Evangelical Textual Criticism

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Do we contribute to being misunderstood?

There are many parts of the interview with Bart Ehrman that interest me and it would be tempting for me to indulge in picking over bits of his replies. However, the most interesting section remains the following words of Ehrman:

“We don’t have the original texts of the NT; we all knew this, of course, already while I was at Moody Bible Institute: that’s why we talked about the inspiration of the autographs. But I came to see that the absence of the originals, and our inability in places to know for certain what was in the originals, rendered the claim that the original texts were inspired more or less irrelevant. What good does it do to say these original texts were inspired if we don’t have them??”

What makes it so interesting is that Ehrman thinks that at this point he is engaging with what evangelicals believe. Although our Lord was misunderstood, I think that we evangelicals should not entirely wash our hands of how we are misunderstood, and Ehrman’s perception of what evangelicals believe is probably shared by many more. The two confusing terms in this passage are ‘texts’, ‘original(s)’, and the confusing phrase is ‘inspiration of the autographs’. As I have mentioned before, ‘text’ is normally defined as something immaterial, though in Ehrman’s sentence ‘We don’t have the original texts of the NT’ it clearly means ‘We don’t have the original material manuscripts of the NT’. The last two occurrences of the word ‘texts’ in this extract purport to represent evangelical belief, but evangelicals would not generally agree with the statement that ‘the original material manuscripts’ were inspired.

‘Original’ is a confusing term too. In earlier phases of English it has meant simply ‘origin’ as in John Owen’s ‘Divine Original’. It has also been common for people to talk of consulting the ‘original’ by which they mean text in the original language.

‘Inspiration of the autographs’ is indeed a phrase that is used by evangelicals, but is hazardously open to misunderstanding. Again it sounds like inspiration is attributed to a material entity. I would propose that we drop speaking of ‘inspiration of the autographs’ and speak of ‘inspiration on the autographs’. The phrase may sound awkward, but it makes clear that we’re not saying that there was anything magical about the papyrus. We’re talking about inspiration of sequences of immaterial words, which happened to be recorded on autographs, which were themselves very unimportant. Just as the transmission of the coding of DNA is what matters in biology, not the particular molecules configured to present the code, so it is the wording of scripture is important within a doctrine of scripture not the autograph manuscripts (though these are of course historically important as artefacts).

I’d recommend therefore the following clarifications of terminology.

Phrases to drop:

  • inspired/inerrant originals/autographs
  • inspiration of the autographs
  • 'We don’t have the original texts of the NT'

Phrases to adopt:

  • inspired/inerrant wording/text
  • inspired on the autographs
  • 'We do have the original text of the NT' (if you believe that all original wording is preserved somewhere in the manuscript tradition)
Some of these issues are dealt with in my earlier post on The Bible vs the Scriptures and in point 3 of my review of Misquoting Jesus and in some of the comments on thereunder.


  1. This is helpful. The assumption that the text exists within and among the manuscript tradition is reasonable, for the New Testament. One could even extrapolate to argue that one might doubt only one Greek manuscript. I agree with that kind of conservatism for the NT. However, that might lead to a kind of positism on the text question that hides a larger reality.

    We can be virtually certain that extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible do not contain the originals. Which was why I raised the question/proposal of the MT as "canon". We can have the MT as canon even when we can only speculate about original text at very many points of the MT.

  2. Like Ehrman, I too had the understanding that evangelicals accord (limit?) inspiration/inerrancy to the "original manuscripts." Given your helpful attempt to clarify the issue, I checked the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy to see what language was used. Interestingly, I think it actually articulates an understanding of inspiration/inerrancy in a manner that corresponds to your recommendations.
    Article VI uses "the very words of the original.”
    Article X speaks of the "autographic text of Scripture" and the undefined term "the original."
    In the Exposition section, under the heading Transmission and Translation, the following statement is given: “Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission.
    This last statement explicitly differentiates between the immaterial text and the material document of the original. At least as set forth in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, I stand corrected! It is my misunderstanding of what evangelicals believe about inerrancy and “the original text”.
    It would be an interesting research project to trace the various ways evangelicals have articulated their doctrine of inspiration/inerrancy in relation to TC and “the original.” Maybe evangelicals are not as culpable in the misunderstanding as you thought.


  3. Thanks, Derek. I'm sure that if we check most creedal statements of educated evangelicals they will be broadly OK. The problem is that beliefs are probably misunderstood as soon as they leave the enclave of evangelical theologians. What we need are soundbites and catchy phrases that can survive the journey from theologian to lay person. We need a good education scheme alongside correct doctrinal formulation.

  4. Ehrman does not really think that the original text is lost, does he... He seems quite capable of reconstructing an Orthodox corruption which must indicate some assurance about what was corrupted (which I am fine with as long as he is honest about this).

  5. maurice a robinson2:52 pm, September 27, 2006

    PJW: "inspired on the autographs"

    I don't know if this is a Britishism, but the wording seems awkward to me. I would prefer a lengthier statement that covers the same ground; perhaps something like this:

    "The original locus of inspiration involved the text as written in the autographic manuscripts.That text-based locus has been maintained through the process of manuscript transmission, with textual criticism being necessary only when serious differences appear in the various transmissional lines."

    This reflects what W-H declared at the very beginning of their Introduction volume, pp.1-3, except that "inspiration" has been added as a concept (as primarily historical textual critics, W-H tended to avoid any a priori appeal to theological considerations within that volume; but I presume that we evangelicals are free so to do when discussing the issue of inspiration directly).

  6. CA:"Ehrman does not really think that the original text is lost, does he... He seems quite capable of reconstructing an Orthodox corruption which must indicate some assurance about what was corrupted."

    In his Orthodox Corruption Ehrman carefully avoids claiming to recover the original text.

    His view of early NT transmission is given on p. 28, "during the earliest period of its transmission the New Testament text was in a state of flux...more or less standardized in some regions by the fourth century."

    As to what he is trying to recover, he does use the word "original" on p. 29, but only in his discussion of people who have a different concern regarding the text than he does. Regarding his own study he only claims to be after "the earliest form of the text," which is "one form of the text...antecedent to the others" (p. 31).

    Given his view expressed about the early text being in a state of flux, I would not assume that his view of this antecedent text must equal what came from the author. I would even tend to think that his terms on p. 31 were carefully chosen so as to avoid a claim that he's after the text of the autographa.

  7. Along similar lines, Ehrman addresses the idea of the "original text" in his essay, "The Text as Window," in the book, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, edited by him and Holmes.

    In fn. 1 he writes, "the history of exegesis is the history of readers interpretting different forms of the text, since throughout this history, wirtually no on read the NT in its original form." At the end of the same footnote he writes, "there may indeed be scant reason to privilege the 'original' text over forms of the text that developed subsequently." His use of quotation marks around "original" may be instructive regarding his confidence in the recoverability of such a text.

  8. With regard to Ehrman, I seem to remember him avoiding the word “original” in Misquoting Jesus and I think at one point he said something about “the earliest form of the text,” but I don’t have the book on me at present so I can’t say for sure. But, I don’t understand this. The copies we have had to have come from somewhere, right? There has to be a single original source from which the copies are were derived, right? Or are some text critics arguing today that there were multiple sources? For example, would some text critics say there may have been two original pieces of papyri (i.e. two versions) that Paul wrote Romans on?

    With regard to the phrases to be dropped and phrases to be added, are any of these too narrowly shaped by NT Textual Criticism without taking the OT into account? Sometimes I feel like we Evangelicals define our Bibliology based solely on the NT, at least in our terminology. I’m thinking especially of the word “autograph” here. Does using the term “autograph” preclude editorial work? If not, at what point is the text in its autographical form?

  9. There certainly were originals of every book. But a person could theorize that the earliest recoverable form of a book via the extant mss is a form that has already changed considerably from what was on the autograph, or even that the form of what Paul sent to a church differed markedly from what he kept for his own collection. I expect that Ehrman chooses his words so as not to imply that he has full confidence that the earliest form we can recover goes all the way to the original (to be sure, his terms don't imply that he lacks that confidence either--he just selects his words so as not to betray a position). If Ehrman does doubt our ability to recover the text of the autographa, I don't think he's alone.

    We evangelicals probably find it rather easy to hold a higher view of the preservation of the text because there's such a small gap between the writing of the NT and our earliest witnesses, and we have so much to work with that it's easy to say "the original words must all be in this pile somewhere." But as Randall Buth mentioned (with a higher degree of dogmatism than I would) the case is not so simple with the OT.

  10. I think that both Christian and Eric are right. Ehrman is rather contradictory on this point. While people are write to note that when speaking in general Ehrman tries to avoid speaking about 'the original text'; in fact as soon as he is looking at particular texts the idea is everywhere.
    E.g. Orthodox Corruption 146ff on Heb 2.9: 'the force of internal evidence compels us to accept as original the poorly attested reading, which states that Jesus died "apart from God"' (146) Note that the argument of p148f which argues that this reading conforms to the vocab, usage, context and theology of Hebrews is all predicated on the concept of an original text. Note his conclusion: 'Hebrews 2:9 must have originally said that Jesus died "apart from God"'. (p. 149)

    Other examples could be multiplied: just for example on Luke 3.11 he introduces his long discussion: 'I will argue that it [the longer Bezan text with "today I have begotten you"] is in fact the original text of Luke ..' (p. 62).

    The word "original" does not occur in the index, but it is everywhere (just a quick look at a few passages confirms this: e.g. p. 69 on John 1.34; p70 on 1 John 5.18; p73 on Mark 1.1 or see p75 without the term, but with the concept: 'Mark entitled his book "The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" and proceeded to narrate the first significant event of Jesus' life...').

  11. Thanks, Peter, good observations. But, if I may be picky, it is possible for someone who is skeptical of our ability to recover the original text of the NT as a whole to believe that we can nontheless recover the original readings here or there. Even if Dr. Ehrman explicitly denied that the original text of the NT can be recovered, I would not take that to mean that he thinks the original words can never at any point be recovered.

  12. Eric,
    I agree with this possibility. I think in Ehrman's case it is a bit more complicated because the reason we can't get back to the original text is because of all the theological alterations; but if you go through them one by one they all involve confidence in the original text. So I still think that problems exist for BDE.

  13. PJW: "inspired on the autographs"
    MAR: "I don't know if this is a Britishism, but the wording seems awkward to me."

    It's not a Britishism and it does sound awkward—mainly, I guess, through unfamiliarity. However, if it continued to remain awkward after years of use but continued to cause people to conceive of evangelical belief correctly then it would have achieved success.