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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Image from Darran Shen, CC license
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