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 of the resulting mess.
Lesson 1I’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.
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 is in effect. 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.
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 dismiss every Christian claim as built on sand, but many are. Don’t take Christian claims on faith. Make your Christian antagonists defend their claims.
It turns out that the early church fathers’ writings can make some interesting contributions to scholarship. I write about that here.
that they have devoted their life to a folly.
— Dan Dennett
Image from Giammarco Boscaro, CC license