Can We Really Restore the Original New Testament through Patristic Citations?

Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give. — Proverbs 25:14

Conservative Christians take pleasure in repeating the familiar apologetic assertion that one of the easiest ways to prove the authenticity of the New Testament text is reconstructing it through the patristic citations available in the extant books written by the Fathers of the Church. Unfortunately, no Christian scholar actually proved that to us; it is until now a mere allegation.

The Bible defenders misused the words of the New Testament textual scholar Bruce Metzger, as quoted by the apologist propagandist Lee Strobel in his oversimplified book, The Case For Christ[1]: “even if we lost all the Greek manuscripts and the early translations, we could still reproduce the contents of the New Testament from the multiplicity of quotations in commentaries, sermons, letters, and so forth of the early Church Fathers.” [2] Does this declaration have any virtual weight?

The Deceptive Challenge

The failure of the Church in recovering the original text of the New Testament did not prevent its arrogant assertions. In a climate where churchgoers know almost nothing about the sacred books, it is easy to make any hollow lie out of clay. The Christian apologists inaugurate a challenge that claims that even if we lost the New Testament manuscripts, we can rebuild the original text only by using the patristic citations. Here these apologists are clearly trying to deceive.

First, from a chronological perspective, there are two definitions of the term Fathers of the Church.

  1. The Roman Catholic definition stated generally that John of Damascus, who lived in the eighth century, is the last Father.[3]
  2. The Eastern Orthodox Church extends the scope, denying a time limit for it, by including later influential writers to the Fathers list.[4]

In the field of textual criticism, scholars do not abide by the time limit of the Catholic Church and do not favor the Eastern Church’s choice. The list of the Fathers used as witnesses reaches its end two centuries before the Renaissance. We note this in the UBS3 edition, where the last Father lived in the twelfth century. [5]

Century 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Fathers 22 22 59 59 20 6 8 6 2 1 2

This mega-list includes a number of “heretics” too, such as Marcion, who is considered to be one of the most important Fathers of the second century.[6] The dramatic challenge posed by the Christian apologetics makes no sense if we accept this inflated list. Moreover, even if we accept the Catholic definition, the challenge will appear senseless, because collecting parts of a book across that long period will not prove the originality of these pieces. It will be a mere parti-colored text(s).

Second, none of the opponents of the Church asked that the recovery of the New Testament text be done solely with the help of the Fathers, and there is no factual need for that. We know that it is possible to reconstruct a text of the New Testament using the manuscripts of the first fourth century, so why should we ask that same task be performed using the patristic citations?! Scholars agree that priority should be given to the Greek manuscripts in the process of restoring the original text, or the closest one to it. And we know, on the other hand, that many of the leaders of the textual critic discipline admit that we are not able, and may be forever unable, to recover the original text. Therefore, how could we possibly imagine that we could reconstruct the autograph with the help of the poor Church Fathers’ citations, when we are unable to reach that goal with the Greek manuscripts, the versions, and the Church Fathers’ citations?!

The dramatic challenge made by the conservative scholars could be likened to one made by a scrawny man who has been defeated by an enemy, yet claims that he could crush him even without using all of his strength. He has already lost the fight, but pretends that he can re-win it even with less effort!?

Third, the real challenge is not to collect the verses of “a” text of the New Testament; rather, it is to assemble the verses of the “original” text: the same phrases written by the so-called “inerrant authors, inspired by God.” The citations of the Church Fathers provide us “a text,” or more accurately, “texts,” but we are not searching for “a text” or “texts,” we are diligently hunting for “the real text,” the original words, the source of the copies. No one has taken up our challenge yet.

Fourth, what we are asking the Church to provide is the exact text written by the one author who the Church believes wrote the word of God, the exact word, the uncorrupted word. And there is no way to provide that text unless . . .

  1. We find the original manuscript, and prove that its text was not changed, or
  2. The Church presents the unbroken chains of narrators that start from the authors to the subsequent generations, showing that every word in each book is written by the canonical author.

Sadly, we cannot achieve the first option, and the Church does not seem to have ever thought of the second one, so it will never be able to fulfill it. The apologists’ challenge is wholly unjustified, and it offers an unasked help.

Why Use the Patristic Citations?

The patristic citations were used by scholars to accomplish two tasks: reaching the original/best attainable text, and having better knowledge of the readings in certain geographical areas in specified times. These citations were helpful in giving us a closer look at the map of the readings in the course of history, but they failed in achieving the other task (original text); they provide, as Ehrman affirms, “primary evidence for the history of the text but only secondary evidence for the original text itself.” [7]

The Church Fathers’ citations, as is obvious from the textual critic textbooks, are third in order in the list of sources for the work of constructing the modern critical texts, after the Greek manuscripts and the versions. [8] The practical worth of the patristic citations in our march toward the original text is complementary, and that is one of the main reasons for their being neglected by scholars for the past centuries, compared with the Greek manuscripts. [9]

Charles Hammond made it clearer when he stated that “the value of even the most definite Patristic citation is only corroborative. Standing by itself, any such citation might mean no more than that the writer found the passage in his own copy, or in those examined by him, in the form in which he quotes it.” [10] All scholars share the same opinion, because the Church Fathers’ citations cannot surpass that limit, and thus these citations need constant support from the Greek manuscripts and perhaps the versions too. Moreover, if we check the UBS4 we will not come across any reading supported solely by the Church Fathers’ citations.

The undisputed inability of the Church Fathers’ citations to support by themselves a variant reading led scholars to launch waves of attacks against the French scholar Marie-Émile Boismard when he made the odd decision to prefer the Church Fathers’ citations variant readings against the Greek manuscripts’ ones when he worked on reconstructing the oldest attainable text of the Gospel of John. [11]

What about the Apostolic Fathers’ Quotations?

The Apostolic Fathers is a title given since the seventeenth century to the group of authors who lived at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second, and who are supposed to have had personal relations with some of the Apostles.[12]

The Apostolic Fathers’ quotations are the only possible serious source that can allow us to really approach the original text of the New Testament, so it is particularly important to critically study these quotations. We should give the earlier Fathers a chance to save the Christian apologists’ happy wish.

Scholars’ Standpoint

It would be beneficial for the reader to rapidly review scholars’ positions about the value of the apostolic Fathers’ quotations before getting into their details.

As pertains to quantity:

  • Vincent Taylor: “Until about A.D. 150 the quotations are of little value for textual purposes.” [13]
  • Frederic George Kenyon: “Quotations from the New Testament are found in the earliest writers of the sub-apostolic age, but they are so scanty as to be of little service for our present purpose.”[14]
  • A. T. Robertson: “Little help is gained from the Greek Apostolic Fathers for the text.”[15]

As pertains to quality:

  • Bruce Metzger: “The Apostolic Fathers seldom make express citations from New Testament writings.”[16]
  • Marvin R. Vincent: “The Apostolic Fathers are of little value for patristic quotation, since they do not so much quote as blend the language of the New Testament with their own.”[17]
  • William L. Petersen: “It is clear that the vast majority of passages in the Apostolic Fathers for which one can find likely parallels in the New Testament have deviations from our present, critically reconstructed New Testament text. It must be emphasized that the vast majority of these deviations are not minor (e.g., differences in spelling or verb tense), but major (a completely new context, a substantial interpolation or omission, a conflation of two entirely separate ideas and/or passages).” [18]
  • Caspar René Gregory professes, despite his apologetic tone, that “the very earliest of the Christian writers did not make a point of quoting the New Testament with any precision.”[19]

A Close Examination of the Apostolic Fathers’ Quotations

In 1905, a Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology published an interesting book titled The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers in which it collected all that seems, at first glance, to be quotations from the New Testament in the preserved writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The Committee then commented on these supposed quotations. [20]

We will commence our investigation with the data included in the Committee study so as not to be accused of subjectivism. We will scrutinize the “quotations” from quantitative and qualitative angles to be able to judge the value of the Apostolic Fathers’ quotations in restoring the desired text of the New Testament.

Weighing the Apostolic Fathers’ Quotations as a Quantity

By collecting all the New Testament verses stored in The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, we can find out the percentage of the preserved text of each book of the New Testament in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Number of verses %
Matthew 100 9%
Mark 30 4%
Luke 56 5%
John 22 3%
Acts 14 1%
Romans 28 6%
1 Corinthians 66 15%
2 Corinthians 17 7%
Galatians 13 9%
Ephesians 47 30%
Philippians 13 12%
Colossians 21 22%
1Thessalonians 3 3%
2Thessalonians 3 6%
1Timothy 21 18%
2Timothy 13 16%
Titus 9 19%
Philemon 1 4%
Hebrews 74 24%
James 25 23%
1Peter 41 39%
2Peter 1 2%
1John 2 2%
2John 1 8%
3John 0 0%
Jude 1 4%
Revelation 6 1%

The result: We possess only eight percent of the text of the New Testament through the Apostolic Father quotations. And that is a miniscule quantity of the preserved text at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century.

Weighing the Apostolic Fathers Quotations as a Quality

First: It was not mentioned in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers that these supposed “citations” are taken from the original text, or a copy of the autograph. These so-called “citations” are not quotes; they are, in fact, texts close in their meanings or message to parallel texts in the canonical books. We are not looking here for such texts to rebuild the original text; we are in search for texts quoted by the Apostolic Fathers from the autograph of the sacred books or taken directly from their authors.

Second: The Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology arranged the citations in an order of probability: (a), (b), (c), and (d). The class (a) includes the passages “about which there can be no reasonable doubt.” In all the other passages, there is a degree of doubt about their inclusion in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

The passages that are given the symbol (a) are very few:

Clement of Rome

Clement 35:5.6 Romans 2:29-32
Clement 37:5; 38:1 1Corinthians 12:12, 14, 21
Clement 47:5 1Corinthians 1:11-13
Clement 49:5 1Corinthians 13:4-7
Clement 36:2-5 Hebrews 1:1-14


Polycarp 5:3 1Corinthians 9:6
Polycarp 11:2 1Corinthians 6:2
Polycarp 1:3 1Peter 1:8
Polycarp 8:1, 2 1Peter 2:21
Polycarp 10:2 1Peter 2:12

Third: The committee itself disvalued the passages with an (a) rating as helpful citations[21] to restore the original text of the New Testament.

  • The committee said about the quotations of Clement of Rome from Romans and 1Corinthians: “Even in the case of N. T. works which as it appears to us were certainly known and used by Clement, such as Romans and 1Corinthians, the citations are loose and inexact.”[22]
  • The committee described the quotation from the first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews as “reminiscence,” [23]and that is something easy to notice if we accept that Clement had in mind that letter, due to the difference of size of the two texts (the text alluded to in Hebrews is three times bigger that the “allusion” made by Clement).
  • It was acknowledged by the committee concerning Polycarp 5:3=1Corinthians 6:9 that Polycarp had omitted words from the quoted text, and that “the quotation was probably therefore made from memory.”[24] The loose citation minimizes to a great extent the possibility of recovering the exact text used by Polycarp.
  • After the assertion of the committee concerning Polycarp 11:2= 1Corinthians 6:2, that we possess Polycarp passage only in Latin translation, we remain far away from the exact text we are seeking.
  • The committee declared that 1Peter 1:8 text was “presupposed” by Polycarp[25] which, in itself is recognition that Polycarp did not copy the exact text that he had in his manuscript from the New Testament.
  • Concerning Polycarp 8:1,2=1Peter 2:21, the committee said that “variations of order and the occasional verbal differences should be noticed.” [26]
  • We have only the Latin translation of Polycarp 10:2, and it is not identical to 1Peter 2:12.

Fourth: Despite its huge and long apparatus, the UBS4 did not allude to Clement of Rome or Polycarp in the places where the Oxford committee assigned an “a” to the texts. The UBS4 could refer to Polycarp 1:3 as a text, preferring the variant reading “ἰδόντες,” “you have seen” against “εἰδότες,” “you have known” in 1Peter 1:8, but this negligence tells us that the team of the UBS4 finds difficulty in seeing the Polycarp text as a citation.

Fifth: The UBS4 and the NA27 used only the following from the apostolic Fathers: Second Clement, Polycarp, and the Didache.

Sixth: We read in the introduction of the UBS4 that the Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Ignatius, and Clement of Rome, among a longer list, “offer no witness of significance for the critical apparatus of this edition.”[27] NA27 apparatus only referred to The Didache four times, all in Matthew, and to Clement, only once. That means that the apostolic Fathers helped hardly at all in reconstructing the best critical text.

Seventh: The credibility of the Apostolic writings lies in the close relationship between Jesus’ disciples and the supposed authors of these books. The Didache cannot be taken as a reliable source for tradition received from Jesus’ disciples, because it was written (as is the opinion of the majority of scholars) in the second half of the second century, by an unknown author who had not, obviously, met the disciples. [28]

We cannot take the Didache as a proof for the existence of the canonical Gospels as we know them today, even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that the Didache was written in the first century. This is because, due to the noticeable differences between the Didache text and our four Gospels, the opposite view should lead us to one of two options: either to believe that the text of the Gospels used by the Didachist was too different from the canonical version we know, or that the Didachist felt free to reshape Jesus’ sayings by mingling them with extra-canonical material and attributing its words to himself, not to Jesus.[29]

Aaron Milavec, who is an authority in the Didache studies, insists after thorough and careful consideration that the Didache is totally independent of the Gospels in the internal logic, theological orientation, and pastoral practice that runs decisively counter to what one finds within the received Gospels. [30]

Eighth: The only extant book ascribed to Polycarp is his letter to the Philippians.[31] Scholars are debating the originality of this attribution.[32] Moreover, many scholars think that its text had been corrupted.[33]

Ninth: The second letter of Clement, whose title is “Κλήμεντος πρὸς Κορινθίους,” is not really a letter, but a homily or discourse which was read in the meetings of the faithful believers,[34] and it was attributed to Clement, who lived at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. The majority of scholars reject the authenticity of this writing. Thomas W. Crafer, in his Letters edition, said, “Though this treatise has been traditionally ascribed to Clement of Rome, its real authorship remains unknown.” [35]All that we can deduce about the author is that he is a Greek speaking convert from a pagan environment.[36]

Tenth: After deep investigation, Helmut Koester stated that the similarities between the early Church Fathers’ writings and the Gospels do not signify that these Fathers quoted from the New Testament, but rather that quotations hark back to the early oral tradition used by the early Fathers and the authors of the New Testament.[37] We cannot expect that these Fathers actually quoted from the books of the New Testament; we know that a fixed canon did not exist at that time. All that did exist was a common tradition that includes stories and sayings transmitted orally in addition to gospels, epistles, and other genres of religious books which were categorized later as “canonical” and “apocryphal.”


The meticulous research into the writings called Apostolic leads us to a mortifying result: There is nothing that can be called “texts cited from the New Testament by the Apostolic Fathers.” In other words, the Apostolic writings do no shed any positive light on the obscure zone. After this distressing failure to recover “a text” (not just the original text) from the Apostolic books, it would be futile to try to look for the original text in books of later authors, because of the huge time gap between the date of composition of the original and the dates of quotation. We will attempt, despite our conviction that this will not result in our reaching the desired goal, to recollect the fragments of the original text in the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Is It Possible with the Pre-Nicene Fathers?

The Apologists’ Claim on Trial

Scholars have been reading in the apologists’ books for more than a century that it is possible to reconstruct the whole text of the New Testament (except 11 verses) from the writings of the pre-Nicene Fathers. No material proof has ever been given. We have heard only the story of a Scottish judge called David Dalrymple, known as “Lord Hailes” (1726-92 A.D.), who was able to reach that goal. The story reaches us through Robert Philip in his book The Life, Times, And Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell. In that book Philip discusses what John Campbell reported that Walter Buchanan told him had happened between him and Dalrymple. Campbell said that, while Walter Buchanan was at a literary party, someone had posed a very curious question in which he wondered if the contents of all the New Testament could be recovered from the writings of the first three centuries if all the New Testament manuscripts had been destroyed at the end of the third century. None of the party even hazarded a guess.

Subsequently, Lord Hailes or Dalrymple told Buchanan that he had been intrigued by the question posed at the literary party two months previously and had collected all the writers of the New Testament of the first three centuries and reviewed their writings. He then announced to Buchanan that he had discovered that the whole New Testament could be recovered from those writings, except seven or perhaps, eleven verses. He concluded by saying that, “here was a way in which God concealed, or hid the treasure of his word, that Julian, the apostate emperor, and other enemies of Christ who wished to extirpate the Gospel from the world, never would have thought of and though they had, they could never have effected their destruction”. [38]

This story is quoted extensively in apologists’ publications without its having been scrutinized or re-examined. Any claim that can be used to resuscitate the credibility of the Bible is out of question in conservative literature; that is why we should tackle the task using numbers and percents, along with defining the real nature of the results.

Refuting the Claim as Pertains to Quantity

Two researchers[39] actually looked for Lord Hailes’ manuscripts concerning his project of collecting the text of the New Testament, to see the true result of Haile’s dream. After finding them, they examined the numbers and the percentages of the verses found in the early Fathers’ books, knowing that there were three different attempts to collect these verses. Here are the ultimate results:[40]

Book Total Number Of Verses Interleaved Collation Supplemental Collation Loose Leaf Collation
Number of verses missing % verses missing Number of verses missing % verses missing Number of verses missing % verses missing
Matthew 1071 832 77.7% 454 42.4% 491 45.8%
Mark 678 666 98.2% 585 86.3% Incomplete Incomplete
Luke 1151 1084 94.2% 490 42.6%
John 879 788 89.6% 543 61.8% Incomplete Incomplete
Acts 1006 956 95.0% 703 69.9%
Romans 433 340 78.5% 156 36.0%
1Corinthians 437 328 75.1% 117 26.8%
2Corinthians 256 204 79.7% 139 54.3%
Galatians 149 120 80.5% 54 36.2%
Ephesians 155 138 89.0% 42 27.1%
Philippians 104 89 85.6% 49 47.1%
Colossians 95 75 78.9% 26 27.4% 62 65.3%
1Thessalonians 89 82 92.1% 50 56.1%
2Thessalonians 47 35 74.5% 22 46.8%
1 Timothy 113 84 74.3% 46 40.7%
2 Timothy 83 71 85.5% 43 51.8%
Titus 46 39 84.8% 25 54.3%
Philemon 25 25 100%
Hebrews 303 278 98.7% 238 78.5%
James 108 104 96.3% 101 93.5%
1Peter 105 88 83.8% 44 42.0%
2Peter 61 59 96.7% 59 96.7%
1John 105 95 89.4% 54 49.6%
2John 13 13 100% 10 77.0%
3John 14 14 100% 14 100%
Jude 25 25 100% 17 68.0%
Revelation 405 388 95.8% 230 56.8%
Total 7956 7020 88.2%      


The numbers in the previous chart tell us that in the most optimistic attempt of the three tries, the total of the missed verses in the writings of the Church Fathers of the first three centuries is 4.336, which equals fifty-four percent of the New Testament verses. This result is clearly incomplete; we are still missing almost half of the New Testament verses.

Refuting the Claim as Pertains to Quality

Dalrymple’s story cannot be relied upon as evidence for the possibility of collecting the text of the New Testament, because it fails in an objective trial to offer a convincing argument for the preservation of the whole or the majority of the New Testament passages. It therefore is not worthy of being considered as a historical witness and as a practical proof as the Christian apologists are proposing it is.

Our objections to the credibility of the story and its significance for the possibility of obtaining the actual word of the New Testament through the patristic citations are numerous. Here are some of them:

First: The story was not transmitted to us by David Dalrymple, or even by someone who had heard him tell it directly. Our narrator learned of it from someone who had heard Dalrymple tell it, and he gave his second-hand account of it after fifty years had elapsed since he had been told it.

Second: Dalrymple, a judge, was not qualified to undertake this painstaking project, since he was neither an expert in textual criticism nor in patristics. Moreover, the textual criticism discipline was at a fairly primitive stage in his time.

Third: The story in question claims that this gigantic work was done in just few months, which is unbelievable, even if we suppose that it had been done by a group of scholars. Furthermore, the dates in Dalrymple’s manuscripts reveal that the project lasted for four or five years. This shows that the accuracy of the details of the story as related by John Campbell should not be taken as a given. [41]

Fourth: Scholars agree today that the printed texts of the Church Fathers’ writings prior to the twentieth century were disappointingly edited, were based on defective manuscripts, and followed feeble methodologies.[42]

Fifth: With the absence of any distinction having been made between the “Citation,” the “adaptation,” and the “allusion,” it is clear that Dalrymple’s goal was just collecting texts from the Church Fathers’ writings that showed any kind of similarity with the text of the New Testament. His methodology will not lead us directly to the original or earlier text, because we cannot see, using this method, the wordings of the quoted passages.

Sixth: Dalrymple did not dare publish his research. Those who checked his manuscripts declared that his research was immature and needed more elaboration, and that Dalrymple’s decision not to publish it might have been a sign that it was made only for Dalrymple’s personal use. [43]

The result: The work carried out by David Dalrymple is amateurish, and can in no way be accepted today as academic research, because it lacks the basic requisite of scholarly methods of research and criticism.

Dean Burgon and His Calculation

In his essays to refute Hort’s theory, Dean Burgon collected the Church Fathers’ citations and differentiated between what agreed with the “traditional” text (Textus Receptus) and what fit the “Neologian” text (Alexandrian). We will list here the names of the Church Fathers who wrote their books before the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) and were alluded to in the UBS’s apparatus.

Burgon’s List of Pre-Nicene Fathers[44]

Church Father Traditional Neologian
Patres Apostolici and Didache 11 4
Epistle to Diognetus 1 0
Papias 1 0
Hegesippus 2 0
Justin 18 4
Athenagoras 17 20
Irenaeus 63 41
Hippolytus 26 11
Gregory Thaumaturgus 11 3
Methodius 14 8
Alexander Alexandrinus 4 0
Athanasius 179 119
Victorinus of Pettau 4 3
Eustathius 7 2
Theophilus Antiochenus 2 4
Tertullian 74 65
Novatian 6 4
Cyprian 100 96
Heracleon 1 7
Clement of Alexandria 82 72
Dionysius of Alexandria 12 5
Peter of Alexandria 7 8
Arius 2 1
Julius Africanus (Emmaus) 1 1
Origen 460 491


The quotations made by the Church Fathers were few, except for Origen (third century). Bearing in mind that they often quoted the same passages, the sum of the verses of the New Testament should be reduced even further. Furthermore, there is considerable disagreement in the quotations of the Pre-Nicene Fathers i.e. they cannot be said to be identical.

The Citations of All the Fathers of the Church

Conservative Christians claim that we should reconstruct the New Testament from the citations of all the Fathers of the Church without any chronological limit. I do not think that it is a fair compromise, for many reasons:

First: What is the critical value of quotations that extended over eleven centuries, in different languages, bearing conflicting readings, in reconstructing the text of the original Word of God?

Second: The claim made by Bruce Metzger that it is possible to recreate “a text” of the New Testament through the patristic citations has not been proved. There are other scholars who deny such a hypothesis, such as A. T. Robertson, who stated that “some passages are not referred to at all by any writers,”[45] and Scrivener, who gave a bitter testimony when he said, “Many important passages of the New Testament have not been cited at all in any very ancient work now extant.” [46]

Third: How can we argue that one text was used by the Church Fathers when we know that each Father had his own text, and sometimes texts, which were not identical to any other text used by any other Father?!

Fourth: We are sure that the Alexandrian and Western text-types were widespread in the second century, and this confirms the fact that the Church Fathers had “mixed texts” that cannot be unified in one simple text.

Fifth: Most of the Church Fathers who wrote in Greek after the fifth century used the defective Byzantine text-type.


The Church Fathers’ citations cannot guide us to the original text; they are only a collation of conflicting variant readings. We are witnessing, one more time, an utter failure of the Christian apologists’ claim.

Metzger versus Metzger

All scholars agree that there are apparent discrepancies between the manuscripts. Bart Ehrman portrays this huge mass of variants in a few words: “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”[47] Gordon D. Fee uses numbers to depict the same fact: “No two of the 5340-plus Greek MSS of the NT are exactly alike. In fact the closest relationships between any two MSS in existence—even among the majority—average from six to ten variants per chapter. It is obvious therefore that no MS has escaped corruption.”[48] These variants have led scholars to treat each group of texts in the manuscripts as separate text-types. The most widespread and accepted classification is the division of the readings into four distinctive text-types:

1. The Alexandrian text-type. It is also referred to as Neutral (Westcott-Hort), Egyptian, and B. The majority of scholars hold the position that this text-type is the closest to the original. Alexandrian readings tend to be short and somewhat rough and less harmonized than those of the other text-types.

2. The Western text-type. It is also called African and D. It was widely current in Italy and Gaul as well as in North Africa. The chief characteristics of Western readings are long paraphrases and wide additions.

3. The Caesarean text-type. It is also called Palestinian, Alexandrian (Westcott-Hort), and C. It is principally marked by idiosyncratic fusion of Western and Alexandrian readings.

4. The Byzantine text-type, also known as Syrian text, Koine text, Ecclesiastical text, and Antiochian text. It exists in the majority of the manuscripts. It is a text-type characterized by the smoothing out of the harshness of language; it minimizes the apparent contradictions in synoptic Gospels and resolves the difficulties in the passages showing errors or hard sayings.[49]

We are not going to discuss how accurate this classification is; we will take this for granted because it is accepted by the majority of textual critic scholars and most Christian apologists. We will start from this classification to see how compatible the patristic citations are with the best Greek manuscripts.

Metzger, who wrote that it is possible to gather all the verses of the New Testament from the Church Fathers’ writings, stated in his very famous book, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, under the title “Lists of witnesses according to type of text,” that among all the Fathers’ citations, only Clement’s and part of Origen’s citations are witnesses of the Alexandrian text-type. [50] He cites as witnesses for the Western text-type:

  • The Gospels: early Latin Fathers
  • Acts: early Latin Fathers, and Ephraem
  • Epistles: Greek Fathers to the end of the third century, and early Latin Fathers [51]

So, Metzger could not find any Church Father’s citations, as a whole, that could be considered to be a witness for the best text-type, except Clement’s citations. There is no consensus among scholars about the nature of Clement’s citations.[52] A large number of scholars insist that his citations represent a Western type. Some such are Vincent Taylor[53], Francis Burkitt in his introduction to Barnard’s book The Biblical Text of Clement of Alexandria in the Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles[54], and A. T. Robertson, who adds that Clement’s citations from the New Testament “are not very carefully made.”[55] M. Mees noticed the traces of Western text-type in Clement’s quotations from the Gospels, and placed his text between “neutral” Alexandrian text and the Western text.[56] Frederic Kenyon observes that Clement’s quotations “are plentiful, and it is a noteworthy fact, in view of his place of residence, that in the Gospels they are generally not of theא B family, but broadly agree with the Western type found in D, the Old Syriac, and Old Latin.”[57] As a result, we can state that there is no Church Father who can offer us an indisputably pure Alexandrian text.

Even if we accept that all Clement’s citations, from the Gospels for example, represent a pure Alexandrian text, we will not find in them even ten percent of literal quotations. The percentage is paltry, as was shown by Cosaert’s book The Text of the Gospels in Clement of Alexandria, where we found that the quotations were small in size and unhelpful in reconstructing the exact Gospels text used by Clement.

Carl P. Cosaert revealed a stark truth that ended the apologists’ dream when he concluded that Clement’s citations bring to light the historical fact that Alexandria at the end of the second century did not know a dominant text-type of the Synoptics, and that “in no case was one textual tradition so overwhelmingly influential that it would justify classifying Clement’s text as either Alexandrian or Western.”[58]

Finally, if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, the original text of the New Testament cannot be recovered through the extant patristic citations, because, as acknowledged by Metzger himself, “a majority of modern textual scholars consider patristic evidence, so long as it stands alone, to count for almost nothing in ascertaining the original text”.[59]

The Perplexed Church Fathers

We can state decisively that the main feature of the early history of the text of the New Testament was the uncritical transmission of its variant readings. The text was growing and changing easily due to the absence of any solid barriers to protect it and because of the lack of a firmly established official canonical version. The Fathers of the Church were concerned about the apparent quality of the message of the text, not its exact Greek words.

There were no sacred texts fixed and sealed in the early centuries. On the contrary; the Fathers were aware that the texts of the sacred books they possessed were not final, and that doubts and speculations surrounded many passages about the original readings, upon which they could not give the final word, because different variant readings with close credibility co-existed in the manuscripts of their times. In the face of the complexity of some cases, the Fathers were very tolerant in dealing with the variant readings; there was no place for hardness or stubbornness when the extant manuscripts let them down.

Darrell D. Hannah reveals an unpleasant habit of the great Origen when he confronted conflicting variant readings. He noticed that when this Church Father observed that there were different readings for one passage, he, on many occasions, would view these variants as if they were all originals, without opting for one original and dismissing the fabricated one.[60] Other Church Fathers had similar reactions when they faced similar situations. For example, Saint Augustine was content to allow either reading to stand, even if the two variants appeared to be contradictory on the surface, as long as a reading was not untrue or did not alter the orthodox understanding of the context.[61] And Saint Jerome “frequently allowed two readings to stand, sometimes merely mentioning them, other times offering an interpretation for both.”[62]

The Confused Church Fathers

The airy nature of the Fathers’ citations can be noticed from another angle too; it can be seen in the weird phenomenon of the contradictory witnessing of the same Father. Metzger noticed a very bothersome characteristic in the Church Fathers’ citations, which is that “if the father quotes the same passage more than once, it often happens that he does so in divergent forms.[63] So their citations are proofs for divergences too, which is a clear sign of the futility of the search for the original text using these incompatible witnesses.

This exasperating fact is clearest in Origen’s writings, where many different variant readings co-exist. The Alands noticed this perturbing habit and expressed their irritation openly by saying, “it still remains unexplained why most of the known alternative readings are also usually found attested in Origen’s writings.” [64] In numbers, Origen was mentioned forty-eight times in the first one hundred variants in the UBS4 apparatus, and he was a witness for more than one variant reading for the same clause more than thirty times.

This phenomenon was noticed in Eusebius’s writings too, and that is why Zuntz openly declared about Origen’s and Eusebius’ citations, “The insuperable difficulties opposing the establishment of the New Testament text of Origen and Eusebius are well known to all who have attempted it […] Leaving aside the common difficulties imposed by the uncertainties of the transmission, the incompleteness of the material, and the frequent freedom of quotation, there is the incontestable fact that these two Fathers are frequently at variance; that each of them quotes the same passage differently in different writings; and that sometimes they do so even within the compass of one and the same work [. . .] Wherever one and the same passage is extant in more than one quotation by Origen or Eusebius, variation between them is the rule rather than the exception.”[65]

The Early Corruption Reported by the Church Fathers

The most positive characteristic of the Church Fathers’ citations is that some of them predate the earliest manuscripts. Such a feature is supposed to help filling in the gaps caused by the rarity of the manuscripts of the second century, and gives us a better insight into the map of readings of the third century.

Another fact needs to be taken into account, which is that the early Church Fathers reported that the manuscripts of the New Testament were corrupted in their time or earlier. So the Fathers are witnesses that waves of corruption took place, particularly in the second century, which is the century almost unknown to us through the extant manuscripts.

Metzger announced that “Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Eusebius, and many other Church Fathers accused the heretics of corrupting the Scriptures in order to have support for their special views. In the mid-second century, Marcion expunged his copies of the Gospel according to Luke of all references to the Jewish background of Jesus. Tatian’s harmony of the Gospels contains several textual alterations that lent support to ascetic or encratitic views.” [66]

Gaius, one of the very early orthodox authors (second century), pointed out four well-known families of “corrupted” manuscripts of the holy books. He mentioned that four heretics, Theodotus, Asclepiades, Hermophilus, and Apollonides, altered the New Testament, and that copies of their manuscripts were widespread in the second century.[67]

The Church Fathers enlightened us about an era where struggles ensued about the original text between different Christian sects who believed in the sanctity of the New Testament books. Each of them believed in an “original text” with different wordings within, sometimes, a few decades of the writing of the original.

The Oldest Manuscripts Discount the Worth of the Church Fathers’ Citations

The Christian apologists firmly emphasize that the patristic citations complement the Greek manuscripts in the attempt to restore the original text of the New Testament, but a close study of the matter shows clearly that these two types of witnesses are irreconcilable. When we try to use the Greek manuscripts in New Testament textual criticism, we should be aware of the misleading aspects of the “numbers,” and we need to be concerned mainly about the earliest dates.

We know today that the papyri are the earliest manuscripts, but surprisingly, we find, as Ehrman stated, “in the present century, nothing has contributed more to the depreciation of the patristic evidence than the discovery of the early papyri.” [68] The text as revealed by the papyri differs notably from what was quoted by the Church Fathers, and that makes it unfeasible to join together the earliest manuscripts with the patristic citations, because doing so is like adding, in a trial, the proofs of accusation to the proofs of innocence to make the case for one of the litigants. Using these two witnesses as a guide to the original text will result in choosing competing, even conflicting, readings for the same text.


  1. See for counter rebuttals to Strobel’s assertions, Robert M. Price, The Case Against The Case For Christ: A New Testament Scholar Refutes the Reverend Lee Strobel, Cranford, N.J.: American Atheist Press, 2010; Earl Doherty, Challenging the Verdict: a Cross-examination of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ,” Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2001
  2. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, p. 76. It was stated previously by Metzger in his book The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, p.126
  3. Some extended it to late centuries; we read in The Catholic Encyclopedia, (New York: Robert Appleton, 1909, 6/1): “It is frequently said that St. Bernard (d. 1153) was the last of the Fathers, and Migne’s “Patrologia Latina” extends to Innocent III, halting only on the verge of the thirteenth century, while his “Patrologia Graeca” goes as far as the Council of Florence (1438-9). These limits are evidently too wide.”
  4. “…the patristic period is generally held to be closed with St. Isidore of Seville in the West and St. John of Damascus in the East. Among the Eastern Orthodox, however, no such limitation is found.” (art. “Fathers of the Church,” F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third edition by E. A. Livingstone, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.600)
  5. This list is taken from James Price, King James Onlyism: A New Sect, Singapore: James D. Price Publisher, 2006, p.177. The Church Fathers whose eras are unknown are not included. Daniel B. Wallace extends the list one more century (Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, p.83).
  6. Paul D. Wegner lists Marcion as the first father, chronologically, in his list of “Prominent Church Fathers.” (Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results, p.237)
  7. Bart Ehrman, Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986, p.5
  8. See Gordon D. Fee, “The Use of Greek Patristic Citations in New Testament Textual Criticism: the State of the Question,” in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, eds. Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1993, p.344
  9. See Bart Ehrman, “The Use and Significance of Patristic Evidence for NT Textual Criticism,” in Barbara Aland and Joël Delobel, eds. New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis and Early Church History: A Discussion of Methods, p.118
  10. Charles Hammond, Outlines of Textual Criticism Applied to the New Testament, second edition, Oxford: The Clarendon press, 1872, p.61 [italics mine].
  11. See Gordon D. Fee, “The Text of John in the Jerusalem Bible: A Critique of the Use of Patristic Citations in New Testament Textual Criticism,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (June 1971), pp.163-73, Bruce Metzger, “Patristic Evidence and the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” in New Testament Studies, vol. 18, 1972-1973, pp.379–400, Bart Ehrman, Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels, pp.4-5
  12. See F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.90; Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, Its Origin, Development, and Significance, Oxford: Clarendon Press,1997, p.39; J. B. Peterson, “The Apostolic Fathers,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907, 1/637
  13. Vincent Taylor, The Text of the New Testament, A Short Introduction, London: Macmillan, 1961, p.40
  14. Frederic George Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p.209
  15. A. T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1925, p.134
  16. Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, Its Origin, Development, and Significance, p.40
  17. See Marvin R. Vincent, A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, New York: Macmillan Company, 1899, p.38
  18. William L. Petersen, “Textual Traditions Examined: What the Text of the Apostolic Fathers tells us about the Text of the New Testament in the Second Century,” in Andrew F. Gregory and Christopher M. Tuckett, eds. The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p.33
  19. Caspar René Gregory, Canon and Text of the New Testament, New York: Charles Scribner, 1907, p.425
  20. “The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers” is a centenary book celebrating the volume “The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers,” published by A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology at Clarendon Press in 1905. William L. Petersen declared in it that “the core of the committee’s remarks and commentary remain valid a century later,” explaining that by stating, “The reason for their timelessness is the fact that they are based on empirical observation, not ideological, theological cant.” (William L. Petersen, Textual Traditions Examined: What the Text of the Apostolic Fathers tells us about the Text of the New Testament in the Second Century, p.39)
  21. Following Gordon Fee’s terminology (1972), scholars distinguish between “citation,” “allusion,” and “adaptation.” Allusion: Reference to the content of a biblical passage in which verbal correspondence to the New Testament Greek text is so remote as to offer no value for the reconstruction of that text. Adaptation: Reference to a biblical passage, which exhibits verbal correspondence to the Greek New Testament, but which has been adapted to fit the Father’s discussion and/or syntax. Citation: Those places where a Father is consciously trying to cite, either from memory or by copying, the very words of the biblical text, although citations may be either “genuine” or “loose.”

    See Gordon D. Fee, “Text of John in Origen and Cyril of Alexandria: A Contribution to Methodology in the Recovery and Analysis of Patristic Citations,” in Biblica 52 (1971), p.362; see for a critique, Carroll D. Osburn, “Methodology in Identifying Patristic Citations in NT Textual Criticism,” in Novum Testamentum, Oct 2005, Vol. 47 Issue 4, pp. 313-43

  22. A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905, p.37
  23. See Ibid., p.46
  24. See Ibid., p.85
  25. Ibid., p.86
  26. See Ibid., p.87
  27. The Greek New Testament, fourth revision edition, p.34*
  28. Johannes Betz attributed this point of view to the majority of scholars. (See Johannes Betz, “The Eucharist in the Didache,” in Jonathan A. Draper, ed. The Didache in Modern Research, Leiden: Brill, 1996, p.244)
  29. See William. L. Petersen, “The Genesis of the Gospels,” p.53
  30. See Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003, p.xiii
  31. See Charles Evan Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006, p.136
  32. See Paul Hartog, Polycarp and the New Testament: the Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and its Allusions to New Testament Literature, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002, p.70
  33. Ibid., p.71
  34. Joseph Tixeront, A Handbook of Patrology, St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1920, p.21
  35. Thomas W. Crafer, ed. The Second Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, London: Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1921, p.v
  36. See Bart Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers: I Clement, II Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, p.158
  37. See Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development, Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1990
  38. See R. Philip, The Life, Times, And Missionary Enterprises of The Rev. John Campbell, 1841, John Snow, Paternoster Row: London, pp.214–16
  39. ‘Abdullah David and M. S. M. Saifullah.
  40. See (10/24/2010)
  41. See (10/24/2010)
  42. James A. Brooks, in his work on Gregory of Nyssa’s citations, which is the best study available today, sharply criticizes H. F. von Soden’s study on the citations of four fathers, one of whom was Gregory of Nyssa. One of the main criticisms was the use of “pre-critical editions.” (James A. Brooks, The New Testament Text of Gregory of Nyssa, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991, p.5). This was said about (1) one of the eminent scholars of the discipline (2) who lived in the twentieth century! So, what view should we have about (1) the amateur Dalrymple (2) who lived in the eighteenth century?! Bart Ehrman said about Migne’s editions of the Greek Church Fathers’ writings that they were “of practically no value for establishing the original wording of the New Testament.” (Bart Ehrman, Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels, p.6), even though Migne lived a century after Dalrymple.
  43. See David Dalrymple, An Inquiry into the Secondary Causes Which Mr. Gibbon has Assigned for the Rapid Growth of Christianity, second edition, Edinburgh: J. Ritchie, 1808, p.xliv
  44. John William Burgon, The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels Vindicated and Established, ed. Edward Miller, London: George Bell,1896, pp.118-21
  45. A. T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p.132
  46. Frederick Scrivener, A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament for the Use of Biblical Studies, third edition, Cambridge: Deighton, 1883, p.416 [italics mine].
  47. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p.90
  48. Gordon D. Fee, “Modern Textual Criticism and the Revival of the Textus Receptus,” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21:1, March 1978, p.23
  49. See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp.5*-7*; Gordon Fee, “Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, eds. Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, pp.7-8
  50. See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p.15*
  51. See ibid., p.15*
  52. See Robert Wilson, “Coptic and the Neutestamentler,” in Rodolphe Kasser, Søren Giversen, and Martin Krause, eds., Coptology, Past, Present, and Future: Studies in Honour of Rodolphe Kasser, Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1994, p.94; “Text of the Gospels,” in James Hastings and others, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1908, 2/719
  53. See Vincent Taylor, The Text of the New Testament, A Short Introduction, pp.40-1
  54. See Bernard, The Biblical Text of Clement of Alexandria: in the Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1899. Reprinted, Nendeln: Kraus, 1967
  55. See A. T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p.137
  56. See M. Mees, Die Zitate aus dem Neuen Testament bei Clemens von Alexandrien, pp. 52-4, 84-6
  57. Frederic Kenyon, The Text of the Greek Bible, revised and augmented by A. W. Adams, London: 1975, p.169
  58. Carl P. Cosaert, The Text of the Gospels in Clement of Alexandria, p.310
  59. Bruce Metzger, “Patristic Evidence and the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” in NTS 18 (1972), p.385 [italics mine].
  60. See Darrell D. Hannah, The Text of I Corinthians in the Writings of Origen, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997, p.5; Bruce M. Metzger, “Explicit References in the Works of Origen to Variant Readings in New Testament Manuscripts,” in J. N. Birdsall and R. W. Thomson, eds. Biblical and Patristic Studies: In Memory of Robert Pierce, New York: Herder, 1963, p.93
  61. See Amy Donaldson, Explicit References to New Testament Variant Readings Among Greek and Latin Church Fathers, 1/179
  62. Ibid., 1/165
  63. See Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, p.128 [italics mine].
  64. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, p.172 [italics mine].
  65. Günther Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles, London: Oxford University Press, 1953, p. 152 [italics mine].
  66. Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, pp. 265-66
  67. See “Fragments of Caius,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, New York: Charles Scribner, 1903, 5/602
  68. Bart Ehrman, “The Use and Significance of Patristic Evidence for NT Textual Criticism,” p.118 [italics mine].

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