The Difference Between Original Autographs and Original Texts
by Michael J. Kruger
If you’re looking for a way to critique the authority of Scripture, there are seemingly endless options. There are historical critiques (e.g., many of these books are forgeries). There are logical critiques (e.g., the Gospels contradict themselves). There are moral critiques (e.g., God is immoral to order the slaughter of entire cities). And there are hermeneutical critiques (e.g., no one can agree on what the Bible means).
In recent years, however, a more foundational challenge has arisen. All of the above critiques are essentially the same; they all argue the words of the Bible are not true. But this newer and more foundational challenge is not about whether the words of the Bible are true, but whether we have the words of the Bible at all.
At the core of this challenge is the fact that we only have handwritten copies of these books we treasure. And, in reality, we only have copies of copies of copies. And given that scribes made mistakes, and that the transmission process was imperfect, how can we be sure that these texts have been preserved? How can we be sure we actually have the words of Scripture?
Bart Ehrman’s best-selling book Misquoting Jesus focuses on this issue as it pertains to the New Testament text:
What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them . . . in thousands of ways.
If Ehrman is correct, then he has uncovered the single thread that would unravel the entire garment of the Christian faith. There is no need to critique the content of the New Testament if we don’t even have the New Testament.
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But is this argument cogent? I think not. There are two places it can be challenged: (1) the role of the autographs and (2) the degree of corruption in the extant manuscripts.
Role of the Autographs
Ehrman’s focus on the autographs (or the absence of them) is not unusual in modern critiques of biblical authority. However, this sort of argument often creates the impression (even if it is unintentional) that the autographs are the original text—almost as if the original text were a physical object that has been lost.
But the original text is not a physical object. The autographs contain the original text, but the original text can exist without them. A text can be preserved in other ways. One such way is that the original text can be preserved in a multiplicity of manuscripts. In other words, even though a single surviving manuscript might not contain (all of) the original text, the original text could be accessible to us across a wide range of manuscripts…
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