What is an Original? – Part 1


4 book of Maccabees (Codex Sinaiticus).jpg

Codex Sinaiticus via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, we looked at problems with considering the very words of the Bible to be inerrant, what is also known as verbal plenary inspiration. This week and next (and maybe beyond) we will get into some of the problems presented by having different texts. In all honesty, looking at this stuff is what started me down the path toward a full-blown faith crises, but I recognize that a lot of people just don’t care that much and I’m fine with that. Please feel free to skip ahead.

The one caveat the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy applies to inerrancy is that it only applies to the originals. Here’s what the CSBI has to say in Article VI.

We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

First off, a point that is acknowledged by every one is the simple fact that we don’t actually have any originals! Not one. Not even close. At best we have copies of copies of copies (of copies of copies…). So in one sense, referring to purported originals to satisfy any potential problems isn’t very helpful, since we don’t have any of the originals to help arbitrate.  The CSBI attempts to mitigate this in Article X.

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

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. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved

Ignoring the very real question of why God would choose to inspire an inerrant original without superintending its transmission, the second question is, just how well does what we have today actually preserve the words of this original. But of course before we can deal with that, we have to deal with what exactly is an original? Now maybe it seems obvious to you what an original, or in somewhat more academic speak, an autographic text, is. But is it?

In some cases it probably is pretty straightforward. For instance, the original of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be the first edition of the book published in 1884. But what about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? This was originally a “serial-novel,” meaning it was published in installments. But Dickens was known to also change the earlier chapters as he went along. So, just what is an original in this case? If Oliver Twist were inspired, what would be the original that could be considered inerrant?  Would it be each chapter as it was published? Or would it be the final product, brought together in a single volume, including all the changes? Likewise, what is an original when it comes to the books in the Bible?

So the question becomes, which model fits the individual books of the Bible better, the Huck Finn model or the Oliver Twist model? I am convinced that for most of the Hebrew Scriptures (AKA, the Old Testament or, the First Testament), the Oliver Twist model works better much of the time. In the New Testament, however, many, although not all of the books, seem to follow more along the lines of the Huck Finn model. In saying that, I also recognize that this is disputed among biblical scholars who find multiple sources, especially in the Gospels, as well as in other books. But for the other books, at least, we have very little hard (textual) evidence.

For this post, though, I want to only focus on the textual issues in the book of Acts, in part for brevity and in part, because it highlights the difficulty of identifying an original in one of the New Testament books. To summarize the textual issues with Acts, we have two distinct recensions, or versions, commonly referred to as Western and Alexandrian (Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 222-235; Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, xviii-xix). The Western text is nearly 10% longer than the Alexandrian text and Comfort describes it as “more colorful and filled with added circumstantial details.” But the changes are not limited to descriptions alone. As Metzger notes, “sometimes the shorter form contradicts the longer form” (Metzger, 225).

There are several theories about how to explain the two distinctive editions we find that circulated in the early Church. One is that the author, who we will call Luke, following tradition, wrote two distinct editions: an earlier one (although it is unclear which recension might actually be earlier) and a later one. If this were the case, then which text should be considered the original? They were both written by Luke. They were both accepted as scripture by the early Church. From the standpoint of the CSBI, we cannot consider both as originals and they contain contradictory details in places (e.g., Acts 21:16), anyways.  Most English Bible translations follow the Alexandrian text, usually considering it the earlier and therefore, superior edition. Some, such as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and, to a lesser extent, the New English Bible (NEB), are more heavily influenced by the Western recension.

Other theories have later scribes, maybe even some of Luke’s close colleagues, adding to the text, possibly just after Luke’s death or possibly more than a century after the initial edition. Regardless of the theory, one thing is clear: Both editions circulated widely in the early Church, with some of our oldest papyri as well as such luminaries as Cyprian and Augustine attesting the Western recension, whereas the great uncials (Greek texts in all capital letters – lower case hadn’t been invented, yet) Vaticanus (B) and Sinaiticus (א), our oldest copies of the New Testament, as well as several very early papyri, reflect the Alexandrian text.

My intent here is to highlight that the issue of originals is not straightforward and the CSBI, while appearing to deal with the issue, does so quite inadequately. And from my perspective, this gets far more complicated in the Hebrew Scriptures, which we will look at next week.  For now, though, we’ll leave it at that.

Does the issue of originals concern you? Does the transmission process undermine your confidence in Scripture? Which do you think is the original of Acts? Why?

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