Does the Lack of Original Autographs Make Biblical Inerrancy Irrelevant?

Author Aaron Brake Published on 03/02/2018

Biblical inerrancy may be defined as follows:

[W]hen all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.1

One important element of this definition is that inerrancy only applies to the original autographs. But since we no longer have possession of the original autographs, the question is often raised, “Of what use or importance is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy? Is biblical inerrancy even relevant?” Some conclude that inerrancy is altogether irrelevant. In his book Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman states,

I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? 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....”2

This objection, left unanswered, may undermine our confidence and trust in Scripture, leading some to reject the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and others to conclude it is wholly irrelevant.

Let’s Get Metaphysical

But I believe our confidence in Scripture is not misplaced and biblical inerrancy is relevant. To help explain why this is so, let us consider the distinction commonly made by metaphysicians between word tokens and word types.3 Consider the following words:


Now ask yourself this question: “How many words are there?” The question is ambiguous because there is a sense in which it looks like there are two words (RED and BLUE), and another sense in which it looks like there are three words (RED, BLUE, and RED). The question receives clarification when we distinguish between word tokens and word types and specify which of the two we are interested in.

If we are asking how many word tokens there are, then we have three: two tokens of the word RED and one token of the word BLUE. A token is an individual, particular kind of thing. It is a specific thing that can only exist in one place at one time. If, on the other hand, we are asking how many word types there are, then we have two: the word type RED and the word type BLUE. A type in this case is a universal. It is repeatable and can be in more than one place at one time. It is the same word, which carries with it the same meaning.

Back to Biblical Inerrancy

What does this have to do with biblical inerrancy? When it is asserted that biblical inerrancy is irrelevant because we do not possess the original autographs, there is a failure to distinguish between the text tokens and the text type. We do have the original text type, even though we may not possess the original text tokens.

To help think about this further, consider that it is the word as a type that conveys meaning, not the word as a token. When we think of the word as a token we are thinking of it as a material object (i.e., black ink scribbled on a parchment). But when we think of the word as a type, we are thinking of it as a bearer of meaning. It becomes a shareable thing that we can have, for example, both in our mind and in a book in front of us at the same time.

Now, this is where textual criticism comes into play. When it comes to the text of the New Testament, even though we do not have the original text tokens (the original autographs as material scribbling on parchment), we are able to reconstruct with great confidence the original text type. Without going into a full-length treatment on the topic of textual criticism, Daniel Wallace notes the following concerning the New Testament text:

  • Besides the nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament text we possess, we also have between fifteen and twenty thousand copies of ancient translations and over 1 million quotations of the text by the church fathers.
  • Over a period of 1400 years, the New Testament text grew by only 2%.
  • Only 1% of textual variants are meaningful (to some degree) and viable.
  • Not one textual variant in this category (meaningful and viable) affects any essential Christian doctrine or teaching.4

In other words, when we take into account the work of textual critics, we have good reason to believe that we possess the text type, which bears the original meaning of the original text tokens. This is very important to understand: the problem with identifying the original text is not that we have lost the original text/meaning. We haven’t. Variant readings are stubbornly preserved, a fact known as the tenacity of the New Testament text. The original reading is present; we only need to identify it.5

Notice now that the issue of biblical inerrancy becomes an epistemic one, i.e., “Do we have good reason to believe we have the original text/meaning in this particular passage?” The concern is no longer with the metaphysical claim, which says we could never have the original text/meaning. We do have the original text type, just not the original text tokens.

Why Didn’t God Preserve the Originals?

The next question often raised is this: “Why would God allow the original manuscript text tokens (i.e., the original autographs) to be lost?”

Here is one answer I find compelling: We have greater epistemic certainty about the original text type through the application of textual criticism to the thousands of available copies than we would if we only had the original text tokens.

How so? If Christians claimed to have the original autographs, it would seem rather easy to raise epistemic doubts regarding how we know those “originals” have not been corrupted or tampered with in the last 2,000 years. Would it really be possible to establish a 2,000-year-old chain of custody for the original autographs? Apologists would be very hard-pressed to come up with a convincing and reliable answer. In other words, if we were basing our entire case for the reliability of the New Testament on twenty-seven material objects (the original autographs or text tokens), we would need to provide a very reliable epistemic case that those material objects have maintained their integrity for the last 2,000 years, and that would prove very difficult.

But thanks be to God, this is not the history of our received New Testament text. Instead, God in His wisdom took the originals, and using fallible men to reproduce them, diffused the original text type into thousands of documents that together provide a broad, reliable epistemic basis and assurance we still possess the original text. Given the historical scenario, wholesale change of the text became impossible:

By having the text of the New Testament in particular explode across the known world, ending up in the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire in relatively short order, God protected that text from the one thing we, centuries and millennia later, could never detect: wholesale change of doctrine or theology by one particular man or group who had full control over the text at any one point in its history...there was never a time when anyone or any group could gather up all the manuscripts and make extensive changes in the text itself.6

The original text type diffused into thousands of documents could then be reconstructed through the process of textual criticism, allowing us to have great confidence in our New Testament and ensuring the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is still relevant today.

So, let’s put this all together: Metaphysically, the original text is present as a type today even if the tokens are gone, and it is the type that matters because it is the type which carries meaning. Can we ascertain the original text type and meaning? That is an epistemic question and we are on more epistemically solid ground regarding the text of the New Testament when we apply textual criticism to the thousands of copies in our possession than we would be having only claimed to possess the originals. The tenacity of the New Testament text guarantees the original reading has been preserved, and no variant in the text affects any major doctrine or essential teaching of the Christian faith. Therefore, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is still relevant today. Some may reject inerrancy on other grounds, but it shouldn’t be rejected because we no longer possess the original text tokens.