Can We Construct The Entire New Testament From the Writings of the Church Fathers?

Another great post by James Warner Wallace

I’ve often heard it said that the New Testament is well referenced and attested by the Early Church Fathers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Century. As an example of this, some researchers have cited Sir David Dalrymple (1726 – 1792AD) a Scottish judge and historian who wrote three volumes on early Christian Church history called, “Remains of Christian Antiquity”. Dalrymple was an expert in the writings of the early Church. It’s alleged that after careful examination of the writings of the Fathers he wrote, “…as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.” That’s quite a claim if you stop and think about it. As I was preparing an article for on the transmission of the New Testament, I decided to investigate this statement to find its source. I simply wanted to cite Dalrymple properly. After purchasing Dalrymple’s books and manuscripts on this topic, I came to the conclusion that he has either been improperly referenced or inaccurately cited. I simply cannot confirm the quotation from Dalrymple that is offered repeatedly by Christian Case Makers.

But that doesn’t mean the general claim is false. In fact, when writing Cold Case Christianity, I researched the writings of the generations of Christian students who followed the original New Testament authors. These Early Church Fathers sat at the feet of the apostles and learned from the apostolic eyewitness accounts. These secondary leaders then wrote letters and documents of their own, repeating the claims of their teachers. I focused on the work of Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement and isolated the content of their non-canonical writings to the early Church. What did they say about Jesus? Did they ever reference the writings of the New Testament? It turns out that the Early Church Fathers did, in fact, quote the scripture as it was handed down to them. But even if we can’t reconstruct the entire New Testament (save 11 verses) as Dalrymple is often quoted to have said, the Early Church Fathers did confirm enough of the New Testament claims to validate and authenticate the writings of the apostles. From the non-canonical works of Ignatius and Polycarp (students of John) and the non-canonical work of Clement (a student of Paul) we can determine the following:

Jesus was Predicted by the Old Testament as Described in the New Testament

Jesus is Divine as Described in the New Testament

Jesus Taught His Disciples as Described in the New Testament

Jesus Worked Miracles as Described in the New Testament

Jesus was Born of a Virgin as Described in the New Testament

Jesus Lived, Ministered, Was Crucified and Died as Described in the New Testament

Jesus Rose from the Dead and Demonstrated His Deity as Described in the New Testament

Even if we can’t reconstruct the entire New Testament (save 11 verses) as claimed in the citation of Dalrymple’s work, we really don’t need to. The early disciples of the apostles confirm the content of the apostolic teaching. If skeptics are looking for an early version of Jesus that is less divine, less miraculous and less supernatural, they aren’t going to find it in the writings of the first generation that followed the apostles. Instead, they’re going to find the very same Jesus that you and I know from the writings of the New Testament. Jesus didn’t evolve over the centuries to become the “legend” he is today. Jesus (the very same Jesus you and I know and love) has been emphatically described from the very earliest period of Christian history. We don’t need to reconstruct the entire New Testament to have great confidence that the writings of the New Testament have been delivered to us accurately. The Early Church Fathers confirm this for us, even if they don’t repeat every line of the canonical narrative.

J. Warner Wallace is the author of Cold Case Christianity


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