Thursday, January 04, 2007

Only one autograph for NT books

Recently on this blog Jim Snapp suggested that an evangelical textual critic
“accepts the possibility that the initial issuance of some documents involved multiple autographs, and regards the contents of each autograph as original, inspired, and authoritative, even where differences of sense among the multiple autographs occurred.”
In the comments to that post Maurice Robinson said that he did not regard the hypothesis of multiple autographs as necessary. The possibility of multiple autographs was particularly argued by Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus, giving Galatians as the prime example. After all, Galatians is an epistle written to multiple congregations and Ehrman suggests that it is therefore likely that each congregation would have received its own copy. It occurred to me that Ehrman appeals to Galatians because it is the case that prima facie is most likely to require multiple autographs from the perspective of delivery. However, Gal. 6:11 suggests that there was a copy of the letter that would have displayed a distinctive form of Paul’s handwriting and seems to assume that the recipients would have had access to this. Thus rather than supposing that Paul and his amanuensis in the heat of passionate correspondence anticipated the number of copies of his letter that would be required and produced that number of autographs, we should suppose that they produced one autograph which was circulated to each congregation, with the potential for it to be copied in each location. Thus, ironically, what Ehrman regards as the strongest case for multiple autographs gives rather strong evidence for a single autograph.

Some other cases for multiple autographs (Mark, Luke, John) struggle with the fact that the two ‘versions’ of the book produce conflicting literary analyses.


  1. Even if Ehrman is wrong in the way he used Galatians as an example, I think Trobisch's scenario of Paul keeping his own letter collection is attractive, a scenario which also requires two "originals". But I reiterate my earlier question. Even in a case where multiple letters existed prior to sending, wouldn't it still be the case that there was a single true original from which every other was copied? And wouldn't those initial copies still be subject to scribal errors? It seems that the text critic's goal of the single original doesn't change in cases like this. Where it would change is in a case where the author consciously published more than one edition of his work, something that probably can't be proven for any NT book despite being within the realm of possibility. Again, the situation with the OT might get stickier here.

  2. I agree with ER... there is always going to be only one original unless the author intentionally created two very similar but slightly different letters on purpose. Does anyone really argue this? Maybe with the Eph 1:1 ἐν Ἐφέσῳ reading, but otherwise you have to create some sort of very creative story to explain how there would have been two or more genuinely autographic (not copied) documents.

  3. On reflecting more about the case of Galatians, I don't really see it as an example that has any more prima facie likelihood of having been sent to multiple congregations than any of Paul's other epistles. After all, it seems to have been the pattern that even when the collective body of believers in a given city is called the Church of that city, it was still comprised of multiple smaller congregations. Furthermore, even epistles addressed to the believers of a city were sometimes addressed in such a way as to include the entire surrounding province (2 Cor 1:1). But if these addresses really did indicate the number of "originals" that first had to be made, then I would feel sorry for whomever had to produce the numerous autographa of 1 Corinthians that would have thus been required by the number of addressees specified in its introduction. Come to think of it, I still haven't gotten mine yet.

  4. Why do we need to assume that a copy of the letter is sent to each of the "churches of Galatia"? Presumably a letter carrier took the letter and read it out in each place. Then the carrier, or a member of the particular church, could make a copy in situ. I'm obviously missing something.

  5. In considering multiple autographs, should we not consider the textual history of Acts, particularly the relationship between the so-called Alexandrian and Western text forms? There have been scholars (Blass, Zahn, Nestle, Boismard, Strange) who have posited a theory that both forms come from the same author but represent different editions or stages in the production.

  6. While Cicero's orations may have been edited by him and Charles Haddon Spurgeon may have spent hours editing his own weekly sermons for publication in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, I can't but help be amazed how gulible and non exegetical such advocates of multiple editions of the same original document are.

    There is nothing in the biblical text to warrant such postulations and the simple copying and distribution of the Scriptures would *doubtless* have had its origins within the early Christian community.

    As Peter Williams has already pointed out and Maurice Robinson's adept surgical use of Occam's razor has confirmed, the whole idea of multiple autographs lies in modern conceptualizations and as a premise to deny biblical inspiration and open the door even further for anachronistic variant readings. It is also a plow of excuse for sound historical textual research.


  7. Are we necessarily committed to the proposition that the author's autograph (if any, in an age of dictation) is the only inspired text? We all know that the bible is inspired, but isn't the exact manner in which this works is a matter of theory rather than revelation? That said, of course, it is for those who argue that a text canonised by the early church had multiple autographs to (a) demonstrate this and (b) demonstrate that God cannot inspire a text other than one composed with a single autograph. This confusion between inspiration and text criticism seems to me very deleterious. All books in a fallible world undergo damage in transmission, and this was best known by those who lived in the manuscript era, such as Our Lord and the apostles. Indeed it is just as true with printed texts! Unless it is argued that books *cannot* be inspired (and since I could certainly inspire a book, I see no earthly reason why God cannot), then however inspiration works, it must be able to cope with this sort of thing. We mustn't let Ehrman's sniping cause us to adopt unscriptural positions, or to unthinkingly adopt the strawman positions he designs for us.

  8. Malcolm wrote, "I can't but help be amazed how gullible and non exegetical such advocates of multiple editions of the same original document are."

    Within this discussion, I'm not advocating any particular theory of multiple autographs. I am only saying that the definition of "original text" should be broad enough to include the text of multiple autographs if they existed, even if their contents contained differences in sense.

    Those who do not regard the hypothesis of multiple autographs as necessary or sustainable should find this part of the definition of "original text" superfluous, but not objectionable.

    Roger Pearse wrote, "It is for those who argue that a text canonised by the early church had multiple autographs to (a) demonstrate this and (b) demonstrate that God cannot inspire a text other than one composed with a single autograph."

    Whether that's so or not, I'm not proposing either sort of demonstration; I'm just drawing the border of Original-Text-land between "pre-production" and "post-production" so that the in the possible case of multiple autographs, multiple autographs are indeed autographs, not pre-production source-documents or post-production descendants of the original text.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.
    Curtisville Christian Church
    (January 7, 2007)

  9. "Those who do not regard the hypothesis of multiple autographs as necessary or sustainable should find this part of the definition of "original text" superfluous, but not objectionable."

    It is objectionable on two counts, 1) It is not exegetically implied and 2) it is incompatible with the authorial intent of the author - whether human or divine - because such sense then would be manifold and not one. If various editions varied in sense then the idea of any and all hermeneutical understanding is lost.

    If a subsequent copiest for example inserted EN EFESWi at Ephesians 1:1 through pride at his/her copy of Paul's encyclical epistle which had finally reached him/her the sense of Paul's epistle is itself not altered. However, if material differences are found at the composition level then the sense of Scripture is lost entirely in caprice.

    In saying this I don't mean to deny the possiblity of sensus plenior which is another issue altogether.