How Patristic Citations are Treated in the ECM

From the beginning of critical work on the text of the Greek New Testament citations by early Christian writers have played a prominent role in research on textual history.

Nestle/Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece28, 78*.


Establishing the New Testament text of the Church Fathers has a strategic importance for textual history and criticism. It shows us how the text appeared at particular times and in particular places: this is information we can find nowhere else.

K. Aland/B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 168.


Patristic citations are witnesses to the text of the manuscripts that the Church Fathers used. Their witness is highly significant for textual criticism and for the reconstruction of the initial form of the New Testament text. An advantage of citations for textual criticism is that we can more or less ascertain the date and location of Church Fathers. If the text of a certain author is recoverable, conclusions can be drawn regarding the biblical text circulating in his day.


When examining citations of a Church Father, it is important to observe his specific approach to citation because some of the variants found in patristic literature trace back to the way the author treated his source text. Therefore, it is crucial to determine whether the Father has quoted the biblical text literally or imprecisely, if he just alludes to it or only paraphrases it.


Contrary to an exegete, not every patristic reference is reliable or usable for a textual critic. Most of the “citations” listed in the Biblia Patristica, for example, do not conform to the actual wording of the biblical text and thus have no text-critical value at all.


In our database of citations of Acts there are three main categories under “citations”:

•           Citation

•           Varying Citation/Adaptation

•           Allusions (paraphrases are to be treated like allusions)



According to D.A. Koch, a citation is a “the conscious adoption of external written (or rarely oral) wording, which is reproduced by an author in his own writing and is recognizable as such.”[1]


Varying Citations

For our purposes in the ECM, varying citations are generally treated like citations wherever their wording is adjusted to the context of the Church Father's text. Particularly small changes regarding the original biblical text can be identified. The following definition of an adaptation by Carroll D. Osburn fits our definition of a varying citation: “A quotation from a recognizable text, often without an introductory formula, in which much of the lexical and syntactical structure of the text is preserved and woven unobtrusively into the patristic context and/or syntax in less important portions of the text.”[2]



According to Osburn, allusions are defined as “A reference to the content of a certain biblical passage in which some verbal or motif correspondence is present, but reflecting intent to give only the gist of the text rather than to cite.”[3]


A citation fulfills its function when the reader can identify it as a citation. In order to ensure that the citation is obvious, the author can use a citation marker. That way he shows his intent to actually cite a text, for example, ὡς ἐν ταῖς Πράξεσι τῶν ἀποστόλων γέγραπται and ἐν δὲ ταῖς Πράξεσιν ὁ Λουκᾶς γράφει.


When a longer passage is being cited in accordance with the manuscript tradition, it is very likely a citation. On the contrary, a paraphrase consists of a free or loose reproduction of a foreign text.[4] A vague allusion can be seen where the author uses “a single traditional formulation, which, however, is fully integrated into its own presentation”.[5]


Generally, a citation can be distinguished from an allusion by its more precise reproduction of the original wording, which matches the wording of one or more Greek manuscripts.


Often, the Church Fathers use a citation to support a certain interpretive approach, showing they are not afraid to adjust a passage for their own grammatical or textual context. As opposed to a copyist, whose only goal is (or should be) the exact reproduction of a manuscript, patristic authors might have a certain theological agenda in mind and try to match a citation to their purposes. In order to achieve this, citations and connectives like δέ, γάρ, καί, etc. are often substituted, omitted or changed, especially at the beginning. Also relevant to the accuracy of the citations is the way a Father handles his source material: Does he cite carefully or rather freely from memory? We also find citations being loosely cited in the beginning and cited precisely soon afterwards or vice versa.


The transition between a varying citation and an allusion is often fluid. This means that one part of a patristic reference can be an allusion while the other one can be treated as a direct citation.


Has the author altered the New Testament passage for the sake of style or to fit his theological position? Some important factors are necessary to assess the text-critical relevance of the citation:


The length of the cited passage: The most simple rule for distinguishing between genuine citations and allusive references or from memory (memoriter) citations is the length of the passage in question.[6]


Introductory formulas or citation markers: The general context is very important to assess the accuracy of the citation.


Stylistic Tendencies: All adaptations, alterations, additions, omissions and transpositions of the text, which go back to a Father’s stylistic tendencies, are excluded from the attestation of the textual tradition. Only a patristic citation with a high probability of being derived from a manuscript can be considered for our purposes. Allusions or reminiscences can also be recorded so long as they can be traced back to a certain manuscript text. Sometimes, a Church Father can witness to different forms of text, noted in the Nestle-Aland as “partim” (e.g. Orpt). This can mean that the Father knew both texts from different manuscripts, as is often observed in Origen's works. This should not be seen as a flaw in the reliability of the patristic author. Rather, from the early testimony of a single Church Father to more than one text form, you can see that “important” variants emerged and circulated at the very beginning of the textual tradition.


Regarding Origen, it is also remarkable that he employed scribes, often dictating his thoughts to them and instructing them to add biblical references later on. His scribes then drew their biblical citation out of a manuscript that was not necessarily the same as the one Origen used. This can often be seen in Origen’s Commentary on John.


All in all, each Church Father has to be observed individually in order to evaluate his habits of citation; this also involves considering the respective genre of his work.[7] Evaluating citations from different kinds of works like commentaries, polemical treatises, homilies, letters, or theological tractates can lead to different results. In a commentary, for instance, you might expect the author to have used a manuscript and commented on it continuously. In a homily, though, we have to consider the homiletic implications that could have affected the use of biblical texts.


It is possible that not all variants of the Greek transmission that we have in known manuscripts are attested. Therefore, patristic citations may include some new variants.[8]


It is also possible that a Church Father may have randomly changed his text and thus created a new variant, which is also attested to in other manuscripts. In order to recognize such intentional changes to the text, it is important to observe the context of the citation, whether the author prefers certain terms or expressions and thus enters these in his own biblical text.


In essence, the criteria for patristic citation must be strictly employed. For New Testament textual criticism, the definition of a citation and of an allusion in the ECM is essential. In the ECM of the Catholic Letters, we have included citations based on the following principles:


“Variants are excluded from the apparatus if they may be ascribed to a Father’s stylistic tendencies and are unlikely to have been in his manuscript source.”[9]


 “A true quotation is one where the wording of the Father’s text is identical with a reading found in the manuscript tradition.”[10]


“Allusions are considered only if they clearly reflect a known reading.”[11]


I hope this short foray into how the ECM uses Patristic sources has helped to guide some readers who are new to this area in textual criticism.


[1] D.-A. Koch, Die Schrift als Zeuge des Evangeliums, 11 (English translation mine).

[2] C. D. Osburn, Methodology in Identifying Patristic Citations in NT Textual Criticism, In: Novum Testamentum XLVII,4 (2005), 318.

[3] C. D. Osburn, Methodology in Identifying Patristic Citations in NT Textual Criticism, In: Novum Testamentum XLVII,4 (2005), 318.

[4] Cf. D.-A. Koch, Die Schrift als Zeuge des Evangeliums, 15: A paraphrase is a “freie Wiedergabe eines fremden Textes”.

[5] D.-A. Koch, Die Schrift als Zeuge des Evangeliums, 17 (English translation mine).

[6] M. J. Suggs, The Use of Patristic Evidence in the Search for a Primitive New Testament Text, In: New Testament Studies 4 (1957/1958), 142.

[7] See M. J. Suggs, The Use of Patristic Evidence in the Search for a Primitive New Testament Text, In: New Testament Studies 4 (1957/1958), 143: “If the ancient writer’s habits were good, then it becomes important to record and evaluate all his testimony – including his unique readings.”

[8] See further N. Kiel, “Neue” Varianten in den Kirchenväterzitaten, In: Novum Testamentum Graecum – Editio Critica Maior. Die Apostelgeschichte/The Acts of the Apostles. 3 Teilbde. Hrsg. v. H. Strutwolf, G. Gäbel, A. Hüffmeier, G. Mink u. K. Wachtel. Teilbd. 3: Studien/Studies. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft 2017, 39-67.

[9] Novum Testamentum Graecum. Editio Critica Maior Bd. IV. Die Katholischen Briefe. Teil 1, 2. revidierte Auflage, 23*.

[10] Novum Testamentum Graecum. Editio Critica Maior Bd. IV. Die Katholischen Briefe. Teil 1, 2. revidierte Auflage, 23*.

[11] Novum Testamentum Graecum. Editio Critica Maior Bd. IV. Die Katholischen Briefe. Teil 1, 2. revidierte Auflage, 23*.


Add Comment
Once again, as with internal criteria, there seems to be a huge amount of subjectivity involved in determining whether an author was citing a manuscript or not. I do appreciate the description of the process used by the ECM and I am glad it takes a conservative approach. Having said that, I, for one, would limit the citations to only those were the author identifies the text he is quoting. An author can be familiar with and quote the wording of a late variant without it being from an actual manuscript.
Posted on 06/06/19 22:54.