Question: Were the Original Autographs Inspired?


A bit of background information: We do not possess any original copies of the 27 written documents that constitute the New Testament or any of the Old Testament for that matter. What we do have for the New Testament is a lot of manuscript evidence (hand-written copies) and citations from Church fathers. There are many differences between the surviving manuscripts, admittedly most (not all) of these are inconsequential for major Christian doctrine. Because of this, many Christian apologists and conservative scholars often aver it was the original autographs of the New Testament that were inspired by God. It is believed that we can reconstruct them with a high degree of confidence. I wanted to address some concerns with limiting the Inspiration of the Bible to the autographs, a term itself that is complicated but first I want to be absolutely clear on something. God is sovereign and can communicate with us and compose a Bible in whatever fashion He deems appropriate. All at once, in stages, with or without redactors, with one or a thousand authors. Karl Barth wrote, "God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does." Keep that in mind while reading the next section.

The Gospel of John has Two Endings

Were the Original Autographs Inspired? Many Christians would probably answer this question in the affirmative. It is certainly true that we cannot view every scribe who accidentally or intentionally edited a portion of the New testament that was being copied as inspired. But for me, there is no reason why God could not inspire an author to write a Gospel in one life setting (Sitz im Leben) and have a another faithful writer in the community add to it years later. This is precisely what I believe happened in the Gospel of John which appears to have two different endings and a bunch of disorder.
John 20:30-31: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This very much looks like the end of the Gospel but lo and behold, there is a 21st chapter that seems to tidy up a few issues in the community and have an ending of its own. This evidence is coupled with stylistic differences and other internal arguments that are less conclusive. It would appear that the prologue of the Gospel of John is in the same boat at its end. Additionally, the Gospel has a lot of sharp breaks and scenes leading scholars to suppose it may be out of order or has a complicated compositional history at the least! Which John was inspired? The original writing or the final redacted version that was canonized and might be out of order?

Canonical Works Were Edited and Expanded by the Canon Itself

The prologue of Luke claims research was done in composing his Gospel and many sources were used as he investigated everything carefully from the beginning. We actually know one of those sources very well. A very basic fact accepted by the vast majority of exegetes in Biblical scholarship today, formally known as Markan priority, is that Luke was literarily dependent on text of Mark when writing his own Gospel. Thus, at least one book in our canon was copied, edited, adapted and expanded by another. The 2nd chapter of 2 Peter seems to use all of Jude as a second example of this. If Luke (and Matthew) could use written sources in composing their Gospels and even edit a canonical one, there is no reason to dismiss the possibility of this occurring for other Biblical works. Why is a redaction of the Gospel of John by a member in the community problematic to some when we know that Mark was expanded by two separate authors into very new Gospels within a few decades of its own composition? The final versions of Matthew and Luke certainly added to the beginning and end of Mark. So when we say God inspired the original autograph what is actually meant? Must it be an original autograph or could it be an officially sanctioned (by God) redaction of an already extant text? Also, if we accept the existence of Q and the independence of Matthew and Luke, the most common solution to the synoptic problem, there are a number of "agreements" in the extant texts of Matthew and Luke over and against the extant text of Mark, indicating they may have used a slightly different version.

2 Corinthians is Probably a Combination of Two or More Pauline Letters

2 Corinthians is widely held by scholars to be a composite of several of Paul's letters. Most scholars feel the epistle looks disjointed with clear breaks in tone and content. For example, 2 Cor 7:2 appears to pick up right where 6:13 leaves off. 2 Corinthians 2:13 ends with Paul's concern about not finding Titus. This is not picked up until 7:5, five chapters later. It is suggested by some that 2:14-7:4 was inserted into the text at this point. There are other potential breaks in sequence but we must also consider that in 2 Cor 8:17 Titus has not arrived in Corinth but 12:17-18 clearly depicts him at work there. How can a person who has not arrived in Corinth yet be written about as currently working there? In addition, the first-person plural is used predominantly in chapters 1-9 whereas this switches to first-person singular in chapters 10-13. The break in tone between chapter 9 and 10 may make the letter schizophrenic to the point of incoherence. Of course, critical scholars can't agree on just how many letters it was composed of. It is at least possible that Paul composed a single letter over a long period of time (given Titus time to arrive and changing his tone so drastically) but this ingenious solutions requires a lot of moving parts and looks more like "cooking the books" and doesn't explain everything as well in this author's opinion. Whatever we make of the issue, I certainly wouldn't subscribe to a theory of inspiration that rules out the potential final canonized form of a Biblical document. Were only Paul's original epistles inspired or was the later author who merged and edited multiple letters together also inspired? What does an autograph even mean here?

Isaiah is thought to have been written by Multiple Authors Over Hundreds of Years

We just saw a case where multiple letters written by the same individual were most likely edited into a single work. But we probably have cases in the canon where the material making up books was composed by multiple authors sequentially. There are different takes on Isaiah but I am going to lay of the most common view. Isaiah was composed by three different authors in distinct sections. The historical Isaiah may have written chapters 1-39 but chapters 40-55 appear to have been written later during the Babylonian exile and presuppose the destruction of Jerusalem. There are also said to be differences in style after chapter 39 and while there are 17 direct mentions of the name Isaiah in the first 39 chapters, there are none after it. Chapters 56-66 presuppose an even later period in Jewish history. Isaiah would then have three different authors tacking on to one another over time but it also seems to be a cohesive whole with a two part structure from a narrative standpoint (warnings of Judgment and restoration in 1-33 and restoration after that judgment from 34 on). The notion of a singular autograph for a text that may have had multiple authors and an editor is somewhat problematic. Can we even presume each version of Isaiah would have been completely stable on textual grounds in the interim between the next recension?

The Pentateuch Was Composed by Many Authors and Edited Together

The Pentateuch, most certainly not written by Moses, is believed to have been composed by many different authors over a long duration of time. If you look carefully at the primeval history in Genesis you can find two different creation accounts (Gen 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-2:25 and also two different flood stories masterfully woven together into a single story. There are quite a few "doublets" as they are called. In the case of the Pentateuch many different traditions and writings were compiled by an ingenious editor. What does it even mean to claim the autographical text was inspired here? It would have to apply to the final redactor, whomever and whenever that was.

A Single Author May Have Published Different Versions of His Own Work

What if a single author created multiple versions of his own work? Many scholars believe this happened in the case of Luke-Acts. Joseph Fitzmyer writes, "Luke begins this part of the Gospel with a long periodic sentence, resembling that of the prologue (1:1-4). These are the only two lengthy sentences in his writings that are so constructed. Though this instance is not so carefully constructed as the prologue, it clearly marks a fresh start in the story, which the reader of the Greek text cannot fail to note. It again suggests what has already been concluded on other grounds, that the Lucan infancy narrative was added to the Gospel at a stage later than the rest." There are also significant textual questions raised by Western text of Acts which has very ancient attestation and is almost 10% longer than the Alexandrian text. Helmut Koester writes:
"Acts presents still another literary problem insofar as it is transmitted in two versions that frequently differ from each other. The text that is usually printed in critical editions of the New Testament is that of the Egyptian uncials from the fourth century (ℵ,B, etc.), whose readings are largely identical with those of the Alexandrian church fathers. Another version is found in the representatives of the Western Text (Codex D and the Old Latin translation) with readings that are supported by the Latin church fathers. This version contains numerous special readings and passages that appear to be "additions." Among these is the famous addition of the Golden Rule to the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15:29. Whether or not one considers the Western text of Acts as secondary, there is no question that it existed already in the 2d century. An interesting suggestion sees this version as either the original text of Acts or as the author's second edition of the book. This could explain the fact that the Western text presents some valuable information that is missing in the Alexandrian version, such as information about places (Acts 12:10; 20:15) and times (Acts 19:9; 27:5). At the same time, other Western readings must be secondary, especially the attempts to adjust contradictions and to enhance the anti-Judaic tendencies of the book. It is therefore more likely that the Western text of Acts is a second edition (by Luke Himself?), but not a degeneration of the original text." [History and Literature of Early Christianity 2nd Edition, pg. 50>
The problem of Acts is even more profound. Pervo and Attridge write:
The translator of Acts soon discovers that the conventional text (N-A27/UBS4) represents what its editors view as the earliest recoverable text, based on that reading which best explains the origin of the others, rather than a fully intelligible Greek composition. This is a worthy objective, but it does not provide the translator with a finished product. In part because of the abundance of Greek evidence, these editors are extremely loath to engage in conjectural emendation. They also assign quite limited value to patristic and versional evidence. With both of these views this commentary dis agrees. Caution, unfortunately, has become a prominent characteristic of the standard editions in recent decades.

. . . The abundance of data from Greek mss. does not exclude primitive corruption, since the base was quite slender until c. 250, a period in which many copies were lost or destroyed as a result of persecutions. A full textual base derived from complete mss. does not emerge until the fourth century ce, at which point editorial activity can be conjectured or identified.

. . . The text of Acts is less secure than that of Luke, for example. At a number of points it appears to be corrupt. Possibilities include 1:2; 2:43; 3:16; 4:25; 5:13; 6:9; 7:46; 9:25; 10:11, 30, 36; 12:25; 13:27-29, 32, 34, 43; 14:8; 15:21; 16:12, 13; 19:13-14, 25, 40; 20:6, 24, 28; 21:15-16; 22:30; 24:19; 25:13; 26:16; and 26:20. These require either conjectural emendation, resignation, or strained efforts to support unlikely readings. Explanations for the difficulties vary. [Hermeneia Commentary on Acts]
If Luke published multiple versions of his own work, or published his works over time, possibly updating things as new research came in, what on earth is an autograph and how could we ever detect it? Though many scholars are highly critical of the notion that both versions belong to the same author. Not only that but the text of Acts itself is difficult to reconstruct and is "based on that reading which best explains the origin of the others, rather than a fully intelligible Greek composition" rendering appeals to an inspired autograph somewhat mystifying.

Is the Septuagint Inspired or the Hebrew Autographs?

New Testament authors frequently quoted the Old Testament through the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament rather than the extant Hebrew Bible itself--let alone its autographs that are now lost. A problem surfaces in that the point made in a few of these passages appears to rely on a mistranslation of the Hebrew original! As Paul J. Achtemeier wrote:
"For example, the point being made in Heb. 10.5-9 depends on the Septuagint reading of Ps. 40:6-8, which says: "A body you have prepared for me" rather than the Hebrew original, which reads: "you have given me an open ear." The same is true of the quotation of Ps. 16:10 in Acts 2:26-28. Whereas the Hebrew speaks of God keeping the faithful servant from the "pit," the Septuagint translation speaks of keeping the "Holy One" from "corruption," a change that lies at the heart of the point Peter is making in this sermon. The prophecy of Jesus' resurrection depends on the Septuagint translation, which is again different from the Hebrew original. When Paul quotes "Scripture" in Rom. 4:3, what he quotes is closer to the Septuagint than to the original Hebrew version of Gen. 15:6." [Biblical Inspiration, pg 64]


Is the Hebrew autograph inspired or the Greek mistranslation? Both? Did God inspire the original Hebrew autograph and then inspire an author to utilize a mistranslation of it in the NT? Why is the NT not using the Hebrew "autograph" if that is the inspired version? Not only that but NT authors changed the Septuagint to fit their needs: Isaiah 40:3 reads: "A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.""

In context, this passage is about Israel's return from Babylonian captivity. The synoptic Gospels freely apply this verse to a new context, namely, John the Baptist who paves the way for Jesus. There is a change of the Septuagint version of making straight a path for “our God” to making straight “his path” in reference to Jesus. While the synoptics have a very high Christology, Jesus was probably not yet understood as fully God to the point of interchangeability of terms. Shirley Jackson wrote:
“The gospel writers, in order to make use of the passage for their purpose, had to disregard the original content and change the person of the pronoun from first to second. The list of such examples might be greatly increased.” [The New Testament Writers’ Interpretation of the Old Testament Source: The Biblical World , Aug., 1911, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Aug., 1911), pp. 92-102 ]
We see that scripture itself quoting a Greek translation that is different from the Hebrew original but they also make changes to its working to fit their needs.

The Book of Job is Two Stories in One

The bookends (Ch 1-2, 42:7-17) are very different from the the rest of Job (3:1-42:6). The former consist of prose narrative as a folktale while the central portion is Hebrew Poetry. Robert Alter lays out the basics below:
The frame-story (Chapters 1 and 2, concluded in Chapter 42) is in all likelihood a folktale that had been in circulation for centuries, probably through oral transmission. In the original form of the story, with no debate involved, the three companions would not have appeared: instead, Job would have been tested through the wager between God and the Adversary, undergone his sufferings, and in the end would have had his fortunes splendidly restored. A passing mention in Ezekiel 14:14 and 19 of Job, together with Noah and Daniel (not the Daniel of the biblical book) as one of three righteous men saved from disaster, reflects the presence of a Job figure--perhaps featuring in the same plot as that of the frame-story--in earlier folk tradition. The author of the Book of Job, however, has either reworked an old text or formulated his own text on the basis of oral tradition, using archaizing language. There is an obvious effort in the frame-story to evoke the patriarchal age, though in a foreign land with non-Israelites, but the neat symmetries of formulaic numbers and the use of prose refrains resemble nothing in the Patriarchal Narrative in Genesis." [The Wisdom Books]

Bart Ehrman has said that the prose portion uses "Yahweh" for God while the poetry section uses "El," "Eloah" and "El Shaddai." He further suggests the two different stories not only depict Job differently (he is anything but patient in the central portion) but also feature different responses to suffering. Ehrman writes:
"Second, the views of suffering--as we will see in greater detail-- are also very much different from one another, depending on whether you are reading the short story or the poetic dialogue. The short story is unambiguous about why Job is suffering: God is putting him to the test to see if he will remain faithful even when things go badly for him (through the machinations of the Satan figure). But that is not the view found in the poetic section, where Satan is not mentioned, a test is not referred to, and the need to remain faithful in the midst of pain and misery is not in view. In the poetry we learn that there is in fact no way we can understand why there is suffering, and that it is an affront to God even to pursue the question. Suffering is a big mystery. And God can do anything he wants. He is not to be challenged." [Blog Post:The Two Books of Job 2013]

Job, like the creation and flood accounts, consists of multiple stories of the same incident with conflicting details all in one narrative.

What do we Make of all This?

We have serious problems in even identifying what an "autographical text" means because without even looking at textual differences, we see that many Biblical works have very complicated compositional histories. As Eldon Jay Epp's wrote in an influential article:
Now, if the goal of textual criticism is to recover the most likely "original" text, what in actuality is the object of textual critics' research-a text of the gospels that is somewhat earlier than but very likely similar to the text of the earliest manuscripts, or a text of even earlier and now largely lost predecessor forms of these gospels? In other words, textual critics face two or more questions rather than one: first, a prior question as to which Mark (or John, or Corinthian letters, or Ephesians, etc.) is "original, "followed by the more traditional inquiry as to which variant readings of a particular work are "original. "More clearly than before, the multivalence of the term "original text" emerges and confronts textual critics with its complexity. [The Multivalence of the Term "Original Text" in New Testament Textual Criticism Author(s): Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 92, No. 3 (Jul., 1999), pp. 245-281]

It may certainly be true that some of the above viewpoints are not entirely correct but rejecting them all would only reek of uncritical harmonization and confirmation bias as they are all fairly standard in critical scholarship today. There is evidence that New Testament works, including the Gospels were living documents in the first and second centuries. The thousands of variants in the surviving manuscripts demonstrate this. Two separate endings for Mark can be traced to the second century, as a specific example. But at least the changes we can know about in the manuscript record have a silver lining. They occurred late enough to be filtered out! All of the above redactions and issues cited under bold headings, if true, would have occurred before the manuscript record--meaning these changes are so early our textual repositories cannot even detect them. Some scholars believe we can also find evidence of additional interpolations that occur before the manuscript evidence can engage them (see William O Walker Jr, Interpolations in the Pauline Letters). We also know that in the early second century Papias at least preferred oral tradition to written sources. D. C. Parker wrote:
Papias, early in the century, is actually cited by Eusebius as preferring oral to written traditions about Jesus: 'Ί supposed that things out of books did not profit me so much as the utterances of a voice which liveth and abideth.' In such a context, it is unlikely that written texts can have been free from alterations or additions from trusted oral sources. For example, may not a saying received at one remove from an eye-witness have been more highly estimated than the version of Luke, whose authorities were, as he himself confesses, other written accounts? [The Living Text of the Gospels pg 203-204]
Judging by modern standards, many Christians played fast and loose with the Old Testament, including the New Testament authors themselves at times. Why would we not expect Christian authors and preachers to do the same with the New Testament Gospels and Epistles which were not yet even afforded the full status of sacred scripture? We already have two examples of what a text like Mark could turn into within a few decades. It might be my imagination but for each book of the Bible I get the impression that some Christians envision a single author set out, sat down and wrote down whatever God told him to in some sort of "one and done" approach to inspiration. For the Gospels maybe the traditional names each one is attributed to is viewed as the author. This would be the "autographical" text that many would deem inerrant and infallible. While it would probably be accurate for certain eistles and works of that nature, the textual record and careful study of the Biblical books themselves does not lend itself to such a simplistic view. Of course, the redaction of our Biblical works or compilations of smaller sections of them do not need to be attributed to deficient or imperfect authorship. God may have composed what he did in stages for the benefit of the individual persons and communities who first received these works -- or for whatever reason he deemed appropriate. After all, the Holy Spirit was present and Jesus was alive and well (he was resurrected if you missed it). Christian prophets were receiving proclamations and commands from the Lord and the Church was growing and learning. Correct doctrine and the Orthodox view were still being hashed out and would be for hundreds of years as was the issue of what sources should be accepted as authoritative and which ones heretical. Before a text becomes popular enough and authoritative, full-fledged scripture it will be the most fluid and susceptible to editing. We must always remember that while we believe the Bible was written for us in its final canonized form, none of it was written to us and this process took time. A continued and softer process of inspiration over a "one and done" autographical approach might be preferable given the nature of many Biblical works. J. N. Birdsall wrote:
if we must cope, pending more satisfactory resolution, with a text containing many variations, some unresolved, in what position are we in our use of scripture in theology, and in the life of the church? I suggest that a way forward is to treat our knowledge of scripture as knowledge of scripture within the church, and not only as a foundation document separate from the church. The variations will then be treated as themselves part of the scripture, showing us not only the original, but the church's understanding of it. [Yextual Criticism and New Testament Studies: An Inaugural Lecture (Birmingham, 1984)]
I am not sure exactly what that would look like but it might be an avenue worth pursuing. I know the Catholic Church canonized the Vulgate, a late 4th century translation of the Bible by Jerome as its official Latin version during the council of Trent. There is a new Vulgate that was updated in 1979 but relying on and canonizing an extant version of the Bible for which we have ample sources seems favorable since we are not reliant on the reconstruction of hypothetical texts we do not have and whose appearance we ultimately can't be certain of. For sure, the surviving textual corpus of the New Testament (including translations and patristic citations) is comparably extensive and we can probably have a good degree of confidence in a reconstruction of a very early form of much of our New Testament but by claiming inspiration of the "autographs" we are claiming as authoritative a combined set of documents that no single person ever collectively possessed and for which in the first 100-150 years of their existence there is scant textual evidence for. We have to extinguish a fire of our own making. As seen above, a careful analysis of many Biblical works muddies the waters when it comes to defining what an "autograph" actually is. Obviously in the case of Job or the Gospel of John, its the final redaction and extant canonical form of these works that theologians will claim is the autograph. Though to be honest, it is the general canonical form of all the works that is ultimately what is inspired. Rather than looking for hypothetical originals that may or may not have all existed in the manner we suppose, maybe we should simply attempt to reconstruct the best readings of the extant canonical texts of the third-fifth centuries. This is what the church canonized regardless of what any first-century autographs may have looked like. The church and various Christians were using texts with divergent readings as sacred Scripture and it is difficult to imagine inspiration outside the context of community. Paul Achtemeier writes:
"if Scripture is to be understood as inspired, then that inspiration will have to be understood equally in terms of the community that produced those Scriptures. Inspiration, in short, occurs within the community of faith and must be located at least as much withing that community as with an individual author. . . .

"The anonymity of Scripture may thus be intimately tied to the fact that Scripture's origin lies far more within the community than to an individual, and may indeed bear witness that inspiration is to be understood in a broader sense than simply as an inspired individual producing inspired books." [Inspiration and Authority]

Inspiration should not be removed from the Church community and we see that the extant canonical form of scripture already has divergent readings (errors) and there is no way to get us back to the putative 1st-century autographs. The term itself is highly problematic and seems little more than an apologetical dues ex machina--an exuse for inerrancy advocates to preserve a doctrine that God was not concerned with by imagining pristine versions of Biblical texts completely free from all errors. The problem is many of these texts had very complicated compositonal histories with the possibility of multiple editions by the same author or community. At the end of the day I believe the Scriptures that we do possess are good enough for what is most important in our lives. We need to have faith, faith in the God who saved us and who speaks to us as we learned about his Son in reading the Christian Bible with an open heart. We must have faith in the infallibility of God and that leads to our hope that the Bible leaves us a reliable record of salvation history, which includes its composition, transmission and canonization. God is sovereign and that means he can speak to us and save us though many different types of texts and mediums. Regardless of how one defines an "autograph," or if one thinks that endeavor is a fool's errand, the Bible has a track record that shows it is reliable in mediating the sacred. Not in and of itself. Its pages are ink and cellulose, composed of atoms and molecules like any other printed text. It is inspired because God moved over the authors, encouraging them to write and putting ideas on their minds. It is inspired because God uses it to make us wise for salvation in Jesus Christ, to teach us, train us in righteousness and to equip us to do good deeds.

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