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The Problem with Autographs

Dennis Bratcher

This is an edited excerpt from The Modern Inerrancy Debate

Inerrant Autographs

These observations almost always lead to another area that impinges on the topic of inerrancy: the affirmation of the inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture (autograph = the original manuscripts as they came from the hand of the original author).

Anyone who works with Scripture in the original languages knows that there are errors of spelling, grammar, and syntax in the biblical text as we have it today. It is also an easily demonstrable fact that there are hundreds of variants among the different manuscripts of the biblical text (see Sacred Words or Words about the Sacred). We sometimes forget that the Bible was not written on a word processor in English, and it is difficult to keep in mind that there is no "master text" of the Bible. We only have it in hundreds, even thousands, of manuscripts that all contain differences of greater or lesser degree. Our modern translations are based on an analysis and comparison of all these manuscripts.

On a different level, a careful examination of parallel biblical accounts, where the same story or account occurs in more than one place, reveals that in many places the accounts are different. For example, in the Gospels there are many places where the accounts of Jesus’ activity and sayings are recorded in multiple versions that vary from each other (see The Synoptic Problem).

There are places where the events are ordered differently (the cleansing of the temple or the day and time of the crucifixion in the Synoptic Gospels and John; see The Time of the Crucifixion: Chronological Issues in the Gospels), the same sayings are set in different contexts (the sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plain in Matthew and Luke), or the same event is accompanied by different sayings (the confession of Peter in Matthew and Mark). Even when all of these do correspond, there are often different Greek words attributed to Jesus, sometimes closely synonymous, sometimes giving a different nuance to the saying (for example, Matt 5:3, 6 and Luke 6:20-21). There are other places in Scripture where this occurs as well, such as the parallels between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles or between 2 Kings and Isaiah.

On a still different level, if one approaches the biblical text without the presuppositions of inerrancy, there are also historical difficulties. There are biblical accounts that do not correspond to what we know of the events, or the same events are recounted in different places within Scripture in considerably different scenarios (see History and Theology in Joshua and Judges). There are also discrepancies in the use of numbers, genealogies, Scriptural citations, etc. (see The Date of the Exodus).

To many students of Scripture these factors present no serious hindrances to accepting the Bible as the authoritative word of God, beyond needing to understand and interpret the message as it is presented with these factors. However to the inerrantist position these are potentially fatal observations. In an absolutist position, which many inerrantists take, none of these can be allowed to stand. While some of these such as the historical discrepancies can be explained by various means, the difficulties with the biblical text itself is a much more troublesome problem to inerrant views. While they are affirming the absolute inerrant nature of the biblical text, it is obvious that there are physical inaccuracies within the text.

The solution to this dilemma of wanting to maintain an inerrant text while faced with a text that is obviously not inerrant, is to affirm that it is only the original writings that were inerrant. While the inaccurate copies we have now were corrupted in the process of transmission, copying, and translation over the years, the original versions as they came from the hand of the original author were without any such inaccuracies. This position of "inerrant autographs" is a common way of maintaining inerrancy in the face of textual evidence to the contrary. In fact, some churches, for example the Wesleyan Church, incorporate such a statement into their doctrinal position on Scripture.

Now, this may be a valid move solely as a faith affirmation. But I contend that it does not really say much, and certainly does not give us any place to stand in the actual study and use of Scripture in the church beyond making affirmations about it. And it raises questions of credibility from those who do not so readily accept the faith affirmations.

There are several problems with the idea. As I have suggested, I think the main reason for affirming inerrant autographs is the simple fact that the text that we have now is obviously inaccurate in some details. So to maintain the concept of inerrancy, it is simply moved back to a context where the validity of the assertion cannot be verified since we do not have any of the autographs.

However, I find it extremely problematic to assert something about a part of the Christian faith that is as important as Scripture in a way that cannot be confirmed in the light of totally different evidence that can be confirmed. In other words, I think that smacks far too much of a rationalizing effort to bolster a fundamentally flawed idea than it does of good theology or good biblical study. Again, as a faith affirmation about the authority of Scripture, I understand what it tries to say. I just don’t think it says it very well.

There are other logical problems, as well, that drift into theological ones. If God supervised the writing of Scripture to the degree that people produced absolutely inerrant writings beyond their own capability to do so, why could God not have, or why didn’t he, just as easily superintend the transmission of that text so that it would remain inerrant as it was copied through the centuries. What is the purpose of having inerrant originals if that inerrancy is not to be maintained in some way? What purpose is served in allowing a perfect text to deteriorate?

And if we allow this, how then do we know we can trust the text we have today since it is admittedly inaccurate in some details, and since we do not have the "originals" with which to compare it? If our faith is in an inerrant text, and if that text has been allowed to deteriorate in one area to the point that it is no longer inerrant, how do we know that other areas have not likewise been corrupted? If the trustworthiness of the text depends on it being inerrant, how do we affirm that trustworthiness and reliability when the text we are using is in fact not inerrant?

In other words, if the criteria of inerrancy is to be the judge of truth, it solves nothing to push the inerrancy into the distant past since we only have the text today as it is. If that criteria is valid, then we do not have the truth.

Still another set of problems clusters around the very idea of "autographs." This assumes that there was at one time a single master copy of Scripture, or at least of individual books. But this in turn assumes a certain mode of inspiration and production of Scripture that is not totally supported by the evidence or most (not all) ways of understanding how Scripture came to be.

"Autographs" assumes Scripture (individual books) was written by a single person at a single time, the prophetic model of an inspired author. In other words, by definition and assumption, it eliminates most dynamic views of inspiration that allow a role for the community of faith over a period of time to produce Scripture as God worked within the community. This results in a circular argument. One can only affirm inerrant autographs as inspired by assuming a view of inspiration that produces inerrant autographs.

One step further in this relates to the idea of "sources" used for the Gospels or the Pentateuch. Even many conservative biblical scholars are now willing to acknowledge that the Gospels were likely written from earlier sources, either written or oral, that preserved the teachings of Jesus in the 35 or so years between his life and the writings of the first Gospels. If the Gospel writers used sources, were the sources also inerrant? If so, on what basis do we affirm that the sources are inerrant since they were not Scripture? This would leave open the logical possibility of other documents being inerrant that are not Scripture, which would undermine one of the primary reasons of affirming inerrancy in the first place: the unique authority of Scripture.

If the sources are not seen as inerrant, how can an inerrant text be produced from non-inerrant sources?  What theory of inspiration do we invoke to argue that non-inerrant sources can become inerrant by being placed within a different context?

Of course, some question the very existence of sources used to write the biblical texts.  Yet, the evidence of biblical passages that are shared in more than one place is undeniable when actually looking at the text apart from the idea of absolute inerrancy and its assumptions. There are many passages that share features ranging rom identical word for word parallels to closely related presentation of narratives and ideas.  These can be found in comparing the Synoptic Gospels, 2 Kings and Isaiah, Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Psalms and Samuel, and Micah and Isaiah.  These commonalities are difficult to explain without using some version of shared sources or internal borrowing, both of which present complications to the idea of absolute inerrancy and a God-authored Bible.

Along the same line, there is also the issue of biblical texts that obviously quote from or refer to extra-biblical writings. The Book of Jashar, evidently a book of war poetry, is referenced twice in the Old Testament (Josh 10:13, 2 Sam 1:18). Throughout the Books of Kings and Chronicles, official annals are mentioned 36 times. The book of Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch (Jude 9, 14-15). There seems to be several places where Paul or the Pauline tradition is quoting from or referring to popular writings of his time.  For example, Titus 1:12 quotes from the Greek philosopher Epimenides. If inerrancy is the primary way to conceptualize Scripture, what standard of inerrancy do we apply to such obviously extra-biblical sources that become part of Scripture?

There are other points that could be made, but perhaps this is enough to illustrate that pushing inerrancy back to the original manuscripts actually creates even more problems for the position than it solves.

There is one other facet of this topic that often comes up in this discussion at this point. It again relates to the sovereignty of God and how we see that working out in relation to Scripture. It is often affirmed that just as God can reveal Himself in the world in quite extraordinary ways that transcend human ability to understand, for example the Incarnation, so God can create and preserve an inerrant text as a medium of revelation of the absolute truth about everything. Again, this is certainly valid on one level as a faith affirmation about the nature of God. But it probably does not help us much in understanding Scripture.

The greatest problem here is the logic in assuming that simply because God can do something then that is, in fact what he does do. There is a great deal of difference between saying that God could do something, and affirming that He did or does, in fact, do it. To say that He could is no proof that He did. This is where the issues often get confused. For example, working from the sovereignty of God, one might ask if God could, because of human incapability of choosing the good, choose the good for a person. Theoretically, the answer is yes. Yet, Wesleyans affirm that God does not, in fact, do what He clearly could do.  And there still remains the evidence that the text that we actually have is not, in fact, absolutely inerrant.

So again, the problem here is in asserting something about the Bible based on doctrinal or creedal confessions about the nature of God or ultimate reality or some other assertion that has very little to do with Scripture itself as we actually have it.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2016, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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