Slapping Down the “Reconstruct All But 11 Verses of the New Testament” Apologetic

Slapping Down the “Reconstruct All But 11 Verses of the New Testament” Apologetic June 12, 2019

Early church fathers’ writings are so extensive that the New Testament could be reconstructed from them, except for 11 verses—or so goes a popular Christian apologetic. In part 1 we tracked this back to the likely source, an 1832 book with a much more modest claim. Its author claimed to have found references to all but 11 verses in just the first two chapters of the gospel of John.

Reconsider the goal of the project

Now that the historical foundation for the claim has dissolved, set that aside and consider the claim afresh. Imagine attempting this project yourself. You’ve assembled the entire collection of ante-Nicene Christian writings (that is, writings before the Nicene Council in 325 CE), and you’re trying to recreate the New Testament. Some of these writings will eventually be declared canonical, and some will be declared heretical; you don’t know which. Some passages in these writings will contradict others. The New Testament itself contains contradictions, and your goal is to recreate them as well!

These writings contain direct quotes. For example, Excerpts of Theodotus has this sentence:

John says: I indeed baptize you with water, but there comes after me He that baptizes with the Spirit and fire.

This is not a direct quotation from Matthew 3:11, but it’s close:

[John said,] “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

If this counts as a hit, our standards have dropped. We’re no longer recreating the New Testament but trying to create a paraphrase.

More common than direct quotes are examples like this one, also from Excerpts of Theodotus:

But some as head, some as eyes, some as ears, some as hands, some as breasts, some as feet, shall be set, resplendent, in the sun. Shine forth as the sun, or in the sun; since an angel high in command is in the sun.

This might have been inspired from Matthew 13:43a:

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

Could you have recreated this verse with just that bit?

The author, Theodotus of Byzantium, was a late-second-century gnostic who was declared a heretic and excommunicated by the pope, and yet this is claimed to be an overlap by one scholarly source. It is an early Christian source, after all.

This example underscores the problem that heresy is in the eye of the beholder, and recreating the perfect message of God from contradictory sources is impossible.

Remember, you can’t simply find echoes of New Testament ideas in the church fathers’ writings and count each such instance as a hit. The goal is to recreate the New Testament from scratch, and starting with the New Testament is cheating. You must take off your New Testament glasses first.

Said another way, this should be a blinded experiment, with the scholars who distill down the church fathers’ corpus not knowing the New Testament. That is, they can’t sift through sentences of a second-century Christian manuscript and say, “Ooh, that’s a match—I know where that one goes!” or “Nope, I’m discarding that one because there’s no match.”

Yet another problem: what is the “New Testament”? Ordinary people decided which of the many early Christian books and letters were officially in the New Testament, and different branches of Christianity came up with different lists. (h/t commenter ThaneOfDrones).

It would indeed be an interesting project to take the church fathers’ writings and, without trying to shoehorn them into a modern view of Christianity and using all of their writings without prejudice, recreate their version of Christianity. You would surely find that Christians in Damascus were different from those in Alexandria or Rome, and Christians in 100 CE were different from those in 200 or 300.

And that underscores the futility of the original project to recreate the New Testament. Without the structure of the New Testament as a color-by-numbers template into which to drop plausible matches from the early church fathers, you have chaos. Sure, you can merge the early church fathers’ writings, but don’t expect the New Testament to pop out.

Lesson 1

I’ve pulled out a few observations from this research that I think are worth highlighting.

An interview with Prof. Daniel Wallace was my first introduction to the weak standing behind the popular “all but 11 verses” apologetic. He approvingly noted that Muslim apologists had discovered the error, and it was a very thorough 2007 article at Islamic Awareness that provided much of the data I used here.

Wallace’s advice to Christians was:

Don’t be satisfied with easy answers. Probe the issues deeply and formulate your own opinions after due diligence in reading extensively. If an answer is really an easy answer, it might be a wrong answer—maybe a right answer, but just don’t be satisfied with those kinds of answers. Too often, they’re incorrect.

It doesn’t hurt to have atheists hear that caution, but in my experience, it’s mostly Christian apologists who are too quick to grab onto a pleasing data point and credulously repeat it. For example, I’ve heard Christian radio personality Greg Koukl twice take a Richard Lewontin quote out of context. I contacted his ministry (I thought: wouldn’t he like to avoid making that error again?) and was told that I would have to call in to his show. No, I guess he doesn’t much care.

I applaud Wallace for making this point.

Lesson 2

In the sixty years after the 1841 publication of the Philips book (see Step 4 in part 1), the Dalrymple anecdote was repeated in at least 18 books and articles (see Table I here). Almost all of those have omissions. Wallace in his interview even made several mistakes in relating it. Just because something is written doesn’t mean that it will be repeated accurately or completely—the game of telephone applies here as well. The lesson applies to the current project as well: just because the New Testament books are written doesn’t mean that passages will be later quoted accurately by the church fathers.

Another example is apologist William Lane Craig’s misquote of historian A. N. Sherwin-White. Sherwin-White’s point is much more powerful with Craig’s misquote, so that’s the version apologists use.

Lesson 3

I recently explored the claim that early church father Polycarp was martyred around 155 CE for refusing to honor Caesar as a god. He retorted, “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Did Polycarp say this? The story is unreliable for many reasons, so probably not, but the particulars of Polycarp’s death don’t really matter much. No Christian doctrine relies on it. The larger lesson (and the Dalrymple story makes this point as well) is that just because a story is popular doesn’t mean that it’s well grounded in fact. We repeatedly find paltry evidence underlying Christian claims: Polycarp didn’t make that popular declaration before his martyrdom, we can’t recreate the New Testament from the writings of the early church fathers, God didn’t create the universe ex nihilo, it’s not the case that all but one of the Twelve died martyr’s deaths, Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, and so on.

The point isn’t to and dismiss every Christian claim as built on sand. But many are. Make your Christian antagonist defend their claims.

There is no polite way to suggest to someone
that they have devoted their life to a folly.
— Dan Dennett

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Image from Giammarco Boscaro, CC license
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  • larry parker

    I don’t understand the purpose of this apologetic. Even if it was true, so what. A lot of ancient books could be reconstructed by post publication critiques.

    • eric

      I believe the argument is: so many different sources repeating the same teachings = teachings must accurately reflect Jesus’ thoughts or sayings (and thus, not made up by other authors).

      But as Bob very nicely points out, this is a form of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. The church fathers (especially the gnostics) attribute far more and different teachings to Jesus and the disciples than what is in the NT. What they’ve done here is read through the writings of the church fathers and “draw the target” around only those quotes or teachings that they know (from referring to the NT) made it into the NT.

      And this is important to point out, because it directly undermines the apologietic argument I summarized above: they aren’t many different sources repeating the same teachings. The teachings are different, but with some overlaps (and note; not every overlap is a NT teaching and not every NT teaching is an overlap).

      • If things had really an omni-*** entity, especially then, we’d see far more consistence among other things. No “Satan is to be blamed for those inconsistences” nonsense is gonna fix that.

        • Jack the Sandwichmaker

          Satan was going to tempt the preacher to misquote Jesus, but God punted him to America “See you in a few centuries! We’ll do drinks. Maybe try that job bet again!”

        • NS Alito

          No “Satan is to be blamed for those inconsistences” nonsense is gonna fix that.

          Don’t be so sure.

          I was surprised at the bit in Brian Fleming’s 2005 documentary The God Who Wasn’t There about the Church’s ‘splaining away versions of Biblical storylines and features that predate Judaic/Christian writing as having been pre-emptively planted by Satan to cause doubt.

          I recommend TGWWT as very watchable, and I especially enjoyed the “DVD extras” (can streamers get those?) of the extended interviews with various “new atheist” writers. [NB: I dislike “ambush” interviews, but this film only has one, and it deals with the leader of the Christian school where the filmmaker was instilled with the traumatic fear of going to Hell, so I give him a pass.]

        • Jack the Sandwichmaker

          And God couldn’t undo what Satan did?

        • NS Alito

          Yahweh is the wussiest omnipotent being ever.

        • I’ve heard also that, extending it to fossils and the like so people would be fooled think evolution is real. Oh, and pagan deities being the same, assuming they were not claimed by them as just idolatry of non-existing things.

        • epicurus

          I always try to watch DVD versions if possible ( from public library or whatever) of videos like this because of the extra interviews etc that don’t seem to be available when streamed.

      • skl

        The church fathers (especially the gnostics) attribute far
        more and different teachings to Jesus and the disciples than what is in the NT…
        they aren’t many different sources repeating the same teachings. The
        teachings are different, but with some overlaps…

        I don’t get it. IIRC, gnosticism was then, and still is, considered by the Christians to be a heresy.

        • William

          That you think it was “always heresy” would seem to be a case of history being written by the victors.

        • skl

          … or, Christianity is written by the Christians.

        • Michael Neville

          All of the widely different sects of Christians.

        • Max Doubt

          “Christianity is written by the Christians.”

          Every single one of whom imagines their gods differently.

        • Some people claim most of the victims of the early Christian period were not caused by Roman prosecution, but by infighting of the differect sects among themselves. As Gnostic (including Mary Magdalene or at least those who used th Gospel attributed to her) VS Pauline followers, etc.

          Even if the end result would probably had been more or less the same, things could have been different had Gnostics won.

        • NS Alito

          Even if the end result would probably had been more or less the same, things could have been different had Gnostics won.

          They’d probably still call themselves Christian, in any case.

          ETA: Yeshuans?

        • NS Alito
        • Oh, that branch must represent Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone! /s

        • Michael Neville

          Quite often what was or was not heretical was determined by who yelled the loudest. Arianism was declared heretical because at the First Council of Nicea (325) Emperor Constantine I ordered the Council to find it heretical. Since Constantine was the guy with tortu‍rers and exe‍cutioners on his payroll, the prelates clicked their heels, shouted Jawohl mein Füh‍rer! (only in Greek) and Arianism became anathema.

        • eric

          As long as the “all but 11 verses” meme includes gnostics in it’s group of early writers whose words that can be used to recreate the NT, it is IMO fair to say that the authors cited as being able to recreate the NT do not ‘repeat the same teachings’ but rather merely have some areas of overlap…and thus the exercise is Texas sharpshooting.

          As Bob points out, folks cite Theodotus. He was a gnostic. But all the other authors had teachings that are not doctrine today, too. Tertullian had a more hierarchical view of the trinity (Father rules Son and Holy Ghost). Origen was condemned as a heretic for teaching that souls were created before the universe. Clement asserted that Jesus was neither male nor female. If we looked into the others, I’m sure we could find find non-standard theology taught by them, too.

          So I think it’s fair to say that no, these folks did not simply preach parts of the NT as we know it today. No, they are not evidence of one clear New Testament message. They regularly disagreed with other Christian theologians of the time (and why wouldn’t they? That seems perfectly normal to me. We certainly see it today). So again, the point being that regenerating the NT from all these folks’ teachings – without also sticking in some teaching most sects would consider heresy today – is an exercise in Texas Marksmanship.

        • skl

          As long as the “all but 11 verses” meme includes
          gnostics in it’s group of early writers whose words that can be used to recreate the NT, it is IMO fair to say that the authors cited as being able to recreate the NT do not ‘repeat the same teachings’ but rather merely have some areas of overlap…

          I think I agree with your statement.

          But that’s not what the OP is about.

          Let me use this hypothetical example to explain:

          Long-ago “church father” says “John 20:21 says “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.””

          And long-ago “gnostic” also says “John 20:21 says “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.””

          But that church father teaches that “Jesus is God” while that gnostic teaches that “Jesus is NOT God.”

          Therefore, because of that difference in teaching, the
          fact that both the church father and the gnostic agreed on how John 20:21 reads provides no additional evidence of how the original John 20:21 reads.

          See, I don’t agree with what follows the Therefore above.

        • eric

          You’re making up a fake example to try and support your claim, when in fact Bob has provided you with two actual examples in the OP. I suggest you reread them. The biblical ‘quotations’ of these theologian often vary in wording. I.e. they give different variations of the same verse. This not only helps explain why they might’ve reached different conclusions about what the text teaches, but it also relates to the original question about reproducing the NT, and answers it with a pretty definitive ‘no;’ there is pretty much no way to regenerate the text we have today from those 4th century writings without having the “answer key” of the NT to refer to. If you didn’t have that, you would be at a loss as to how to fix misquotes or how to pick which quotation version is the “right” one.

        • Not sure how is now considered the idea of souls having been formed before the Universe, but I know of a Fundy who claims that using as proof both Genesis (its first part, where man and woman pop up along everything else, the Adam and Eve story describes the shaping of the physical bodies) and the very beginning of Isaiah.

          Meanwhile others claim everything is physical and souls do not exist, them being Neo-Platonic contamination.

        • Rudy R

          Must you forgo logic at every turn? What part of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy do you not understand? Your comment is a prime example of the inconsistencies in the Christian dogma. There are billion plus who belong to thousands and thousands of denominations that feel they are practicing the correct faith system. What are the odds that your dogma is wrong?

        • skl

          Actually, we can put aside discussion of differences in
          dogma or of whose dogma is “true/right” (e.g. between or among “church fathers” and “heretics”).

          I think the point of the OP is that the old-timers from the
          first centuries agreed on the text of the NT, even if they disagreed in their teachings of what the text meant.

        • Rudy R

          The “church fathers” differed among their views on the Christian dogma, so my comment is germane to the OP. Those church fathers that prevailed in instituting their dogma had nothing to do with being true or right, as attested by all the books that were arbitrarily excluded, because they didn’t support their religious agenda, eg. Jesus as man vs. god.

  • Jim Jones

    Aren’t most of the gospel passages ‘borrowings’ from the Septuagint?

    • Allen T Coffey

      A lot of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels are direct rip-offs of the Apocryphal books of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Many but not all OT quotations are from the LXX, others appear to be rough and ready translations from Hebrew/Aramaic of the OT and others don’t match anything, but are declared by the author to from the OT. So it’s a mishmash at best.

      • Jim Jones

        Yes, Considering where and when the gospels were written, and by who and for who, it’s no surprise. Neither are the ‘errors’ in Jewish life and customs.

        • Allen T Coffey

          So, so very true.

      • Hmm–that’s an interesting twist. Instead of trying to find matchups between passages in Christian books that followed the NT, look for matchups between passages in the NT and books that preceded the NT. Fascinating.

        Some NT authors might be reporting to the dean to explain their plagiarism.

        • Allen T Coffey

          Hahahahaha…

        • Allen T Coffey

          I learned some of that stuff in seminary in a class on Wisdom literature — almost 30 years ago — and then the rest from illicit reading as a pastor.

        • Oh, yeah–you were the one in the back drawing dinosaurs in your notebook and throwing paper airplanes.

        • Allen T Coffey

          EXACTLY!

        • ThaneOfDrones

          This touches a sore point for me. I was banned from the school bus for throwing paper airplanes – even though I didn’t throw any paper airplanes.

        • Yesterday I heard that, a Fundy claiming that Exodus describes the future coming of Jesus (NT). Never mind there’s not mention of a Messiah at all there, nor the differences with later OT ones and especially the NT.

      • I just ordered a Bible containing the books that the Protestant publishers started to leave out in the 1800s. I wasn’t aware that some of these supposed sayings of Jesus preceded him… this is going to be interesting!

        Although it’s entirely possible that he did say them. He’d have likely been familiar with them, because they were well known to 1st century Jews. Why would he not have used them in his sermons?

        • Allen T Coffey

          Exactly. They were the commons ideas of the time. The Hebrew only Bible of Judaism came about after the Xtians highjacked the LXX.

  • Allen T Coffey

    Great exposition of an apologetical tactic I remember using as a pastor before I deconverted.

  • Paul D.

    Wallace is also the guy who sandbagged Bart Ehrman during a debate with a false claim that a copy of Mark from the 60s had been found.

    • I listened to a Gary Habermas lecture just a month or two before that claim was publicly exposed as false. He made a big deal about that claim.

      I’m sure that since that, he has apologized and learned his lesson, promising to wait until the evidence is in next time.

      Probably.

      Maybe.

    • epicurus

      Yeah, that was quite the saga, especially since after that Wallace clamed up claiming non disclosure agreement bs.

  • Benny S.

    If the argument goes that early church fathers were able to “reconstruct all but 11 verses” of the NT, shouldn’t we also be able to precisely conclude which specific 11 verses of the NT were omitted from the “reconstruction”?

    • Every attempted list has a lot more than 11 omissions, even Dalrymple’s own lists.

  • Otto

    Isn’t it reasonable to expect that a book by an all powerful god wouldn’t need to be reconstructed? Seems like they lose the high ground right out of the gate.