The Imaginary “Original Text”

While the Church has always held that the Scriptures are free from error, within the realm of (particularly American) Protestantism, the concept of the inerrancy of the Scriptures came to take on a particularly pointed character in the late 19th and early 2oth centuries.  Having posited the idea of Sola Scriptura, that the Scriptures would be, for Protestant communities, the sole infallible rule of faith and life, modern modes of textual criticism became a threat to the entirety of traditional Protestant doctrine.  While many conservative Protestant scholars have engaged, to varying degrees, with critical methodology, the defining aspect of their doctrinal conservativism for the past century and a half has been the affirmation that the Scriptures are free from error of any and all kinds.

In order to make this position tenable, however, in the face of textual and historical evidence, certain qualifications have been made.  There are, for example, nearly 6,000 manuscripts of New Testament documents.  Every one of these individual manuscripts very clearly contains errors, from misspellings to omitted or added words to whole units of Scripture being missing or relocated.  Because, again, Protestantism has historically placed the authority in the text itself, this is a significant problem.  Conservative scholars, therefore, will point out that nearly all of these errors are easily identified precisely because of the wealth of textual evidence.  None of these errors significantly touches any portion of Christian doctrine.

The key and foundational qualification, however, which undergirds all the rest, is that the texts which make up the Scriptures are without any sort of error only in the autographs, the originals.  The original text was without error, while later copies will have human errors as a result of the copying process.  The wide range of manuscripts, it is then asserted, provides the means through comparison and now modern computerized compilation methods to establish the contents of those originals.  As one important statement on inerrancy, the Chicago Statement puts it in Article X, “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.”

This may, at first blush, seem a perfectly reasonable statement.  Pressing it even gently, however, causes it to fall apart in a way that makes it utterly unsuitable to support the super-structure which these scholars seek to base upon it.  This assertion is being called upon to create an infallible standard that will then be used to argue that a whole system of doctrine and praxis is directly inspired by God and without error.  One problem, immediately, is the phrase “with great accuracy.”  To argue that a system of doctrine is true because it reflects an infallible rule “with great accuracy” creates a hole through which one can drive a small caravan of trucks.  This is not just a theoretical possibility.  It is reflected in the wide range of doctrinal positions and practices held by communities all claiming to be “accurately” following the same infallible rule.  The degree to which any translation “faithfully represents” the “accurate” reconstruction of the original wedges this door even further open.  Even if a foundation is theoretically solid, an edifice separated from that foundation by a layer of shifting sand will be able to derive none of that solidity.

This presupposition, indeed this entire approach to the Scriptures, has a far more fatal flaw.  Namely, the “original text” here posited to be inerrant is imaginary.  It doesn’t exist.  Not only is the Bible as a whole a collection of texts which was assembled across a vast span of time, but the individual texts were themselves not the product of a single moment of composition.  It is telling that in these discussions of the inerrancy of the Bible, only the New Testament seems to be the subject of discussion.  The number of New Testament manuscripts is given.  The high degree of confidence about the text of the New Testament is described.  The original is described as “what St. Paul wrote,” “what St. John wrote,” “what St. Luke wrote,” etc.  As soon as one looks to the Old Testament, these arguments quickly become incoherent.

While the Torah, or Pentateuch, is Mosaic in origin, the language and style in which our earliest manuscripts are written did not exist at the time of Moses.  This means that minimally, these texts have been translated and edited.  There are several texts in the Torah that describe Moses writing things (eg. Num 33:1-2).  Indeed, there are portions of the Torah, such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32, not coincidentally the first two Odes of the Canon, which appear to date back to the time of Moses in something very close to their present, archaic form.  These archaic texts stand out precisely because they are of a centuries older style and composition than the rest of the text, however.  In a number of places, the later editing makes itself explicit, for example by listing former and later names for the same place (eg. references to the city of Dan, previously Laish; Gen 14:14; cf. Jdgs 18:29) or referring to elements of narrated events remaining “until this very day” (eg. Deut 34:6).  What, then, would constitute “the original text” of the Torah?  Only what Moses wrote on tablets?  If so, this text is not only utterly lost to us in its details, but is a text which hasn’t held canonical authority in any community, Christian or Jewish, in at least the last 2,500 years.  One can point to our earliest or best manuscripts of the Torah, which postdate Moses by more than a millennium.  These are not, however, “the original” in any meaningful way, but later heavily edited copies.  Minimally, this would be applying a radically different standard to the Old Testament than that applied to the New.

The book of the Psalms, likewise, consists of independent poetic units, the oldest ones attributed to Moses, others clearly from the time after the exile in Babylon nearly a thousand years later.  Within the book of Psalms, there are five ‘books’ of the psalter, representing smaller collections of psalms that were later brought together to form the Biblical book as we now know it.  Even within that finished book, however, the numbering of the Psalms differs in Hebrew and Greek because some psalm texts are united in one and divided in the other.  The book of Proverbs is likewise a compilation of smaller compilations.  What constitutes the “original” Psalm or Proverb?  It’s original written, independent existence?  Its first compilation?  Its eventual final compilation into the canonical book?  Only the first manuscript of that collection?

The same difficulties hold true in the prophetic literature.  We are told that Isaiah’s prophecies were written and collected by his disciples (Isa 8:16-20).  Isaiah did not write the book as a single act, and there is good evidence in our present book of Isaiah that it consists of more than one collection of Isaiah’s prophecies brought together into one text.  The book of Jeremiah exists in the original Hebrew in two distinct forms which are approximately one-third different in their texts, in addition to the other Jeremiah material, the books of Lamentations, Baruch, and Jeremiah’s epistle.  Are Isaiah’s spoken words the original?  Their first recording?  Their initial compilation?  What about the narrative material written by Isaiah’s disciples to link and contextualize his statements?  Are these elements of Isaiah subsidiary in authority or do they constitute part of “the original”?

That the Christian Old Testament is the product of a millennium and a half long process is therefore obvious to the honest observer of the material.  That the New Testament is the product of a similar process is perhaps less obvious.  People tend to imagine St. Paul sitting down to write his letters to the churches, or St. John sitting down to write his Gospel, composing it as a single action.  This is not accurate.  We know that St. Paul did not hand-write his epistles as he states at certain points that he is writing ‘with his own hand’ and that this can be seen by the size of the letters (Gal 6:11, 2 Thess 3:17).  Normally, St. Paul utilized a sort of secretary, known as an amanuensis (Rom 16:22, 1 Cor 16:21, Col 4:18).  The typical process for the composition of such an epistle would have been for St. Paul to deliver it orally to the secretary who wrote it down and would provide corrections for good written style and grammar.  The author would then review the text, making any corrections he deemed necessary, and then the letter would be delivered by another person, who would read the letter aloud to the community to which it was written, and be expected to be able to answer questions regarding its content.

In addition to this composition process, by the end of the first century, St. Paul’s letters had been gathered into a collection and were circulating in that collected form.  All of our extant manuscripts of the epistles come from this collection.  This collection also involved editing.  What we now call 2 Corinthians, for example, includes at least two of St. Paul’s epistles edited together.  Although many of the Fathers believed that someone other than St. Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, it is still traditionally ascribed to St. Paul because it has circulated, from the beginning, as part of this collection.  What, then, is the “original” of a Pauline epistle?  Is it the words that left St. Paul’s mouth?  The way they were recorded or edited by him in cooperation with his secretary?  Is it the epistle as it was eventually collected and utilized in the earliest churches?

What has been said here about St. Paul’s epistles could be said as well for the other New Testament texts.  Like St. Paul’s epistles, the four Gospels and the general epistles were collected and circulated as collections from at least the year AD 150.  St. Luke describes his process in the composition of Luke/Acts as having compiled information from various eyewitness sources.  Additionally, there are two versions of Luke-Acts found among Biblical manuscripts that are of considerably different lengths.  One common thesis as to how this came about is that the longer form of these texts represents a sort of ‘second edition’ also written by St. Luke.  Further, somewhat less than half of our extant manuscripts are lectionaries.  While printed New Testaments typically ignore these manuscripts (the Patriarchal text utilizes solely lectionaries, but only 10% of those extant), they are some of our earliest textual witnesses.  They preserve the text, however, out of order and with added words and phrases of introduction and conclusion.  These texts sometimes build composite readings from multiple parts of a book or even multiple books.

All of this is to say that it is not enough to state that a theoretical ‘original’ version of the texts which make up the Scriptures was inspired or breathed out by the Holy Spirit.  In the case of most of the texts in question, it is difficult to even determine what this ‘original’ text would be.  The text as it came to exist in the author’s mind?  What left his mouth?  What was first written?  What was produced following the initial edit?  Later edits?  The text as it existed in the earliest collections?  The text as it existed at some particular point in the history of the church?  The text produced by a particular translation?  Unless this text is one that actually exists and can be agreed upon in its details, then any claims about that hypothetical text are essentially meaningless.  This includes the statement that this imaginary text is without error.  Nothing stable can be built on the product of pure fantasy and imagination.

This approach to the Scriptures falls apart because it is based on a false presupposition.  That presupposition is that the authority of the Scriptures is vested in the text itself, the (in the case of the Old Testament often unknown) author, or some combination of the two.  The authority of Scripture, however, is the authority of the Spirit who breathed it out.  This action of the Spirit is not limited to the moment(s) that Scriptural texts were inspired or first written, but rather continues through the entire process of copying, transmission, editing, and compilation throughout the centuries.  Just as God’s activity in creation did not cease after the initial creation of the world, but has continued and will continue, so also the Spirit’s work in and through the Holy Scriptures.  The conservative scholars cited at the beginning of this post would not, by and large, disagree with these statements regarding the Holy Spirit.  In fact, in other places and in various ways, they frequently affirm them.  Nonetheless, they posit the existence of a reliable, truly inerrant, inspired text at only two points in church history: the time of initial composition and then in our own era in which we can reconstruct that “original text” through our technological tools and wealth of textual data.

The natural consequence of belief in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing inspiration and providential guidance of the Scriptures within the Church is that the Church has always had, at every point, a Bible guided inspired by the Spirit.  St. John Chrysostom’s New Testament was not less reliable or more prone to errors than mine, despite his lack of digital tools and an academic press.  Every century has had the Bible provided for it by the Holy Spirit.  What produces the disconnect, then, in statements on inerrancy by Protestant scholarship?  The affirmation of the Holy Spirit’s active and infallible guidance of the Church through the centuries has consequences beyond the text of the Scriptures alone.  It is worth noting that all of the nearly 6,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts in Greek are Orthodox Christian Bibles.  Part and parcel of the affirmation of the work of the Spirit in guiding and preserving the Scriptures is that the Spirit was working and guiding the Orthodox Church in the East through all of those centuries.

Once this is affirmed about the text of the Scriptures, then it becomes difficult to argue that this work of the Spirit had no effect on the interpretation of the Scriptures in those same communities.  Once it is realized that the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also guided the Church to recognize those texts as Scripture over the course of centuries, it becomes difficult to argue that, for example, the Spirit did not do the same thing with conciliar gatherings of the Church, or the recognition of church fathers, or the recognition of orthodoxy over against heresy.  Protestantism qua Protestantism is required to reject all of these later conceptions regarding councils, fathers, and the Church even while she is required, both doctrinally and honesty to history, to affirm them about the Scriptures.  Conjuring the phantasm of an original text does nothing circumvent these difficulties.

The Holy Scriptures are not a single entity with a single, verifiable form existing unchanging through the centuries.  The Holy Scriptures are themselves a tradition.  As such, there is no coherent way to separate the tradition of the Scriptures from the rest of Holy Tradition; to separate the “textual” element of the life of the Spirit from the rest of the Spirit’s life and work in the historical community of Christ.  This understanding of Scripture within the Church is not a lower view of Scripture than that held by conservative Protestant scholars.  If anything, it is the opposite.  It is to cease to approach the Scriptures with a grammatical, historical, critical, ultimately archaeological method as an ancient relic.  It is to begin again to approach the Scriptures as a living text which participates in the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church and the world, both the same and always new in every generation.


  1. Thank you for this post and the others, Father Stephen. I just discovered this blog recently and so far it is blowing my mind.

    How should someone approach reading the Scriptures if they want to avoid misinterpretation? Matthieu Pageau’s Language of Creation and your Lord of Spirits podcast have enriched my reading and given a new perspective, but what other sources will develop our “Scriptural reading glasses” in the right direction? And which Bible translation closest retains the original ancient meaning?

  2. Father, bless.

    This was very informative, thank you! I am recently received into the Church and I had a notion that Scripture and Tradition are inseparable, but it’s good to read it directly. Also, that they are inseparable does not diminish the Orthodox view of Scripture is another notion I’ve had. Thank you for articulating these notions for me, especially in such a succinct manner!

    What is the first picture used; the one with the ancient text written on clay?

  3. Thank you for this article Father Stephen.

    The conclusion reminds me of a statement Father John Behr makes that because the Disciples understood the Risen Christ thru the opening of Scriptures and the breaking of the Bread, we who also have the Scriptures and the Eucharist today are not at a disadvantage in following Christ. The Holy Spirit is active throughout the Church thru all ages. (He expresses it better than I did.)

  4. When I was having my Sola Scriptura view torn apart in my Reformed background – and getting very involved in the inerrancy/textual criticism debates – I came across a quote from Dan Wallace. In it he states that the goal of textual criticism is the protection of Sola Scriptura. I had suspected this but I hadn’t heard someone say it so honestly, and I like Dan Wallace. When my world was blown up by having no way to uphold Sola Scriptura (yet keeping a modified inerrancy view) I realized an authority was needed outside the Scripture. It was really the textual criticism argument (not the proliferation of denominations, 3 legged stools, etc.) that led me to seek Catholicism and then Orthodoxy. Michael Kruger’s work on Canon got me thinking for the first time of the Bible as primarily a liturgical book (though he doesn’t emphasize this too much). My favorite example of all of this is the ending to the Lord’s Prayer – which is obviously a priestly liturgical function that made its way into the text. It’s a quick, interesting way to show (since it’s not original) how the Bible was being used liturgically and why there are in some instances, so many variants.

  5. Hello Fr DeYoung, thank you for this wonderful essay. I went to Protestant seminary years ago and can attest to this self defeating problem that exists within Protestantism. Having said that, I would have liked you to have explained more of the Orthodox view that the Scriptures are infallible (or as you said, “free from error”). Would you be able to splice this difference in language between the Orthodox and Protestant views with a tad more clarity and specificity? Namely, what does that practically and theologically look like in our personal devotional lives when studying the scriptures and within Orthodox academia? Will it look differently compared to the Protestant outside of the inherent collapsing of their theology once they speak of the “original text”? I suppose, as I am typing these questions, I am asking what should this new knowledge accomplish for me when I read and memorize scripture as an Orthodox Christian in light of claims that call into question a given passages historicity?

    Thanks again for all you do for the Holy Church!

  6. /mind blown

    Excellent Father, thank you for this. A whole other angle in addressing the problems surrounding Sola Scriptura.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *