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:
inspiration of the autographs
'We don’t have the original texts of the NT'
Phrases to adopt:
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.