The autographs of Scripture

In biblical parlance, the autographs refer to the original documents of the several books of the Bible.

When Paul, for instance, dictated the letter to the Romans to Tertius and handed it to Phoebe to carry it to Rome, the result was the autograph of the Romans Epistle.

All such original writings have perished; nobody knows what have happened to them. Perhaps some still exist, but then they cannot be identified as such. It is these original writings which the church claims to be inspired documents, that is, as coming from the Holy Spirit, wholly free from error, and absolutely infallible.

The copies made from them, known as the manuscripts or apographs, though highly accurate, because of the malignity of heretics and inadvertent minor mistakes by the copyists, contain some variations among them. But they reflect to a very high degree the original message as given by inspiration, so that the faithful need not despair or abandon the concept of Bible infallibility.

By collation conservative scholars have arrived at a very accurate rendering of what the autographs must have been like. This type of criticism is necessary and healthy so that the church may be confident in claiming to possess the pure Word of God.

The Jewish Bible

The work of the Jewish scribes give the Christian confidence in the integrity of the Old Testament.

Our Lord Christ and his apostles frequently rebuked the Jews for their corruptions in religious matters, but never did they criticise them or their leaders of corrupting the documents of the Old Testament.

Rather, they urge their listeners to peruse and search these inspired documents, which as we know, only copies of the same were extant even by that time.

What would be the point for Christ or his apostles to quote from Moses and the prophets if their writings were corrupted. But in actual fact they frequently quote them, and this they do confidently without ever insinuating textual corruption.

Although various corruptions might have crept into the Hebrew manuscripts through the carelessness of transcribers and the waste of time, they do not cease to be a canon of faith and practice. For besides being in things of small important and not pertaining to faith and practice, they are not universal in all the manuscripts; or they are not such as cannot easily be corrected from the collation of the Scriptures and the various manuscripts.

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940's, most scholars were of the opinion that the Old Testament manuscripts did not reflect the autographs with any degree of accuracy. The latest manuscripts dated only from the 10th century onwards. But The Dead Sea Scrolls contained many books from the Old Testament dating to before the time of Christ, and wonder of wonders, they were very much similar to the medieval Massoretic text in their contents. So far is the work of the Masoretes from being a proof of the corruption of the sources that, on the contrary, it was intended to guard against errors, so that not even one small point could afterwards be altered or destroyed.

The Jewish scribes were very careful in transcribing the Old Testament, so much so that they carefulness amounted virtually to superstition. The Masoretes used to add the words of every line and note the number in the margin so that none could be added or subtracted. Such painstaking work is impressive and incredible to us.

They really believed that their copying was of extreme importance; they could not and would not tamper with it. The Jews, being the book-carriers of the New Testament church (as Augustine calls them) did their job very well indeed. One qualifications to work as a scribe was to fully believe in the inspiration and content of the Old Testament.

Humanly speaking, they could not have fulfilled their task better, during whole centuries when the printing press was not yet invented.

The Johannine Comma

1 John 5:7 and the words "in earth" from verse 8 are found in the Authorized Version but not in the modern versions.

It is said that the first instance of this verse is found in a treatise written by a Spanish Christian named Priscillian, some time before his execution on a charge or heresy in AD 385. It was written into the margin of some old Latin manuscript and from thence passed into the text, being added to the Vulgate about AD 800. At this point the balancing words "in earth" were added to the listing of the witness which followed.

From Erasmus' text the passage was taken over into German by Luther and into English by Tyndale. Erasmus' text became the basis of the great edition of the Greek text by Stephanus in 1550, which became known as the Textus Receptus from which most subsequent translations were made up to the late 19th century.

I am persuaded that, the textual evidence being what it is, the verse should be retained and considered as part of the inspired text. Not only because it is a direct reference to the Trinity (for this may easily be proved from the rest of the Bible), but because I find it difficult (considering the wise providence of God) to allow such a long sentence to be extrapolated in the original text for whole centuries.

Why the translators of the AV did not use the LXX

No better course may be taken than to refer the question to the actual translators of the Authorised, and ask them why they did not take the LXX as a criterion for their work.

Mr. Miles Smith, who wrote the original preface to the Authorised Version, admits that the LXX did not go unnoticed by the translators. He further writes: "Notwithstanding, though it was commended generally, yet it did not fully content the learned, no not of the Jews..."

Again: "Yet for all that, as the Egyptians are said of the Prophet to be men and not it is evident (and Saint Jerome affirmeth as much) that the Seventy were Interpreters, they were not Prophets; they did many things well, as learned men; but yet as men they stumbled and fell, one while through oversight, another while through ignorance, yea, sometimes they may be noted to add to the Original, and sometimes to take from it; which made the Apostles to leave them many times, when the left the Hebrew, and to deliver the sense thereof according to the truth of the word, as the spirit gave them utterance."

In another part he continues as follows: "The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it, for perspicuity, gravity, majesty..."

The same author then makes it explicit what source the KJV translators used: "If you ask what they had before them, truly it was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the AV translators went back to the primary sources.

Thus they could ask the reader: "If truth is to be tried by these tongues (the originals) then whence should a translation be made, but out of them." Indeed, they recognized the fact that the final authorities in this work were the Hebrew and the Greek texts.

Every other translation, whether it was the LXX or the Vulgate, however reputed it was held to be, was considered helpful, but in no way could it rightly determine the final result. Only the Original Languages were properly and strictly held to be of final authority.

Working on the correct principle of giving a formal equivalence translation (rather than the modern notion of a dynamic equivalence), the KJV translators produced a word-for-word translation which faithfully and accurately reflects the original autographs.

The Variant Readings

For the New Testament alone, we have a plethora of manuscripts, about 6,000 copies of the whole New Testament or at least substantial parts of it.

When compared with each other certain differences are noted, ranging from different spellings of the same word (e.g. a proper noun, like Betzatha / Bethesda) to whole phrases left out (or added).

The purpose and task of Textual Criticism is to ascertain the exact text of Scripture, as far as possible, as it existed in the original writings.

All manuscript copying was done by hand. Handwriting, depending upon the skill of the scribe, is always more difficult to read than modern printing. And add to this the poor quality of the primitive writing implements and materials which were used and it becomes easy to see how copyists could inadvertently misread a word in copying.

Many letters, especially in the Hebrew alphabet, are very similar in form (e.g. resh with daleth), and could therefore easily be mistaken by the copyist. There may have been changes made by a scribe with the intention of correcting supposed mistakes in spelling or grammar, or to harmonise similar narratives in the Gospel records.

Such variant readings never put a Christian doctrine in jeopardy. The essential message is left intact, in spite of the differences in the manuscripts.

The Latin Vulgate and the sources behind it

What Old Testament text was used in the production of the Latin Vulgate? What are the implications?

Jerome, the Bible scholar of the fifth century, produced a fresh Latin translation of the whole Bible based on the Greek LXX (Septuagint). This eventually became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic church.

The implications are the following:

1. The LXX was executed by human study and labour not divinely inspired men. Its authors were interpreters, not prophets.

2. In many instances, it varies from the sources in words and things and has various false interpretations and discrepancies.

3. The LXX did not remain pure as originally produced, but corruptions and interpolations have crept in profusely. Jerome had only its ruins and wreck, so that it could hardly be called the original LXX.

4. The Vulgate, having its source in the LXX, must likewise be an incorrect translation of the Word of God. It is well-known that the Vulgate varies so much even from the LXX. Clement VIII grants this concerning the Sixtine edition, emending it although it had been pronounced authentic by the Council of Trent and corrected by Sixtus. Two years afterwards, he reviewed it, restored some things which had been expunged by Sixtus and changed and corrected many things.

5. There are many passages which, being falsely rendered, give occasion or support to the most dangerous errors. To give one instance, Ipsa (she) shall bruise (Genesis 3:15) is referred to the virgin Mary, instead of Christ.

6. The point is that the Vulgate is a translation of a weak translation of the Bible. Every authentic translation must be made from the sources so that mistakes and errors may be scrupulously avoided.

In Scripture translation, great knowledge (which Jerome had) and caution (which he apparently lacked) are necessary. Three fundamental rules for translating are as follows:

A. The translation should give a complete transcript of the ideas of the original. (How could Jerome accomplish this without the original?)

B. The style and manner of the original should be preserved as much as linguistically possible. (Again Jerome was at a loss here).

C. The translation should have all the ease of original composition.

The end result was a Latin translation that could have been much superior and faithful if the Hebrew was referred to, instead of the Greek of the LXX. Doctrinal errors in Christendom would have been avoided too! If the source of learning and teaching within the church is not pure, the doctrine would not be sound. (Augustine held some silly notions because he knew no Hebrew and hardly any Greek; his source was only the Latin).