Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

What Are the Nt Autographs? an Examination of the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy in Light of Greco-Roman Publication

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

What Are the Nt Autographs? an Examination of the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy in Light of Greco-Roman Publication

Article excerpt

In the last three hundred years and more, thousands of Greek manuscripts of the NT have been discovered and rediscovered in monasteries, ancient church libraries, university archives, and archaeological digs.1 Because the printing press was not invented until the mid-fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg, each of these thousands of Greek NT copies were produced entirely by hand with the result being that no two manuscripts have exactly the same text. This has introduced hundreds of thousands of variations within the textual tradition of the NT.2 These variations first came to the attention of modern theologians when John Mill, fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, published his edition of the Greek NT in 1707 which included a critical apparatus that noted some 30,000 variations in the text.3 Daniel Whitby, rector of St. Edmund's Salisbury, distressed at the number of these variations, "argued that the authority of the holy scriptures was in peril and that the assembling of critical evidence was tantamount to tampering with the text."4 As more and more ancient copies of the NT were discovered, and the number of known variations increased, modern theologians had to further refine the doctrine of Scripture by placing the process of God's inspiration of the writings of the NT upon the initial documents, or "autographs," penned by the authors and not upon any one manuscript or manuscript tradition.5

However, declaring that inspiration applies only to the "autographs" of the NT writings has led to questions pertaining to the exact definition of "autograph." Some have argued that, in regard to the NT writings, it is impossible to speak of only one autographic text.6 Others have proposed that the autographic text of the NT writings (however defined) should not be given privileged authority over other forms of the text that have been in use in different Christian communities over the centuries.7

This essay sketches the historical development of the doctrine of Scripture and the emphasis of placing the divine act of inspiration of the NT writings on the "autographs," followed by a survey of common objections to the doctrine. Then, Greco-Roman publication practices are examined by focusing on three personalities (two Roman and one Greek) from the beginning of the Roman Imperial age through to its height. A selection of contemporary papyrus "autographs" are highlighted in order to illustrate the pre-publication draft and re-writing stage of composition. Finally, a full definition of "autograph" as it relates to the NT writings and the doctrine of inspiration is explored in light of Greco-Roman publication.


The inerrancy debate raged in American evangelical circles for the better part of the twentieth century, culminating in the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy which held a series of meetings in Chicago in 1978 and formulated The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI).8 A hallmark of this doctrinal statement is found in Article X, 5 6 7 8

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.9

The exact boundaries and definitions of the terms used in the CSBI have been a point of contention for Christian theologians since its formulation, especially in regard to the terms "inerrancy," "infallible," and "autographic text."9 10

1. Historical development of the doctrine. Though the Princeton doctors Charles Hodge, Archibald A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield are usually singled out as the first to fully articulate a doctrine of Scripture using language that explicitly limited inerrancy to the "autographs" of Scripture, they were certainly not the first to emphasize the inspiration of the original documents. …

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