Have you ever heard it said—or said it yourself—that if all the Bibles and Biblical manuscripts in the world were destroyed tomorrow, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT from the writings of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers alone?  Recently, while listening to an interview featuring NT textual critic, Daniel Wallace, I learned that this claim is demonstrably false.[1]  Unfortunately this has been repeated in one form or another by many individuals, including prominent NT textual critics.

Apparently this misinformation began to circulate widely in 1841 with the publication of Robert Philip’s memoir of John Campbell titled The Life, Times, and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John CampbellThe Life contains a written anecdote of Campbell, who was rehearsing a story told to him by Reverend Dr. Walter Buchanan pertaining to the research David Dalrymple conducted into the church fathers’ citations of the NT.  According to Campbell, Buchanan and Dalrymple were both in attendance at a literary party when someone raised the question: “Supposing all the New Testaments in the world had been destroyed at the end of the third century, could their contents have been recovered from the writings of the three first centuries?”  No one had an answer.  According to Campbell, two months later Dalrymple contacted Buchanan and reported to him that he had taken up the question raised at the party, researched the writings of the church fathers, and had an answer to the question.  According to Campbell, Buchanan told him that Dalrymple told Buchanan he discovered that all but 7 or 11 verses (Dalrymple could not recall the exact number) of the NT were quoted in the early church fathers.

Fortunately for us we have Dalrymple’s notes.  Unfortunately they do not corroborate Buchanan’s story.  Based on several dates provided in Dalrymple’s notes, we know he was working on this project for no less than four years (1780-84)—not two months.  And more importantly, Dalrymple did not discover that all but 7 or 11 verses of the NT are quoted in the Ante-Nicene fathers.  Instead, he found that only 46% of the verses in the NT could be reconstructed from the writings of the church fathers (3620), meaning 54% (4336) of NT verses are missing (Wallace said that Dalrymple found all but 11 verses of the Gospel of John in the Ante-Nicene fathers, but Dalrymple’s notes do not bear this out).

Campbell related this story some 50 years after Buchanan shared it with him, which was itself “some time after” the event in question.[2]  So either Buchanan misunderstood Dalrymple, or Campbell misunderstood Buchanan’s telling of the story, or Campbell “misremembered” what Buchanan had reported to him five decades earlier.  Whoever deserves the blame for creating the myth may never be known, but now that we know it is a myth, let us not be blamed for perpetuating it.  While a significant portion of the NT text was quoted by the early church fathers—and that is significant—we should present the facts as they are, and not as we once thought them to be.

[1]This was brought to light by Muslim apologists, going back as far as May 2007 as far as I can tell.  See http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Bible/Text/citations.html, which serves as the basis for the majority of the information that follows.
Campbell seems to have recorded his anecdotes in the six months prior to his death in 1840.  He said Buchanan told him the story about 50 years earlier (~1792), and at that time “some time” had already passed since the actual event.  The latest date contained in Dalrymple’s notes comes from 1784, so there may have been as many as eight years between the event in question and Buchanan’s retelling of it to Campbell.