactly how it’s fallacious), which means we shouldn’t accept the conclusion based on this argument. The conclusion may still be true, but it has not been justified.

      Completely agree with the rest of your point though.

      • Greg G.

        Really minor nitpick, because I’m that guy…

        Sure, if you want to be pedantic. But who doesn’t?

  • Ignorant Amos

    Maybe vivid claims are more important to him than accuracy.

    Frank Turek at being a pious fraud for YahwehJesus again…well I never…//s.

  • Greg G.

    So we have a preacher conflating an event he thinks he remembers with something he read more recently written by somebody else, then rephrased by another writer decades later, and the story being told as fact by Christians more than a century later. Where have I heard this story before?

    • Where have I heard this story before?

      If not in a religion that already exists, maybe that’s an opportunity to invent your own.

  • Grimlock

    They’re quite close in terms of word count, interestingly enough. For the Bible, it obviously depends on the version, but the King James version has 783,137 words, while the complete works of Shakespear has 884,647 words.

    Of course, typing out this in the right sequence is not a linear thing, so it might take quite a few more tries (statistically speaking) to do the Shakespear works than the Bible.

    Sources:
    https://www.quora.com/How-many-words-are-there-in-the-Bible
    https://www.quora.com/How-many-words-are-there-in-the-complete-works-of-Shakespeare

  • MR

    I was reading, “Reality Is Not What It Seems” (which I had left off some…, months ago), and came across this passage:

    Unfortunately we do not have their texts (Leucippus and Democritus) and must make do with the sparse fragments in the citations of others. It is like trying to reconstruct Shakespeare’s plays from a list of Shakespeare quotes.*

    *(Footnote) Imagine what a nonsensical hotchpotch the ideas of Aristotle and Plato would seem if we had only the commentaries on them written by others and were unable to access the lucidity and complexity of the original texts!

  • Greg G.

    “Infinite monkey theorem”

    It has been said that the internet has put that in doubt.

    • Ignorant Amos

      The internet, so far, is finite.

      Comeback after infinity and the theorem might be falsified. //s

    • TheNuszAbides

      Judicious extraction of anonymity might reduce volume and improve quality (or at least manners) …