Original Autographs Are Unnecesarry

It used to be my belief that (and I know many persons who still hold to this view), as far as inerrancy goes, the original autographs of biblical documents were inerrant. The argument kind of runs along these lines: At present, all we have are copies of copies of copies and all of the M/mss are not in agreement. Thus, our present versions of the Bible, especially those translated from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek to another language, are not perfect. What is/was perfect, however, were the original autographs.

Personally, I am no longer an advocate of this position and I am not convinced that it is even an argument worth having. It makes no difference whether or not the first manuscript was errant. Of course, I am referring to things like incorrectly spelled words, left out words, extra words, etc. It seems more likely to me that documents like the Gospels were composed over time, not in one sitting. In short, the production of the Gospels happened in a process. The authors were at liberty to add, take away, etc. They could have written the original, taken something out, replaced or added something to it or scribbled a note in the margins. Who knows? Who cares?

There is an assumption underlying the mentality of "getting as close to the original autographs as possible" that I think is fundamentally flawed too. It is not always true, even from a text-critical standpoint, that earlier = better. In fact, it is very often the case (in very many things) that later = better. It is quite possible and plausible that the earliest manuscript was a rough draft. Maybe the author(s) went back later and read it and decided more needed to be said, or less. Maybe the first and earliest manuscript was written on a piece of papyrus that was too short or maybe they didn't have enough ink or even money to buy more materials. In other words, there are many reasons to shed the idea that earilest = best. If the texts were composed in a process, then, it is not the earliest that's most important at all but perhaps a late, finished manuscript--or even a copy created in the middle of the process that was best.

All I am attempting to argue here is that earliest does not always = best, most reliable, most informative, most accurate, most easy to read, best spelling or best grammar, etc. That is why I don't hold tightly to the view that I used to, that, if we could just find the originals, we'd be so much better off than we are now. Indeed, finding mss is great but whether or not we find an original well, that does not make the Bible any more inerrant or inspired than it already is (however one defines and uses the terms--or doesn't--inerrant and inspired).


  1. Though I wouldn't agree with some of your sentiments in the post (for example, I would very much like to know the process the writers went through when editing...if it happened), I think your main point is correct. Ultimately the most important thing would be authorial intent. If he didn't have that fully worked out until he had rewritten his work a few times there's nothing wrong with that (though it obviously wouldn't fly with some people's view of inspiration). The important thing is a good representation of what the author thought. Of course this view of literary purpose and meaning is very old-school and it makes me outdated...but I still stick with it :)

  2. Eric,
    Excellent thoughts! The process, well, I don't exactly know "the" process and I don't think we can. I tried to suggest some possibilities. But loosely, we can talk about things written pre and post Easter, which assumes a process. Just as well, we might talk about tradition history. Furthermore, the movements between orality and written text. When we look at the various images of Jesus presented (e.g. prophet, sage, traveling preacher, woodworker, teacher, etc.), we might detect process, maybe not, I don't know. All of these things might play into a drawn out process. For me, I believe that Mark was written third. I believe that the Church fathers have it right when they say this. They said that Peter came to Rome and in a set of ongoing lectures, compared the Matthean and Lukan accounts. Mark, who was sitting there listening, was asked to take notes on the days Peter lectured. He did this and that's how we got Mark's work--it was a process. Not only that Mark has a couple of healing stories unique to his work. If, in the main, the Church Fathers were right, Mark had to do this in a process. We might also see the debates as ch. 16 of Mk. as revealing process too.

    Leaving Mk., I think that I am convinced of Revelation being a process. This is spoken of well in Terry's old commentary. In other words, the processes were fluid and different, they just happened and we don't really have to know how. If we never know, that's fine. If we do, still, nothing changes. Again, that's why original autographs don't matter (at least, in this aspect).

    Eric, thanks again for commenting and I'll check out your site. Be blessed and please, keep visiting and sharing, your engagement is great.

  3. Yes...and all those questions are quite difficult. We have so little data from the earliest years. The synoptic problem is probably the easiest to deal with because there's at least a significant amount of evidence to deal with. I'm reading in the area myself right now. I can't say that I'm familiar enough to really hold an opinion strongly.

    I've heard Brown had some really good lines of reasoning to say that John went through multiple editions, whether this was before the first one went out or not who knows. Still need to read his commentary to see how that argumentation goes...

  4. Of course I must clarify that the synoptic problem isn't easy. It's just something that can be approached with less guessing :)

  5. Eric,

    You are right, the synoptic problem isn't easy. However, I am moving towards a position that says it doesn't even matter. My thinking is that if the texts were processes (who knows, we might have text #3 out of 7, etc.), then who really cares about the synoptic problem. I probably sound a bit strong here, but just so you know I'm not being sarcastic or bullheaded or arrogant or whatever, I'm just calmly stating my opinion. I my view, the fact that we have four Gospels is enough to denote some process. And from there, I reason that if there was a process, we'll never be able to uncover it and in fact, we don't need to try to. Thus, again, the original autographs just aren't necesarry to me.

  6. So here is my follow-up question: Is it just theory that's driving you to the conclusion that the gospels were created in long drawn-out processes? Or is there something else?

    Also, assuming the writing was a process, it would depend on the nature of the process whether or not the synoptic problem is a big deal. I know some people hold to no typical view on the synoptic problem because the relationships are too complex. If there were multiple editions this could be because Mark used an edition of Matthew, then Matthew put out another edition which changed a few things, obscuring the relationship, etc., ad infinitum.

    However, if the process were one that was drawn out, that doesn't really necessarily make the synoptic problem irrelevant anyway. Let's say Matthew took a year to compose his gospel and used Mark and Q and some other material as his sources. How long that took does not really affect the synoptic problem per se. It only significantly affects it if multiple versions of either of the two gospels was ever produced, and I'm not sure we have evidence that this happened. Of course there were those earlier German theories of the ur-Mark...

  7. Eric,

    What's driving my view is this: it is clear to me that Gospel composition was a process. This is clear for a number of reasons: 1) There are 4 different Gospels, 2) Each of these Gospels was written by a different person at a different time, 3) The Gospels share some stories, 4) The Gospels each have some unique stories, 5) The Gospels tell stories with different details, etc.

    All I'm saying is that there was some process. For me, this is all that I need to know. I don't have to or need to know what the process itself was. We can debate about historical kernels like the Jesus Seminar does but really, it doesn't matter. We can wring our heads like the synoptic problem people do but really it doesn't matter. Why?

    I'm moving towards a position that says both of these approaches have philosophical presuppositions about history driving them that are flawed. In short, every approach starts with the texts, especially those believed to be earliest, and then moves to the historical person of Jesus. This positivistic approach is errant. I think that we should start with the person and His culture, not necesarrily give the earliest texts priority, see the context and then see if the texts fit. If they do, great. If not, fine.

    On one hand, this is an equalizing of all ancient texts, that is, from an anthropological standpoint. On the other hand, it is not an equalizing of all texts. It is Church history/tradition (there's where some process comes in) that decided which texts were most truthful for the Church and which texts best described Jesus, His followers and others, in their original cultural setting.

    That said, I should repeat, it is not the process that I want to or need to focus on. Instead, the fact that processes existed suggests that a positivistic approach is flawed. That's why I am beginning to approach the Gospels the other way around, from an anthropological historical viewpoint. Learning the cultre and then seeing if the texts fit is what's most important, not the other way around. Thus, the texts we have as NT do not take precedence first but in the end, they ultimately do. This affirms my belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible while allowing me to approach the texts with less assumptions and presuppositions, which in turn, allows the world of antiquity to open up and come alive for me. In short, my theological and ethnocentric blinders are removed much more than they are when using the other approach. that's always a good thing!

  8. I was taught that the "autographs were inerrent," and when I read Bruce Metzger's explanation of the textual variant in Romans 5:1 (echomen vs. echomen--omega or omicron)--Metzger aid maybe Tertullus the scribe misheard Paul and wrote the wrong word--I thought, hmm--a mistake in the autograph. Another thing that made me wonder was the comment that there are grammatical errors in the apocalypse.

    I think it would be a mistake to teach that "there are errors in the Bible," but a rigid doctrine of inerrency was what made Bart Ehrman lose his faith, according to his testimony.

    I also think it is a mistake to try to make the Bible correspond to our categories and criteria, especially in matters that were outside the concern of the writer. The problem is what I call "secondary inspiration," believing that anything that is said incidentally has to be inerrent according to our concerns, apart from the issue the ancient writer was dealing with.

    For example, the statement I have heard, "The Bible is not a science text book, but where it speaks in matters of science, it speaks without error." My question is, where does the Bible ever speak on matters of science, since science (at least in the modern sense--I know the Greeks began scientific thinking, but it wasn't modern science) did not exist when the Bible was written.

    I guess I'm old school too, in terms of authorial intent (author's intended meaning and authors intended purpose--what the writer wanted to accomplish in what she or he said). The authorial intent would always have to be to communicate with an ancient (to us--contemporary to the author) reader/hearer in the ancient context, in terms meaningful and comprehensible to the ancient readers.

    Textual variants are a fact we have to deal with. I think it's fun. My old Latin professor used to say (with reference to the text of classical literature) "It's a good thing there are problems, because then we will always have jobs."

  9. Type: Metzger said (not aid).

    I have a sticky 's' key on my keyboard:

    Not one of the causes of textual variants that Metzger ever wrote about.

  10. Mark,

    nice type-o; good point.

    i think the bible is inspired but what exactly that means is a different story. my point in this post was to get away from that old argument about inerrant autographs, which i think is without a doubt, based on the mentality that earlier must = better.