This is an excerpt from Islamic Awareness
PATRISTIC CITATIONS CAN RECONSTRUCT THE ENTIRE NEW TESTAMENT
The claims that the numerical strength of the New Testament manuscripts give it textual reliability and that the Patristic citations can reconstruct the New Testament makes good sound-bites for Christian apologists. As for the latter claim, this is something that is oversold by Christian apologists. It is true that New Testament scholars and apologists have made this claim but a few of them have added caveat about the problems concerning constructing the text of Patristic citations. For example, Metzger says about the Patristic citations:
Indeed so extensive are these citations that if all the sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.
If this is indeed true then what is stopping the textual critics to go ahead and reconstruct the text of the New Testament on the basis of Patristic citations? This brings us to the caveat where Metzger and others have cautioned against over-enthusiasm. The caveat comes in the form of three problems one encounters when dealing with the Patristic citations.
The first problem in dealing with the Patristic citations is the order of the quotation of scriptures. The Fathers do not quote the New Testament chapter by chapter and verse by verse except in a few commentaries. They quote passages as they are useful in whatever argument they are making. So, the first step is to sort out their citations into an orderly fashion. This requires the production of critical texts of the citations which are now slowly in the process of getting published.
The second problem is regarding the accuracy of the citation. Most fathers did not refer to manuscripts when they quoted scripture. They just used the wording they remembered. It goes without saying that reminiscences and allusions are of less value to the textual critic than specific citations of the very words of the scriptural passage.
The third and the last problem is that of transmission. Just like we do not have the original autographs of the New Testaments, we no more have the original manuscript of Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian or Jerome. Ehrman says:
The other set of problems unique to Patristic sources concerns the history of their own transmission. The MS traditions of virtually all the church fathers show that later copyists tend to "correct" quotations of the Bible to the form of text prevalent in their own day... Biblical citations in such sources do not necessarily represent the text of the Father, but often only known to his later copyists.
Similarly, the Alands observe that:
It is as true of the New Testament quotations in the Church Fathers as it is of the versions that they are often misjudged and consequently misused. The route from a modern edition of a Church Father's works back to the text which he read in his New Testament may be long and tortuous... But even when a modern critical edition is available there is no certainty that it preserves the New Testament quotations of a work as they occurred in its original form.
Since these writings have their own history, before we can treat these citations as reliable and trustworthy, they must be subjected to textual criticism. As R. M. Grant a few decades ago said, "patristic citations are not citations unless they have been adequately analyzed." Such an analysis should attempt at least two things; firstly, to gather all the data from the literary remains of each Father and, as much as possible, reconstruct his biblical text and secondly to evaluate the Father's citing habits in various kinds of works for accuracy of quotation. And this should be done before the evidence of the Father is brought to court.
Given these problems, the Patristic citations are nevertheless quite useful, unlike manuscripts, in determining both where and when a particular author wrote. Many of the Fathers are early. Their texts predate many of the early manuscript witnesses. Thus their testimony can enable us to localize particular readings and text-types.
As one can now judge, the popular statement that the New Testament can be reconstructed solely from the citations of the early Church Fathers is rather far-fetched. Given these problems, what role do the Church Fathers' citations actually play in modern critical editions of the New Testament? They play no more than a 'supplementary and corroborative function' according to the Alands and others. The Alands say
5. The primary authority for a critical textual decision lies with the Greek manuscript tradition, with the versions and Fathers serving no more than a supplementary and corroborative function, particularly in passages where their underlying Greek text cannot be reconstructed with absolute certainty.
In other words, the Patristic citations can't overrule the readings present in the manuscripts except where there is an uncertainty. Readings with exclusively Patristic support struggle to make it into the critical apparatus of a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, let alone ever being considered as an actual verse of the New Testament! So, the claim that the Patristic citations can completely reconstruct the New Testament, without reference or recall to any other form of evidence, is overstated and far-fetched and constitutes more wishful thinking on the part of the missionaries and apologists.
For instance, let us examine the selection procedure behind the recently released Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior (1997 – initial volume), a critical edition of the New Testament under the supervision of the Barbara Aland at the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung at Münster, Germany. What makes this critical edition of the New Testament particularly distinctive are the comparatively vast number of witnesses cited. With regard to the Patristic quotations, Barbara Aland states:
In addition to these primary witnesses, the edition includes all the Greek patristic quotations to the time of John of Damascus (7th/8th century) plus some important later authors. The difficult task of distinguishing between quotations and allusions is somewhat alleviated by the fact that the edition contains all the textual variants found in the manuscript tradition of the first millennium. The text of the Letter of James preserved in the writings of the Fathers corresponds in most instances to variants known in the manuscript tradition; in other New Testament writings the situation may differ. Readings with exclusively patristic support are cited only rarely, and usually then only if they are attributed to manuscripts which no longer survive. (Allusions have been considered only if they clearly reflect a known reading).
Attempts have been made in the past to reconstruct parts of New Testament text using the Patristic citations. For example, D. Mollat used the views and the resultant reconstruction of the Gospel of John by of M. -E. Boismard for his translation in the Jerusalem Bible. Boismard's views lead to the acceptance of the shorter version of the text of John in almost every case, even when the Patristic sources stand alone in the attestation of this text. Subsequently, articles by Fee and Metzger have been directed against Mollat's overly zealous appropriation of the Patristic evidence for his translation.
We conclude with Ehrman's terse statement that elegantly sums up both the strengths and weaknesses of patristic evidence.
Patristic sources provide primary evidence for the history of the text but only secondary evidence for the original text itself.