Evangelical Christians hold that the Scriptures (66 books in the Protestant Canon) are divinely inspired and inerrant in the original autographs. This is seen to be the cornerstone doctrine by many evangelicals. For example see the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Is it possible, though, to identify the words that were present in the “original text”? Or is this an elusive dream?
As a professor of NT Greek, I dabbled some in the science of "textual criticism." Textual criticism is "The study of manuscripts or printings to determine the original or most authoritative form of a text, especially of a piece of literature" (Dictionary.com). The goal of NT textual criticism is to remove spurious readings and identify the "original text" or "autographa" of the New Testament.
A very interesting article questioning this stated goal of textual criticism is The Multivalence of the Term "Original Text" in New Testament Textual Criticism, by Eldon Jay Epp in the Harvard Theological Review , July 1999, Volume 92, No. 3, pp. 245-281. See full article. (Some will jump on the fact that this article is printed on an Islamic website. That's the only place on the web I can find it now. It was published in other places before. Nevertheless, Epp is not a Moslem but rather a very well respected NT textual scholar).
Epp points to a paper read at a conference at Notre Dame University in 1988 as a stimulus that caused him and other textual critics to rethink what they meant by "original text." (He uses the term now only in quotation marks). The paper was presented by Helmut Koester and was entitled: Gospel Traditions in the Second Century. Epp writes:
Koester's discussion of "The Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century"(32) was introduced by the fully acceptable observation that (except for the fragment [P.sup.52]) no second-century manuscript evidence for the New Testament exists(33) and, therefore, severe problems attend the reconstruction of the textual history of the gospels in the first century of their transmission. Koester then startled many by turning on its head the New Testament textual critics' standard claim that they are fortunate to have so many early manuscripts so close to the time the writings originated. In contrast, he aptly observed that "the oldest known manuscript archetypes are separated from the autographs by more than a century. Textual critics of classical texts know that the first century of their transmission is the period in which the most serious corruptions occur." He then added the provocative note that "textual critics of the New Testament writings have been surprisingly naive in this respect."(34)
Koester went on to say:
[T]he text of the Synoptic Gospels was very unstable during the first and second centuries. With respect to Mark, one can be fairly certain that only its revised text has achieved canonical status, while the original text (attested only by Matthew and Luke) has not survived. With respect to Matthew and Luke, there is no guarantee that the archetypes of the manuscript tradition are identical with the original text of each Gospel. The harmonizations of these two Gospels demonstrate that their text was not sacrosanct and that alterations could be expected ... New Testament textual critics have been deluded by the hypothesis that the archetypes of the textual tradition which were fixed ca. 200 CE ... are (almost) identical with the autographs. This cannot be confirmed by any external evidence. On the contrary, whatever evidence there is indicates that not only minor, but also substantial revisions of the original texts have occurred during the first hundred years of the transmission.(36)
Epp concludes from this:
Whether or not textual critics acquiesce in all of these charges, a strong challenge remains, for they are left not only with text-critical questions--for example, which variants of Mark are most likely original?--but also with penetrating canonical questions, such as, which Mark is original?
Similar issues arise with respect to the composition of the other Synoptics, the Fourth Gospel, the Pauline letters, and other portions of the New Testament. The relation to the Fourth Gospel of the well-known Egerton Papyrus 2 (currently dated ca. 200) is one such example. Although usually understood as a later excerpt from all four gospels, Koester (retaining a dating in the first part of the second century) views the papyrus as representing a text older than John because, "with its language that contains Johannine elements but reveals a greater affinity to the Synoptic tradition, it belongs to a stage of the tradition that preceded the canonical gospels."(37) If so, the gospel of which these surviving fragments were a part would have been read, without question, as authoritative in some early church(es) and possibly also could have played a role in the composition of our gospels. Again, the question arises, what or where is the original Mark? Or Matthew? Or Luke? Or John?
Now, if the goal of textual criticism is to recover the most likely "original" text, what in actuality is the object of textual critics' research--a text of the gospels that is somewhat earlier than but very likely similar to the text of the earliest manuscripts, or a text of even earlier and now largely lost predecessor forms of these gospels'? In other words, textual critics face two or more questions rather than one: first, a prior question as to which Mark (or John, or Corinthian letters, or Ephesians, etc.) is "original," followed by the more traditional inquiry as to which variant readings of a particular work are "original." More clearly than before, the multivalence of the term "original text" emerges and confronts textual critics with its complexity.
Thus, the stated goal of textual criticism, to arrive at the "original text" of Scripture, may in fact be impossible. Why is this important? Because it is the "original text" which is deemed to be inspired and inerrant by most Christians. If one cannot be certain of what constituted the “original text” of Scripture, then one cannot be certain of what constitutes the inerrant Word of God.
Epp concludes his fascinating article by saying that the latest scholarship in Textual Criticism indicates that the goal of textual criticism must be redefined.
As New Testament textual criticism moves into the twenty-first century, it must shed whatever remains of its innocence, for nothing is simple anymore. Modernity may have led many to assume that a straightforward goal of reaching a single original text of the New Testament--or even a text as close as possible to that original--was achievable. Now, however, reality and maturity require that textual criticism face unsettling facts, chief among them that the term "original" has exploded into a complex and highly unmanageable multivalent entity. Whatever tidy boundaries textual criticism may have presumed in the past have now been shattered, and its parameters have moved markedly not only to the rear and toward the front, but also sideways, as fresh dimensions of originality emerge from behind the variant readings and from other manuscript phenomena.