An Ambitious goal and an Early Fail

We must acknowledge that the singular care and providence of God have been at work in the preservation of the Scripture in a state of substantial and essential purity. – John H. Skilton, The New Testament Student and His Field, 5:8

Reaching the original text is not an option for believers who are devotedly attached to the very word of God; it is a religious duty, since it emerges from the belief that the way of salvation is drawn on the Holy Book’s pages. The Word of God is the infallible guide to the desired peace and success in this life and in the hereafter. A seemingly trivial change of words can be the cause of a new interpretation of an article of faith or of a divine commandment.

We have to suppose that all of the notables of the early Church, the Church Fathers in particular, were using the New Testament as (one of) the ultimate sources for the faith and the Christian way of life. And if we suppose that they held that impression, we will be led automatically to believe that each one of them believed that the copy he had contained the word of God as given by divine inspiration to the authors of the New Testament. We can suppose too that these Fathers did their best to get to the words of authors, and that they would not dare quote from the Holy New Testament in their theological treatises, sermons, homilies, or any other religious writing without being sure that they were dealing with the exact word of God.

The Church Fathers, with their high religious and social rank, should be the impeccable preservers of the very word of God. They were the main channel through which the holy texts were spread and by which the divine message was brought close to lay people. No other segment of Christian society was expected to protect the holy text and keep it away from tampering hands in the way the Church Fathers were. One would think that defending the “orthodox” Word should be as serious and holy as the defending of the orthodox faith. But when we look at the Church Fathers’ writings; we will be very much surprised to see that even the holy Fathers were far from being what we supposed them to be. We have two main reasons for believing that they failed resoundingly to reach the holy “original text.” The first reason is that, many times, the Fathers defended the originality of forged readings (inserted lately in the manuscripts)[1], and the second reason is that they avowed many times, in one way or another, that they could not tell which of the variant readings was the original one.

The Failing Church Fathers

Contrary to what the Church tells its adherents, the task of choosing the true or most plausible reading was, in many cases, hard and perplexing for the early Church Fathers, who were viewed by their contemporaries as competent scholars and pious believers. It is probable that making the choice between the variant readings was seen by the Fathers as a mere adventurous act, in many cases. The matter of the numerous divergences between the manuscripts was known to them, and so they devised a way of getting out of this uncomfortable situation by simply declaring some readings as genuine and the others as forged by the scribes. Those kinds of decisions were a challenge that the Fathers had to face whether they liked it or not, especially when they engaged themselves in exegetical works and were obliged to give explanations of the “word of God.”

We should not expect from the Fathers anything less than a clear pre-imposed methodology embodying a vital mechanism and mature principles to distinguish an authentic reading from a fabricated one. A whole theory to check the fidelity of the transmission of the word of God should be in place as a necessary safeguard so that the word of God will endure without interruption. However, these Church Fathers, who were presumably guided by the Holy Spirit, in accord with the belief of the Mother Church, made weighty blunders by making wrong decisions when they chose weak readings as the original ones. This in itself clearly shows that the Church, dating from the early centuries, lost the original texts of the authors and had only defective copies.

The newest critical studies enrich our library with helpful studies of the Church Fathers’ citations from the whole New Testament or from parts of it, using rigid criteria and rigorous methodology. The best of these studies are PhD dissertations made under the supervision of the leaders of the discipline and then edited and included in the series The New Testament in the Greek Fathers, which includes the citations of the most important Greek Fathers. [2] This series adopts the newest approved critical standards, and offers comprehensive details and useful results in numbers and percentages to make it easy for other scholars to frame their decisions and to build hypotheses.

We will go through these studies to reach the ultimate answer to the provoking question: “What text can we reach now if we possess the same manuscripts used by these Fathers?” We will compare the New Testament text extracted from the Church Fathers’ writings with today’s best critical text, which is UBS4 [3], or UBS3 if the study was made before the publication of the UBS4 in the 1990s.

Gregory of Nyssa

We will review the review and critique of the study of Gregory of Nyssa’s citations from the New Testament[4] made by James A. Brooks to help us understand how distant these citations are from the different text-types and their best witnesses and from the best critical texts and the majority text.

The summation of Brooks’ study on Gregory’s citations is shown below[5]:

Matthew Luke John Paul
Proto-Alexandrian 54.1 60.8 58.3 56.4
Later Alexandrian 62.3 66.7 65.2 63.6
All Alexandrian 59.7 64.6 62.3 60.9
Western 47.1 52.8 50.5 41.2
Pre-Caesarean 61.4 67.6 70
Caesarean Proper 53.7 66.3 69.1
All Caesarean 57.5 67 69.5
Byzantine 63.4 66.9 70.7 69.2


We can conclude from the above statistics the following:

First: From a text-types’ perspective, the text used by Gregory of Nyssa is a “mosaic”; we have no text-type identical or close to it.

Second: James A. Brooks concluded that “When Gregory is compared with Bible Societies’ text, which is for the most part an Alexandrian type of text, and with the majority text, which is the Byzantine type, he has a much larger amount of agreement with the latter in every instance.”[6]

Basil of Caesarea

After his study of the quotations of Basil of Caesarea from the Gospel of Matthew, Jean-François Racine concluded that the “Basil’s text of Matthew shows closer affinities to the Byzantine text-type than to any other text-types,” [7]and that this result proves virtually that the Byzantine text-type existed in the mid-fourth century. [8]

Starting from the detailed study of the peculiarities of Basil’s quotations, Racine describes the “quality” of text used by Basil as reflecting “the editorial trends that were already affecting the Byzantine text-type in mid-fourth-century Cappadocia.” [9] Here are the proportional relationships of text-types with Basil quotations[10]:

Alexandrian 68.4%
Byzantine 78.6%
Caesarean 69.8%
Western 40.5%

Cyril of Jerusalem

Roderic L. Mullen, in his scholastic study of the text of the New Testament used by Cyril of Jerusalem, as we can see through his extant books, presented these percentages that show how close Cyril’s citations are to the UBS4: [11]

Agreements Points of variation %Agreement
Matthew 65 128 50.8
Mark 9 24 37.5
Luke 43 73 58.9
John 76 117 64.9
Acts 50 73 68.4
Romans 15 21 71.4
1Corinthians 41 62 66.1
Ephesus 20 24 83.3

And Titus

21 29 72.4
Hebrews 8 23 34.7
Paul’s Epistles 120 185 64.8
Catholic Epistles 10 15 66.7

After noting these surprising percentages, we can confidently say that it is impossible to recover the New Testament by citations when their agreement with the best critical text ranges from 34% to 83%.

Didymus the Blind

Although Didymus the Blind (1) lived in the fourth century in Alexandria where the best copies were kept, and (2) his citations are considered as the best among the existing Church Fathers’ citations after the study made by Ehrman,[12] the detailed result shows that this Alexandrian Father is by no means a witness for the original text.

Didymus’ extant citations from the Gospel of Matthew are the largest among his citations from the four Gospels. If we compare them with the UBS3, we will find that the agreement is 68.1%, while the agreement between the UBS3 and the Codex Vaticanus is 91.4%.[13] We will understand better how poor this outcome is when we read that the defective “Textus Receptus” agrees with the UBS3 in 72.3%.[14]


Carroll D. Osburn provided a striking result in his study of Epiphanius’ citations from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the New Testament when he displayed the percentages of agreement between Epiphanius’ citations with the Codex Alexandrinus:[15]

Acts of the Apostle: 58.8% [16]
Catholic Epistles: 30% [17]
Epistles of Paul: 61.2% [18]

The above percentages lead one to conclude that there has been a disastrous failure in the attempt to restore the original text of the New Testament.

Athanasius of Alexandria

In his recently published book, in the series The New Testament in the Greek Fathers, Gerald J. Donker studied the quotations of Athanasius from the Apostolos (the text of the New Testament exclusive of the gospels). The result of his study does not support the view of those who think that the earliest scholars were able to retrieve the purest text, despite the fact that Athanasius lived in Alexandria, and was the most powerful and influential theologian in that region’s early religio-political history. He was the “hero” of the council of Nicaea.

Donker concluded his study by stating that the text of the Apostolos as it appears in Athanasius’ extant writings “is simply one representative of witnesses that have moved away from an earlier ‘purer’ form towards the periphery of the Alexandrian tradition while that text was still in a state of flux in the fourth century […]. Indeed, as Brogan notes concerning the Gospel text and, as is confirmed from this analysis of the Apostolos, Athanasius contributes both to the fluidity of the Alexandrian textual tradition when he sometimes introduces unique variants into that tradition and also contributes to the stabilization of that same text through the influence of his writings due to his position as an important ecclesiastical leader in Alexandria.”[19]

Earlier, John Jay Brogan, in his PhD dissertation, “The Text of the Gospels in the Writings of Athanasius,” proved that Athanasius corrupted some passages in the New Testament in the course of his theological debates with the “heretics,” and these corrupted texts found their way into the subsequent copies of the scribes who were influenced by him. [20]

As a result, Athanasius did not lead us to the original text; on the contrary, his quotations are indications of:

  1. An early corruption of the text.
  2. Athanasius was more concerned about striving for the “orthodoxation” of the text rather than keeping it as it was received.

Clement of Alexandria

Let us end our search with the first Alexandrian Church Father[21], whom B. Metzger considers as the only Father who is a witness for the Alexandrian text-type. Carl P. Cosaert, in the most recent study of Clement’s use of the four Gospels, offers these shocking percentages of the agreement of Clement’s citations with the UBS4. [22]

Matthew 62.7%
Mark 53.2%
Luke 53.8%
John 69.4%

The study of Carl P. Cosaert demolished what was claimed by many scholars: that Clement’s citations are witnesses for the Alexandrian text-type. Cosaert concluded that “the most significant conclusion that can be drawn about the transmission of the Gospels in Alexandria is that Clement’s text was not monolithic. Instead of testifying to the dominance of one singular text-type in Alexandria at the end of the second century, Clement’s citations suggest that a number of diverse readings were in circulation, and Clement does not appear to have been beholden to the sole influence of any one of them. ”[23]


  1. None of the Church Fathers who left us citations from the New Testament used a text identical to the actual best critical text (UBS4). Most of them used manuscripts that preferred a lot of spurious variant readings.
  2. The Fathers of the Church who quoted the New Testament in their available books were unable to access pure Alexandrian text-type manuscripts, not because of their ignorance or negligence, but because of existing insurmountable obstacles obtaining in the early centuries. Eusebius, for example, was born in the third century, and witnessed the Diocletian persecution of the Church, which was marked by an extensive burning of Bibles. He became the bishop of Caesarea, and was honored to have been ordered by Emperor Constantine to prepare fifty copies of the Scriptures for use in the principal churches.[24] He was a prolific author and had at his disposal the library at Caesarea which Origen had built. Despite this, however, the text of the New Testament he used, as seen in his citations, is a vague text that cannot comfortably be categorized as part of any of the text-types of textual criticism. [25]

It was impossible for Eusebius and all of the other early Christian scholars to figure out the original text of the New Testament, and they fail, as well, to offer us even a text identical to our best constructed critical text. So how could we imagine that we could reach that lost autograph, given such poor early documentation fished out of a vast sea of darkness?


  1. Daniel B. Wallace insisted that if a scholar labels a variant reading as unauthentic, that automatically implies that he knows which one is the authentic reading. He, then, should not claim that the original text disappeared. Wallace’s objection here is not well founded, because many variant readings existing in our manuscripts were later found to be fabrications, inserted in the manuscripts by latter scribes for theological purposes, harmonization of conflicting accounts, etc. Even when we admit the impossibility of reaching the original text, we may still discuss the existence of the forged variants which were written after the earliest known variants, yet we are still unable to ascribe any of these early variant readings as being the ones written by the pen of the author.
  2. Bart Ehrman stated in the preface of this series: “writings of a significant Church Father” (Darrell D. Hannah, The Text of I Corinthians In the Writings of Origen, p.x)
  3. The text of NA27 is identical with the UBS4.
  4. It is not the entire text of the New Testament, it is just parts of it, and that is the case for all the citations of the Church Fathers that we will mention in this chapter.
  5. James A. Brooks, The New Testament Text of Gregory of Nyssa, p.263
  6. Ibid., p.264
  7. Jean-François Racine, The Text of Matthew in the Writings of Basil of Caesarea, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004, p.346
  8. See ibid., pp.269, 349
  9. Ibid., p.346
  10. See ibid., pp.250-51, 269
  11. Roderic L. Mullen, The New Testament Text of Cyril of Jerusalem, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1997, pp. 308, 322, 329, 334, 342, 353, 356, 364, 369, 373, 377, 382
  12. See Bart Ehrman, Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels, 1986
  13. See ibid., p.199
  14. Ibid.
  15. We choose the Codex Alexandrinus because Carroll D. Osburn did not make a comparison with the UBS critical text.
  16. Carroll D. Osburn, The Text of the Apostolos in Epiphanius of Salamis, p.191
  17. Ibid., p.209
  18. Ibid., p.214
  19. Gerald J. Donker, The Text of the Apostolos in Athanasius of Alexandria, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, p.315
  20. See John Jay Brogan, “The Text of the Gospels in the Writings of Athanasius,” PhD dissertation, Duke University, 1997
  21. See Carl P. Cosaert, The Text of the Gospels in Clement of Alexandria, p.xi
  22. Ibid., pp.226, 237, 241, 246
  23. Ibid., p.305 [italics mine].
  24. See Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4. 36
  25. See for example: M. Jack Suggs, “Eusebius’ Text of John in the “Writings against Marcellus,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Jun., 1956), p.142; M. Jack Suggs, “The Eusebian Text of Matthew,” in Novum Testamentum, Vol. 1, Fasc. 4 (Oct., 1956), pp.244-45

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