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. 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 Campbell. The 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.