VI. Patristic Testimony to Careful Copying Practices
Patristic declarations demonstrate that they inherited the apostolic concern for accurate copying. Polycarp declared that “whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord . . . is the first-born of Satan.”[i] Concern for accurate copying and transmission of Scripture continued from his day on through the later periods of church history, so that, for example, the Council in Trullo (A. D. 692) decreed it “unlawful for anyone to corrupt or cut up a book of the Old or New Testament . . . or to hand it over for destruction to any other like persons: unless to be sure it has been rendered useless either by bookworms, or by water, or in some other way. He who henceforth shall be observed to do such a thing shall be cut off for one year. Likewise also he who buys such books (unless he keeps them for his own use, or gives them to another for his benefit to be preserved) and has attempted to corrupt them, let him be cut off.”[ii] Tertullian argued:
Now, what is there in our Scriptures which is contrary to us? What of our own have we introduced, that we should have to take it away again, or else add to it, or alter it, in order to restore to its natural soundness anything which is contrary to it, and contained in the Scriptures? What we are ourselves, that also the Scriptures are (and have been) from the beginning. Of them we have our being, before there was any other way, before they were interpolated by you [heretics]. Now, inasmuch as all interpolation must be believed to be a later process, for the express reason that it proceeds from rivalry which is never in any case previous to nor home-born with that which it emulates, it is as incredible to every man of sense that we should seem to have introduced any corrupt text into the Scriptures, existing, as we have been, from the very first, and being the first, as it is that they have not in fact introduced it who are both later in date and opposed (to the Scriptures).[iii]
Alteration of Scripture by the orthodox to suit their purposes is unthinkable and “incredible”; no redaction, recension, restorative lower criticism, or any other forms of alteration are necessary, since “the unmutilated text of our own copy”[iv] retained the “natural soundness” it had “from the beginning.” Any changes in the extant Scripture were the exclusive province of heresy. Tertullian demonstrates both the importance the orthodox placed upon accurate copying and their affirmation of success in this endeavor.
Comparisons with the originals, or with known accurate copies, was a common practice for patristic works, and certainly for the Bible as well. For example, three Gallic bishops sent their copy of Leo’s Tome back to him, requesting:
Therefore, if you deem it worth while, we entreat your holiness to run through and correct any mistake of the copyist in this work, so valuable both now and in the future, which we have had committed to parchment, in our desire to preserve it . . . so that not only many holy bishops our brethren throughout the provinces of Gaul, but also many of your sons among the laity, who greatly desire to see this letter for the revelation of the Truth, may be permitted, when it is sent back to us, corrected by your holy hand, to transcribe, read and keep it.[v]
The authoritative source was sought for, and when accurate readings from it were ascertained, further copies were made from the definitive replica.
Examples of careful copying of patristic writings indicate the nature of the replication that would have a fortiori been employed for the NT. The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, likely composed c. A. D. 155-160,[vi] was sent from “the Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium,”[vii] with the intent that after “ye have yourselves read this Epistle, be pleased to send it to the brethren at a greater distance, that they also may glorify the Lord, who makes such choice of His own servants.”[viii] It was intended for widespread copying and distribution. Near the end, it reads, “Evarestus . . . wrote this Epistle . . . these things Caius transcribed from the copy of Irenaeus (who was a disciple of Polycarp), having himself been intimate with Irenaeus. And I Socrates transcribed them at Corinth from the copy of Caius. . . . And I again, Pionius, wrote them from the previously written copy, having carefully searched into them.”[ix] The record of scribal names and the mention of “carefully search[ing]” into the matters at hand indicate concern with the accurate transcription of this record of martyrdom. The Word of God would have received no less.
Note: this entire study is available as an essay here.
[i] The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, AN:7:553. Irenaeus reports in his Against Heresies (Book 3, AN:3:5693) that “Polycarp himself replied to Marcion [the infamous corrupter of the NT text], who met him on one occasion, and said, ‘Dost thou know me?’ [with] ‘I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.’” Polycarp would certainly have given this pungent title to those who corrupt the words of Scripture, not to those alone who teach falsely.
[ii] Canon LXVIII, NPN-2:LXVIII:85928.
[iii] The Prescription Against Heretics, AN:XXXVIII:20377.
[iv] Five Books Against Marcion, AN:V:XIII:24131.
[v] The Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome, Letter LXVIII (NPN-2:II:73025). This letter was written at some point during his papacy, A. D. 440-461 (A Dictionary of Christian Biography, pg. 644).
[vi] “Polycarpus,” pgs. 846-850, A Dictionary of Christian Biography.