One of the hallmarks of recent (and perhaps not-so-recent) expressions of the doctrine of Scripture has been the claim that the autographs were inerrant. There are, however, problems with this assertion.
- First, it is untestable because we don’t have the autographs.
- Second, it is largely irrelevant, because we don’t have the autographs (why would God go to all the trouble of ensuring that the autographs were inerrant but then let them be lost and allow errors to exist in the copies?).
- Third, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Scripture itself does not require that the autographs be inerrant in the sense most modern scholars seem to use the word (that is, in a way that is distinct from the preserved copies and translations). In fact, Scripture contains no indication of any awareness of a meaningful distinction between the autographs and extant copies or translations.
- Fourth, the multilingual, intertextual nature of Scripture actually militates against the underlying reasoning which claims that the autographs should have been inerrant!
This last point is, perhaps, the most interesting. Let me expand a little. Unlike most other sets of holy books for most other religions, the Christian Bible is composed of texts written in a number of languages (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). Furthermore, the Greek texts (i.e. the New Testament) make reference to and quote from the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures, but do so in Greek.
It is this last observation which has some significant bearing on the doctrine of Scripture. The Greek parts treat copies of translations of copies of the Hebrew/Aramaic parts with full authority, not some contingent authority which is mitigated by an awareness of the possible loss of immediacy and integrity which results from the errant transmission and translation of the autographs. If this is the case, why privilege the inaccessible, nonexistent autographs when Scripture itself does not do so? It seems to me to be a concession to the exigencies of some theological systems rather than anything arising out of Scripture itself!
What then can we say about the preservation of Scripture? Rather than claiming that inerrant Scripture existed in the autographs alone, it appears more exegetically defensible to claim that Scripture is preserved in all the extant copies considered together — so that the eclectic text derived from analysis and comparison of those text is the authoritative Scripture.