Are Today’s Gospels Authentic, Same as the Originals?
Gospel manuscript evidence dates back to the lifetimes of the Disciples with a fragment of Matthew dating as early as 50 AD, just 10 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. The earliest nearly complete Gospel manuscripts are dated to about 300 years later. How can there be confidence today’s Gospels bare the same content as the originals?
Patristics is the science of comparing early Christian writings to Gospel manuscripts to help bridge the gap of the “dark period” – that 300 year gap from the originals to the first complete manuscripts. Expert Bible textual critics, Westcott and Hort, viewed patristics to be of “the highest degree exceptional” in their comparisons.
Writing about the teachings of Jesus in the form of letters, called “Epistles,” was a common means of written communication by the second and third generation disciples known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Four author sources – Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias – were taught personally by the Apostles, the original Disciples of Jesus.
Within these Epistles appear quoted phrases and verses. The premise of patristics is that these quotes had to come from older, pre-existing Gospel sources. As such, these Epistles serve as “witnesses” that “attest” or “testify” to the content of older, now non-existent Gospel manuscripts, in some cases quite possibly the originals.
One, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, was written in Rome to the church in Corinth, Greece, around 96 AD. The Epistle is named for Clement of Rome, the reputed author, who studied under the Apostle Paul and knew Luke, the presumed author of the Gospel bearing his name.
Another is The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians written in Smyrna, Turkey, to the church in Philippi, Greece. Named for its author, Polycarp, was a disciple of the Apostle John, one of the original Disciples of Jesus and the presumed author of the Gospel.
Polycarp received teaching from the Apostle John as well as other Apostles and met others who had witnessed Jesus. Date of authorship of his Epistle is unknown although it had to be written before Polycarp’s martyrdom in the arena of Smyrna about 155 AD when he professed to have served his King (Jesus) for 86 years.
An example of how patristics work can be seen using the three verses of Luke 6:36-38 that are quoted in both the Epistles of Clement, Corinthians, and Polycarp, Philippians. These two authors were separated by time and hundreds of miles. Their quotes as compared with two modern Bible translations:
The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians 
“forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you;
as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you;
with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you.”
Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 
“Judge not, that ye be not judged;
forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you;
be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy;
with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again…”
King James Version, Luke 6:36-38:
Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful, v36
Judge not and ye shall not be judged…v 37
…forgive and ye shall be forgiven.v37
For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.v38
New American Standard Bible: Luke 6:36-38:
Be merciful just as your Father is merciful…v36
Do not judge, and you will not be judged…v37
…pardon and you will be pardoned. v37
…For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.v38
Attestations from these Corinthians and Philippians Epistles are not word perfect matches, but neither are the more modern KJV and NASB versions due to translator variations. Both Epistles referenced Luke to support the message of their letters – the quotes were not intended to be a transcription of Luke’s Gospel, yet they match very closely. The point of patristics being that these quotes came from an older source or sources.
A treasure trove of patristic attestation is found in Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) written about 180 AD by Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp. The Epistle quotes from over 600 verses in all four Gospels and over 300 verses from other New Testament books. Again, the premise is that to quote them, Irenaeus had to reference existing sources.
Patristics has a secondary consequence – producing evidence that challenges a theory alleging the Gospels and Christianity evolved from legend over a long period of time.
Do the Gospel verses quoted in the Epistles written by early church leaders bear witness to preexisting Gospel manuscripts and thereby provide evidence that today’s Gospel content is consistent with the original manuscripts?
Updated September. 27, 2021.
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