snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Inerrancy of "the autographs"?

Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) says, "We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from the available manuscripts with great accuracy." Such a qualification of articulutions of the doctrines of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture is pretty standard in Reformed and evangelical circles these days. But I have begun to doubt whether the notion of "the autographic text of Scripture" or "the autographs" is able to function in our doctrines of Scripture in the ways that we have been wanting it to.
It's not difficult to say that "inspiration, strictly speaking, applies to the autographic text" of, say, Paul's Epistle to the Romans, where there is something to which we can pretty clearly point as being "the autograph," namely, the letter that came from Tertius' pen at Paul's dictation. But what do you say about books of the Bible that do not seem to have had anything that can clearly be thought of as being "the autographs"?
Take Jeremiah, for instance. Dillard and Longman write, "For generations it has been recognized that the Septuagint [LXX] of the text of Jeremiah does not contain the equivalents for about 2,700 words in the Masoretic text [MT] of the book, about one-seventh of the total. Not only is the LXX shorter, but the materials are arranged in a different order; most notably, the oracles against the foreign nations (Jer. 46-51 in the MT) have been relocated to a position after Jeremiah 25:13, and the order in which the various nations are introduced has also been altered" (Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 291). The debate that pretty naturally arose from the examination of this data concerned the question of whether these differences between the MT and the LXX reflected gross scribal error or whether the Hebrew text from which the LXX was translated was just different from that of the MT, reflecting a different edition of the book of Jeremiah. Well, that question was pretty much settled when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Fragments of three manuscripts of Jeremiah were found in cave 4 at Qumran. The text of two of them, 4QJera and 4QJerc, resembled the MT a great deal. The third, 4QJerb, however, agreed with the Hebrew text type that was supposed to have been translated into the Greek LXX. Here it seems is overwhelming evidence that there were multiple editions and versions of Jeremiah floating around in the ancient world. One version survives in 4QJerb and the LXX and another survives in the MT and in most English translations.
Now the question becomes, "How do you assert the inerrancy of the autograph for a text that came together in multiple editions and versions? How can you say what would count as the autograph without just being arbitrary?"
The same sort of question arises in the case of the Pentateuch. The text of the Pentateuch gives evidence of having come together at dates later than the time of Moses. Texts such as Genesis 36:31, "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites," make little or no sense in a Mosaic context but make all sorts of sense in the Monarchic period or later. If the Pentateuch came together, as is likely, over the course of a few centuries through multiple editions, additions, versions and translations, which edition counts as "the autograph"? How do you choose without being arbitrary? If you say that the bit that Moses wrote is the autograph, you may well end up with a Pentateuch that includes only the Book of the Covenant (or less). And what would give anyone the right to say that, anyways? It was the full MT Pentateuch that was accepted as canonical.
The point of all this is that it seems that evangelicals and Reformed may be leaning too heavily on this notion of "the autographs" in our articulations of the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. There are cases of Biblical books where there just might not have been anything that you could really call "the autographs" or where "the autographs" may be pretty drastically different from the versions that were recognized as canonical Scripture.
What would I suggest as a more sufficient notion than "the autographs"? The canonical versions? I'm not sure. I'm not so sure that there is going to be any one notion that's going to work for every book of the Bible. The Bible is a wonderfully complex and diverse book. "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets...." The Bible just might be irreducibly complex in such a way that no single notion is going to sum up what is the locus of God's inerrant, inspired word for every single book. For some books it may be their autographs, for others it may be their canonical versions, for others it may be something else, and so on. In principle, it would seem that God could inspire His word any way that He wants, with or without an "autograph."


Blogger Spielberg said...


thank you for your insights on these complex issuses. You serve wonderfully as a tool to enrich our understanding of God's word.


11:28 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Tyler. My hope is to spark a bit of a dialogue on some of these issues. My hope is to get a bit of a discussion going here because I feel like a discussion on these sorts of issues really, really needs to happen.
ps. I like your user-name, "Spielberg."

6:52 AM  
Blogger ritly said...

hey dave-

i think you've been reading too much plantinga. i don't find it acceptable to argue against one criteria without offering another in it's place. it's just irritating. i would agree that a more complex and/or less specific criteria needs to be offered. while i'm not in a great position to develop one, i'm curious to know how you would respond to a person who accuses you of arbitrarily selecting what to believe. suppose i've decided not to take jeremiah as scripture because it deals a devastating blow to my new testament theology. what would you offer to dissuade such a person?


3:32 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Good to hear from you. Sorry to irritate you with my criticism of concept of “the autographs.” If what you mean by “criteria” is epistemic criteria, I’m not so sure that “the autographs” could really function very well as epistemic criteria anyways, seeing as how even if every book of the Bible had a clearly identifiable autograph, we still do not actually have the autographs. What we have are scholarly reconstructions that have been worked out according to the criteria of textual criticism, which are themselves epistemic criteria, and epistemic criteria that are worked out independently of the Scriptures themselves to boot. Even if you’re a King James only type, the KJV’s NT is translated from Erasmus’ (shoddy) scholarly reconstruction of the text of the NT. So if it’s epistemic criteria you’re looking for, I don’t know that “the autographic text of Scripture” is your best bet anyways.
It also begs the question, “Was the Christian Canon intended to be an epistemic criterion?” I have my doubts. I’m thinking specifically William J. Abraham’s book, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology (OUP: 1998), where he charts the Canon’s journey from being formed alongside canons of councils, canon law, canonical icons, sacramental practices and so on as basically an integral part of the life and worship of the Church, to being treated as an epistemic criterion for theology and philosophy. This is not to say that the Canon doesn’t contain the truth. But there’s a difference between containing truth and being an epistemic criterion.
But anyways, to our imaginary rejecter of Jeremiah I think I would ask why his NT theology should be so protected from such a devastating blow? It seems that he, like Luther, is operating with a canon within the Canon, namely his assumption that his NT theology is correct and any Scripture that doesn’t square with that can be shrugged off like a warm coat in springtime. I for one share Calvin’s conviction, a conviction that is, I think, the work of the Holy Spirit, that the whole of Scripture is binding upon my conscience such that I must square my theology with it, including both its content and its mode of composition, rather than casting aside inconvenient Scriptures. What can I say? I stand in the Reformed tradition.

6:00 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Hooray! We have dialogue!

6:02 PM  
Blogger Mark Traphagen said...


We need a lot more thinking like this. It does us little credit to form our own definitions of hypothetical ideals (such as "autographs") and then claim them as proofs for our doctrines.

12:55 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Yea and amen!
Thanks, Mark. You know, it's funny. J.D.G. Dunn pointed out that, whether we realize it or not, all of us in the Western world are children of Gutenberg and Caxton. We generally share the common mindset of a literary rather than oral culture and we generally share a lot of assumptions about how a given piece literature should come together. We're used to books being written by single authors over short periods of time. We're used to anthologies and edited volumes with their publication dates printed in the front. But in our culture we're just not used to the sorts of traditioning, translating, retelling redacting sorts of practices by which a great deal of Ancient literature was composed. Such methods are simply foreign to us. We don't know if we can trust (or entrust ourselves to!) literature that was composed in (what seems to us) such an erratic and serendipitous manner. I wonder if sometimes we don't struggle with these issues of the Bible's composition for the same reasons that I avoid sushi?

6:58 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

One could just say, I suppose, that "autographs" is a stretchy concept and that in the case of something like Jeremiah or Samuel there are multiple autographs, all of which are inerrant and inspired.

On a related note, in his commentary on Job, Thomas Aquinas runs into textual variants at several points where it's impossible to determine which is the "correct" reading. But he doesn't see this as any sort problem, but as a feature of the richness and fecundity of Scriptural revelation, a richness so abundant that Scripture even comes in several variations!

5:03 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

"'There's glory for you!' 'I don't know what you mean by "glory,"'Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knockdown argument for you!"' 'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knockdown argument",' Alice objected. 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master--that's all.'"

Joel, I have to say that I lean towards Alice's approach to the meaning of words more than Humpty Dumpty's. One might stretch the word "autograph" like Humpty Dumpty stretched the word "glory." I just don't know how helpful that is in the long run. The framers of the Chicago Statement almost certainly did not have a stretchy definition for "autograph" and, for the sake of clarity, I don't think it's necessarily helpful to stretch the concept in conversations surrounding inerrancy. I'm probably going to have to stretch a number of words beyond their usual meanings in my articulations of the doctrine of Scripture as it is and I don't want to end up with a language completely divorced from common usage: a language wherein it's difficult to effectively communicate what I mean. But that probably all boils down to conflicting intuitions :)

Thanks for the Aquinas reference. When I buy you that beer I owe you, we'll make it a Guinness. They're good for you I hear.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Well, that was meant somewhat tongue in cheek, though it's worth pointing out that many of the framers of the CSBI were certainly aware of and accepted the sort of data you point out (later editing, later compilation, multiple authorship, canonical shaping, use of amanuensis, etc.).

So their notion of "autograph" was a bit elastic to begin with. The question would be whether it's elastic enough to cover cases such as MT/LXX/Qumran divergences (though are those textual difficulties different from other examples only in degree or in kind?).

Still, as you seem to be saying, the word "autograph" itself is suggestive of something much less complex and more straightforward: that most biblical texts came, more or less, from a single human author. Certainly the parallel with the term "autograph" applied to celebrity signatures points in that direction.

Ah well.

7:30 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I figured there was a tad of sarcasm behind your post. Didn't mean to insinuate anything about your take on inerrancy.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines "autograph" thus: "something written or made with one's own hand: a : an original manuscript or work of art b : a person's handwritten signature"

I guess my trouble is that the word "autograph" just seems ill suited for describing the phenomena in question. In my experience speaking of the "autograph(a)" of Jeremiah just ends up being either misleading or confusing. If at least some of the CSBI guys had the things in mind you say they did, it just seems to me that their use of the word "autograph" is a lot like Humpty Dumpty's use of the word "glory."

9:57 AM  
Blogger Foolish Tar Heel said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Foolish Tar Heel said...

And speaking of 'glory,' this brings me to our Mishnah quote of the day:

He who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he teaches her sexual satisfaction. -Sotah 3:4

10:23 AM  
Blogger jkirklin said...

I don't really see the problem in having some elasticity in the term "autograph(a)." Doing so covers all redactional activity as being inspired, since God didn't intend for Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, etc. to be penned by only one person but he did intend for them to be his word. Part of the reason this problem even comes up in the first place is because we're using the MT as MT - that is, Masoretic Text as Majority Text. Why do we approach OT textual criticism in a majority text fashion but NT textual criticism as an actual science? Maybe BHQ will clear some of these issues up.

3:05 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Thanks for posting. That's a really good question: Why DO we approach the Massoretic Text in a Majority Text fashion? I'd never really thought of that.

I still don't see why we should stretch the term "autograph", though. The term is just downright misleading when applied to certain books. It's not to call inspiration into question. It's just to ask "What did God inspire?" He may have inspired a text with an autograph, He may have inspired a text with no discernible autograph, He may have inspired the canonical version, and so on.
I'm just more inclined to drop the word "autograph" and start hunting for a better one than I am to stretch the word "autograph" when talking about books with compositional histories like Jeremiah's and the Pentateuch's.

I do wonder if our attachment to "the autographic text of Scripture" doesn't have some roots in the typical Protestant take on the Canon having simply been recognized by the Church rather than decided by the Church. Books that had these long, complex compositional histories seem like they were formed by the people of God more than simply being dropped into our laps and recognized as Scripture. These questions about Scripture may involve questions about the Spirit's activity amongst the people of God as well.

4:03 PM  
Blogger jkirklin said...

The question to answer would be when the term "autograph" began to be used. I've always been under the impression that the term was employed to maintain inspiration and authority despite scribal errors - that is, even if we don't have one single autograph, there was yet an original text with an authorial intention that is prior to transmission and transmission errors of that text.

I guess it's also interesting to ask why it is that "God's word" is a category that has always been able to function as inspired and inerrant even if "benign" (there's an ambiguous metaphor) scribal errors are included, given the fact that we haven't ever had any autographa. Perhaps church fathers were more hermeneutically sophisticated than we think? I dunno . . .

4:31 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Hey Jason,
Yes, the notion of "the autographs" is usually invoked to guard the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture against errors in their transmission. My point is that the notion of "the autographs" assumes certain things about the text's composition, assumptions that turn out not necessarily to be true of every book for which we would want to claim inspiration and inerrancy. The trouble with the word is that it just doesn't fit with the ways some of the Scriptures came together in the first place. How they were transmitted is a different issue, although for some of the books (like the Pentateuch) it is difficult to tell where composition ends and transmission begins.
Under His mercy,

7:32 PM  
Blogger jkirklin said...

My point is that technically I would think "autograph" would apply to all redactional stages of a work.

2:37 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Well, I can see how that would work for a book like Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament, which has gone through 4 editions, each of which includes some updating and editing. In that case the same author has a hand in the editing and the 4th edition is still very much the same work that came from Metzger's hand, albeit modified in some ways.

And, true, each of the literary sources redacted together to form the books of our Bibles go back to somebodies' autographs. If you follow Wellhausen (I don't), somebody had to put pen to papyrus and write out the P source. So there would, I suppose, have been an autographic text of P. But is P itself Scripture?
The trouble is in trying to locate inspiration and inerrancy in "the autographic text of Scripture" in particular. If you inflate the idea of "the autographic text of Scripture" to include all redactional stages of a work, does that include the sources redacted together (e.g., J, E, D, P, Q, "Instructions of Amenope", the whole bunch)? And when you have scribes intentionally modifying a text, that's redaction. Where do you draw the line between inspired and uninspired intentional scribal modification? I'm really trying to get at the trouble with the more specific and troublesome notion of "the autographic text of Scripture" or "the inspired autographs." I just don't think you can apply your stretched notion of "autograph" to Scripture without ending up with a massively inflated Bible that includes everything from sources to scribal errors. It's these sorts of considerations that make me think that the term "autograph" is just ill suited for describing Scriptural books with complicated compositional histories. I still think it works just fine for books like Romans and Mark. Just not for Jeremiah, the Pentateuch and the like.

5:13 PM  

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