Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Biblical inerrancy in the original manuscripts

Joseph Kelly from kolhaadam blog (now defunct) ran a 4 part series on why he is not an inerrantist. In part 1 he identifies the inerrantist's claim that only the original manuscripts are free from error. Kelly states that because there is no clear single autographical tradition the inerrantist's appeal to such is stillborn, there is no unique tradition. The example he gives is the book of Jeremiah. The Masoretic Jeremiah is significantly diverse from the Septuagintal Jeremiah, more than translational considerations allow. Kelly suggests than it is even possible Jeremiah and Baruch wrote several copies that were divergent and led to variant textual traditions.

I don't think this is a strong case against the inerrantist position for 2 reasons.
  1. It is possible that recensions are also inerrant; and
  2. The inerrantist appeal to the autographs is a minor feature of their position.
It seems likely that the Hebrew manuscripts were modified over the years after they were written. I take a relatively conservative approach to authorship, but even though I hold to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, I don't think that the Deuteronomy postscript was written by Moses, and I think it likely that Moses compiled Genesis from sources that antedate him. Further, there were probably modifications to the Pentateuch over the centuries for explanatory reasons and the like. The Masoretics' aversion to modifying the text need not apply to pre-Christian Jewish scribes. This view even allows for Jeremiah to modify his writings resulting in a primitive and a modified textual tradition. Inerrantists could claim both to be without error, and the modified text to be the more complete revelation. Not that I necessarily hold this view of Jeremiah. But the argument about choosing manuscripts is more about textual criticism than it is about inerrancy.

The larger issue here is that the appeal to autographs is not the focus of inerrancy. Kelly seems to recognise this as he states,
This appeal to the autographs helps to escape the obvious error that occurred during transmission as well as the complexity behind identifying which textual tradition is the inerrant one.
The focus of inerrancy is that the Bible is without error of fact, not just doctrine. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (which I am comfortable with) affirms this. There are several articles to explain what is meant by this affirmation but some of these qualifiers mean that inerrantists are not compelled to defend pseudo-errors. One of the qualifiers is that the claim of inerrancy only applies to original wording of the manuscripts. Article 10 states,
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.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
While Kelly is addressing text-types (or rather, the possibility of non-unique sources, which is within the larger concept of text-type veracity), the bigger issue for inerrancy is usually one of translation. In practice, appeal is made to the Bible in one's own language. I speak neither Hebrew nor Greek so my appeals must be to the English Bible. And I am confident that Bibles in other languages are accurate enough for inerrancy apologists of foreign speech. It is not that inerrantists continually appeal to the non-extant texts, rather it is to dismiss the claims of error that only exist as result of errant transcription and, more often, errant translation. It seems to me that the usual appeal is to the original language or the original words (as opposed to the original manuscript) to resolve a difficulty of translation. I am not certain that a large number of difficulties, that is issues of errancy, arise from the different text-types.

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