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Bit of a mouthy title, but I remember reading a few years ago that the entire New Testament (perhaps with the exception of very few verses) and most of the Old Testament could be reconstructed from the writings of the early church fathers just because they had written so much about the Bible and referenced so many verses. To put it another way, if you took all of the writings of the early church fathers, pulled out every verse and reference, then put them together, you would have almost 100% of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.

Is this a new claim, or does it have its origins in a more distant past (say, older than a century)? Is the claim accurate? What is the evidence for this claim?

(If the claim is technically false because the early church fathers didn't quote all that much, but technically true if a significantly longer time span is taken into account, then please say so.)

  • 1
    FYI: This question, which is about the writings of the early church fathers, wouldn't fly on Biblical Hermeneutics. However, a similar question asking about textual criticism in general (i.e., how quoted texts inform us of textual variations) would be ontopic there. – Jon Ericson Apr 25 '13 at 19:53
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The claim is false...

Strictly speaking, the claim is easily proven false by searching a scripture index of the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. While this particular index seems imperfect, it does show that many verses (particularly from the shorter letters) are not quoted or even referenced.

We can also take advantage of the Philip Schaff translations of the Fathers, which are available online and use the KJV for scripture quotations. John 3:16 turns up in a full-text search as does 1 John 3:16. However, we wouldn't have any record of 3 John 3. (Sadly the letter ends at verse 14 so I can't be consistent in my survey.)

There is a complete index of Biblical texts of the 10-volume Ante-Nicene Fathers, which shows a single verse from John's third epistle (3 John 11), which is found in volume IV, page 63. Here, Tertullian writes that when it comes to marriage, we should not follow the examples of David and Solomon (who married many women), but to "follow the better things" (Joseph, Moses, and Aaron who married just once). But the quote fits just as well with 1 Peter 3:11 or Psalm 37:27 as it does with 3 John 11.

... but much of the Bible was quoted.

On the other hand, we find the early church did quote the New Testament extensively. Augustine, for instance, gave extensive lectures on the Gospel of John and the First Epistle of John, which were written down. They serve as a very comprehensive commentary on the two books from which we can extract nearly the entire text (in Latin). Even better, he preached the text in order, so we can follow along. His other expository sermons on the gospels probably cover most of the text of those books.

Additionally, allusions to the New Testament permeates the earliest Christian writing (both Orthodox and Gnostic). The index of New Testament references in Clement of Rome, Mathetes, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus shows they (as a group) were familiar with nearly every canonical work. Not all of these are direct quotes, but demonstrate close familiarity with the texts.

Summary

One of the central principles of the Historical Method is the more independent sources that are available, the more confidence we have in the truth of a historical claim. When it comes to the text of the New Testament, there is already a remarkable number of manuscript copies. With the exception of variations, we know what the text said. While we have no need of the early fathers to be confident in the content of the New Testament, their quotations of it give us information about its canonicity.

3

Can the entire New Testament be reconstructed?

Short answer: No, not all of it, but a large percentage can be.

I have compiled the Pre-Nicene quotes of verses and fractions of verses (but not allusions), and I get a result that they quoted from almost 63% of the New Testament. If you are interested, my data is here:

https://www.biblequery.org/Bible/BibleCanon/EarlyChristianNTQuotes.xls

Some of the totals from that document:

Total New Testament 62.8%   4997.8  2954.2  7952               < 6088

Subtotals         Verses    Verses  Total   Number
% Quoted          quoted    not qu. verses  of quotes
––––––––––––––––––– ––––––––    ––––––––-   ––––––––––––-   ––––––– –––––––––––––-
Subtotal Gospels    86.2%   3255.76 523.24  3779    < 3094
Subtotal Paul       53.7%   1090.89 942.11  2033    <= 2333
Subtotal G. + Paul  74.8%   4346.65 1465.35 5812    <= 5427
Subtotal Rest of NT 30.4%   651.15  1488.85 2140    <= 673

So most of the Gospel texts can be reconstructed, and half of Paul's writings.

  • Welcome to CH.SE. Thanks for this helpful information. Do you have a rough idea what an allusions-only table would look like? It would be nice to quote some subtotals from the document. Are you willing to share your methods and raw data so this can be verified and duplicated? I will check the rest of the site. I'm stunned already. – disciple Dec 10 '18 at 2:15
  • Let me recommend biblequery.org/Bible/BibleCanon/… as an additional reference. I do hope you can edit this into a good stand-alone answer. Methinks you have just been slashdotted. – disciple Dec 10 '18 at 2:38
  • I have some concerns about your answer. Your information is good, but link-only answers are not appreciated here, and it looks a bit too much like your intent was primarily to promote your site. If you would edit in some of the information, like "Subtotal Gospels 86.2% 3255.76 523.24 3779 < 3094 Subtotal Paul 53.7% 1090.89 942.11 2033 <= 2333 Subtotal Gospels + Paul 74.8% 4346.65 1465.35 5812 <= 5427 Subtotal Rest of NT 30.4% 651.15 1488.85 2140 <= 673 " then it would be more useful and appropriate. – disciple Dec 12 '18 at 16:43
  • My edit to your answer goes beyond site standards for changes without your explicit permission; I'm hoping you will explicitly accept it or modify it to suit your taste. You have provided useful information and I hope we can keep it on the site. – disciple Dec 13 '18 at 20:25

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