I don’t think I’ve read much dealing with this question, in part because of the debate over inerrancy quickly takes over and the original question is lost to answers of “It became Scripture when it was written down!”
I get that. I fully agree with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, and I believe it summarizes the Evangelical position pretty well when it says:
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.
I must admit that I’m not writing this article to put forth a position to debate about, but to put forth a question to think over and discuss. Hopefully we each can add a little to the discussion for a better understanding of this issue, and I believe it is really an issue (unlike the question of whether Adam and Eve had bellybuttons).
Textual Criticism and the Autographs
The goal of New Testament textual criticism is to try to replicate what the Gospels, letters, and other books originally said in the autographs, that is, what Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the others actually wrote. We try to identify when a variant reading originated and move later variants to the footnotes or remove them from the text entirely. When we aren’t sure, we pick what we believe to be the most likely and include the second (and sometimes third) most likely variant in the footnotes. Exceptions to this general rule include verses like Acts 8:37 and 1 John 5:7-8 which have been relegated to the footnotes, not because they are significant variants, but because people want to know why they were in the KJV but not modern translations today.
I believe this kind of textual criticism is a good thing. But the question that dogs me right now is this, “How do we define the autograph?” The answer is not as simple as you might think.
Was that in the Autograph?
No book of the Bible appeared in final form out of nowhere. We don’t have magical gold plates that dropped out of heaven with the Gospel of John contained therein. The books were written. Each book of the Bible started with a single pen stroke. Then a letter. Then a word. Over the process of minutes, hours, days, or longer, each book of the Bible came into existence.
Was 1 John really an autograph when the last sentence, “Little Children, keep yourselves from idols,” was written? I believe so. That is why the Johannine Comma, an addition in 1 John 5:7-8 that doesn’t appear in Greek until the 13th century, is relegated to a footnote. It was added long after the autograph had been written.
But it gets more complicated from here, especially when we apply the principles of textual criticism, as we see them applied to the New Testament, to the Old Testament. Consider the ending of Deuteronomy:
So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab as the Lord had said. He buried him in the land of Moab near Beth Peor, but no one knows his exact burial place to this very day. Moses was 120 years old when he died, but his eye was not dull nor had his vitality departed. The Israelites mourned for Moses in the deserts of Moab for thirty days; then the days of mourning for Moses ended. Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had placed his hands on him; and the Israelites listened to him and did just what the Lord had commanded Moses. No prophet ever again arose in Israel like Moses, who knew the Lord face to face. He did all the signs and wonders the Lord had sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, all his servants, and the whole land, and he displayed great power and awesome might in view of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:5-12, NET).
The authorship of Deuteronomy is attributed to Moses in multiple places. This last section was obviously added by someone other than Moses (tradition attributes it to Joshua, but the sentence “No prophet ever again arose in Israel like Moses” might indicate an even later date). Should it be moved to a footnote or eliminated entirely? I can’t think of anyone who would suggest that. So why does an obvious addition to the text make it in Deuteronomy, but not in the case of 1 John? Is it because the second writer was probably the author of another book (Joshua)? Is it because there are no known manuscripts that exclude the paragraph? Does the fact that it was added at the end instead of the middle make a difference?
Or what about Psalms and Proverbs? The Old Testament song book contains psalms as early as Moses and as late as the return of the exiles. That’s a long time for a book to come together. Was each Psalm an autograph when it was written, or when the book was finally combined into a whole? Hypothetically speaking, if changes were introduced to a Psalm before the book was compiled into one, would those changes be authoritative?
Proverbs 25:1 says, “These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of King Hezekiah of Judah copied.” This was about 200 years after Solomon. Hypothetically speaking, if a variant appeared in an earlier proverb before the final book came together, would it be an autograph, or non-canonical? At what point was Proverbs an autograph—before Hezekiah’s additions/compilation, or after?
I am not citing examples from 1 John, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Proverbs because I believe we’ve included or excluded something from the canon. I only use them to ask the question, “If some later editing, compiling, or adding was obviously done in some books of the Bible and we consider those edits, compilations, and additions as authoritative, at what point do we consider the editing process complete and the book closed?”
A Specific (and Non-Hypothetical) Example
These questions bear real relevance for two very important texts—John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. Most scholars are in agreement that these two texts are not original to John or Mark’s Gospels. Should we consider these variants as part of the autographs, like the ending of Deuteronomy and Hezekiah’s additional material in Proverbs, or should we reject them as non-inspired like the additional material in 1 John 5:7-8? Could later edits, compilations, or additions to the New Testament manuscripts count as part of the autograph, and if so, which, and how much later?
If you’d like to throw in your two cents on the following two questions, leave a comment below:
How do we consistently define an ‘autograph’ when some books existed in part before they were completed in their final form much later by different authors?
If some later editing, compiling, or adding was done in some books of the Bible and we consider those edits, compilations, and additions as authoritative, at what point do we consider the editing process complete and the autograph complete, especially in the case of the two New Testament examples cited above?