If you’re looking for a way to critique the authority of Scripture, there are seemingly endless options. There are historical critiques (e.g., many of these books are forgeries). There are logical critiques (e.g., the Gospels contradict themselves). There are moral critiques (e.g., God is immoral to order the slaughter of entire cities). And there are hermeneutical critiques (e.g., no one can agree on what the Bible means).
In recent years, however, a more foundational challenge has arisen. All of the above critiques are essentially the same; they all argue the words of the Bible are not true. But this newer and more foundational challenge is not about whether the words of the Bible are true, but whether we have the words of the Bible at all.
At the core of this challenge is the fact that we only have handwritten copies of these books we treasure. And, in reality, we only have copies of copies of copies. And given that scribes made mistakes, and that the transmission process was imperfect, how can we be sure that these texts have been preserved? How can we be sure we actually have the words of Scripture?
Bart Ehrman’s best-selling book Misquoting Jesus focuses on this issue as it pertains to the New Testament text:
What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them . . . in thousands of ways.
If Ehrman is correct, then he has uncovered the single thread that would unravel the entire garment of the Christian faith. There is no need to critique the content of the New Testament if we don’t even have the New Testament.
But is this argument cogent? I think not. There are two places it can be challenged: (1) the role of the autographs and (2) the degree of corruption in the extant manuscripts.
Role of the Autographs
Ehrman’s focus on the autographs (or the absence of them) is not unusual in modern critiques of biblical authority. However, this sort of argument often creates the impression (even if it is unintentional) that the autographs are the original text—almost as if the original text were a physical object that has been lost.
But the original text is not a physical object. The autographs contain the original text, but the original text can exist without them. A text can be preserved in other ways. One such way is that the original text can be preserved in a multiplicity of manuscripts. In other words, even though a single surviving manuscript might not contain (all of) the original text, the original text could be accessible to us across a wide range of manuscripts.
Preserving the original text across multiple manuscripts, however, could only happen if there were enough of these manuscripts to give us assurance that the original text was preserved (somewhere) in them. Providentially, when it comes to the quantity of manuscripts, the New Testament is in a class all its own. Although the exact count is always changing, currently we possess more than 5,500 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek alone. No other document of antiquity even comes close.
Even though we do not possess the autographs, textual scholars have acknowledged that the multiplicity of manuscripts allows us to access the original text. Eldon Jay Epp notes, “The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the NT . . . that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material.”
Gordon Fee concurs: “The immense amount of material available to NT textual critics . . . is their good fortune because with such an abundance of material one can be reasonably certain that the original text is to be found somewhere in it.”
Of course, one might wonder why God chose to preserve the text in this manner. Why not just preserve the autographs? Why didn’t God just allow Christians to keep the autographs sealed away in a vault somewhere? For one, it is historically unlikely that the autographs could have survived until the present day, especially if they were being regularly used.
But it is also possible that God may have not wanted the autographs to survive. One can imagine how easily (and quickly) such documents would become objects of veneration, if not worship. They might have become the equivalent of Gideon’s ephod (Judges 8:27)—a good gift the people begin to treat as an idol.
Of course, we cannot know for sure why God providentially did not preserve the autographs. But, in one sense, it is fitting. It reminds us that the Word of God, like God himself, is not bound to a physical location or to a physical object. It is a Word that is not contained. It is a Word that goes forth.
Corruption of the Manuscripts
If, as we have seen, there are good reasons to think that the original text is preserved across the entire manuscript tradition (as opposed to being contained in a single manuscript), then there is still the question of how we identify the original text. How do we distinguish the original text from textual changes or corruptions? Can this even be done?
Ehrman would suggest it cannot. The reason for his skepticism is that the copies we posses are “error-ridden” and contain “thousands” of differences. In other words, the manuscripts are in such poor shape, so full of corruptions, that no methodology could extract the original text from them.
Again, this is a vast overstatement. While there are certainly many, many textual differences (hundreds of thousands, in fact), the key point is that the vast majority of these scribal changes are minor and insignificant—e.g., spelling mistakes, use of synonyms, and word-order changes. In the end, these do not substantively change the meaning of the text.
Of course, there are more substantive textual changes (much fewer in number) that do affect the meaning of the text. But these changes would only be a problem if we could not identify them as changes. Or to put differently, these kinds of variants would only be a problem if we could assume that every one of them was as equally viable as every other.
Thankfully, textual scholars can determine, with a relative degree of certainty, which of these readings were original and which were not. There are still some gray areas, some instances where a choice between variants is unclear. But, generally speaking, we can have confidence that the words we read are the words of the original authors.
Historically, Christian affirmations of biblical authority are often expressly restricted to the “autographs.” And there are obvious reasons for this view. Biblical authority does not apply to whatever a later scribe might happen to write down—it applies to what the biblical authors actually wrote.
But does the lack of autographs mean such affirmations of biblical authority are meaningless? No, because the authority does not reside in a physical object, but in the original text. And the original text has been preserved in another way, namely through the multiplicity of manuscripts.