Is the Meaning of Original, Original?

Continuing our treatment of the places where we agree with out opposing interlocutors, we now come to certain crucial nuances between our two positions. To reiterate, we agree

“that the original documents written at the hand of Moses or David or Paul or John have been lost to the attrition of time and use.”

But on the point of “original” there are several nuances which deserve attention. Those nuances are as follows:

Our position is that “original” means and only means the collection of words in specific first century documents written by the inspired writer [e.g., Moses, David, Paul etc.] at a specific time in that writer’s life and by the immediate bearing along of that writer by the Holy Spirit in writing those words. In other words, the only originals are the collection of words which the original penmen wrote in a document by the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Our opponents maintain several different understandings of “original” and it is these nuances that we desire to get ironed out both here on the blog and in person if necessary.

1.) “Original” can merely mean first in the order of textual being. The original in this context is simply the first and progenitor of all other copies that follow. There is no need to employ criteria such as inspiration or the bearing along of the Holy Spirit to define “original” in this regard. If you pay careful attention to the argument of our interlocutors you will find that this is a widely used definition for “original” in evangelical and non-evangelical circles.

2.) “Original” in the mouth of someone like Bart Ehrman takes many forms. It may be the original message as it appeared in the mind of the penman which then took approximate shape on the page as he wrote down the words. It may be the first of all the copies that follow. It may be a corrected version of the first written document, kind of like what a second draft is to a first.

3.) “Original” may not refer to a specific document at all. We see this inferred in language surrounding the meaning and discussion of “jot and title.” Many prominent evangelical textual scholar assert that jot and tittle cannot mean the preservation of the original letters and parts of letters in a single document. Rather, the meaning is hyperbolic having to do with original meaning and not original words. Admittedly, for some, defining jot and tittle in terms of meaning may be oblique to the overall definition of “original.” Still, the point remains that the emphasis of original falls primarily on meaning and not on the inspired original words.

4.) There is a movement among the world’s leading textual critics to abandon the search for and reconstruction of the original words of the first documents which underlie the received books of the New Testament. Which is to say, not only has the general definition of “original” lost most if not all of its definitional supernatural elements, it is now thought to be wholly lost in document and word unless of course a Qumran-level discovery were to happen in our lifetime.

One caveat: Consider for a moment the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Doesn’t that clearly and concisely claim that the originals were indeed perfect and inspired? Indeed, it does. But note that the worth of the originals for the present day Church in this regard hangs quite heavily on the idea that the original documents are lost. Do they mean that God’s original words are lost? To admit as much has deep and negative theological implications for most evangelicals, so I don’t think they mean we lost God’s original words when they say the originals are lost.

So what then is the emphasis on this point of the originals being lost according to the Chicago Statement? The emphasis falls to a treatment of the originals as merely the first and progenitor of all subsequent copies, as a mere historical artifact. Put another way, the insistence upon the lostness of the originals in this way, especially within the context of modern textual criticism, implicitly defines the originals in terms of mere beginnings while simultaneously diminishing the supernatural characteristics of the Originals.

I am guilty of doing this very thing, but it seems to me that it is the words which make the Original the Original and no right-thinking Christian is going to say that any of the original words are lost. Does it not seem to be the case that without the original words written on a specific piece of ancient paper that paper could never be the Original. Thus when we say the originals are lost to the wastes of time and use we are speaking of mere paper upon which the original words are written. But nothing, not even the perishable paper upon which the original words of Scripture are written can render the Original lost.

Thus we have two kinds of lost originals. We have lost historical artifacts which contain the original inspired words of God and we have the question of whether or not any of the original, as to words, has been lost. Put simply we have lost original artifacts but no lost original words. It is because of this truth that Protestant Scholastics could speak of their canonical Greek apographa [i.e., copy] as the original. It was called Original not because it was the artifact written at the hand of John or Paul. It was called Original because their canonical Greek apographa was believed to be the Original as to words. And it is in this latter sense the Church has not lost the Original to the wastes of time and use.

For some you may think that we are splitting hairs, but that of course is the point of offering a nuance – a subtle difference in meaning. For others I hope that you can see the difference between our definition and the standard Critical Text/Multiple Versions Only definitions. As such, on the point of “original” these are some of the places we would like to carry on the discussion. We invite you to join us or to invite us to join you.

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