What’s the Difference Between an Autograph and an Original?

Thomas Kinkade, Walk of Faith

In the world of ancient manuscripts, the words autograph and original are used in slightly different ways than we typically use them in modern times. I was (and still am) a fan of the series Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Years ago, I went to a seminar where Tim LaHaye was one of the featured speakers, and I had him autograph copies of the first three books. When new books in the series came out, I ordered autographed copies from the Left Behind web site (although some of the books only had autographed stickers in them). Autographed books by famous authors are more valuable than regular books. This type of autograph is not what manuscript scholars are referring to, although the two definitions are related.

What is an Autograph?

When studying ancient manuscripts, an autograph is not simply an author signing something, but rather the first copy of a book or letter. In some cases, the book’s author wrote the book on papyrus or parchment, while in other cases the author dictated to an amanuensis, who actually put pen to papyrus.

  • I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. (Romans 16:22 ESV, authored by the Apostle Paul)
  • By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. (1 Peter 5:12 ESV, authored by the Apostle Peter)

At the end of the book or letter, the author would often sign it. This is closer to the sense we typically use the word autograph:

  • I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. (1 Corinthians 16:21 ESV)
  • See with what large letters I [Paul] am writing to you with my own hand. (Galatians 6:11 ESV)
  • I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (Colossians 4:18 ESV)
  • I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. (2 Thessalonians 3:17 ESV)

It seems clear an autograph was written by the author, or under direct authority of the author. The difficulty is, few people have the skills to write a significant piece of literature (such as a New Testament book) on the first attempt, without  corrections (I can’t even write a short article without many edits). So, there could have been many drafts before the final document was sent to the recipient. Is each one an autograph, or only the final one?

What is an Original?

Some scholars use the word original in the same sense as an autograph. The autograph is the original, or, the combination of the text and the media make the original. This seems to be the most common view, but not everyone agrees with this definition.

The second view proposes that any accurate copy of an autograph is an original. Minor errors, such as spelling mistakes and punctuation, are not considered changes, as long as they don’t change the author’s meaning. This view puts the emphasis on the text that is written, not the media it’s written on, when it was written or who wrote it. As long as it accurately conveys the author’s intent, it can be considered an original. This is often called the Original Text, to mean an accurate copy of a text, without implying it’s the first copy of the text.

In the third view, original could mean a draft. The first draft of a book could be considered the original, and there may be many drafts before it’s completed. Are all the drafts originals? I get the impression not many people hold the view that drafts are originals.

The last view seems to be a very uncommon one, but it was suggested by one of the world’s top Greek New Testament scholars, Bart Ehrman, who is an atheist1. Any time a book or letter is  created, or copied incorrectly, it becomes a new original. Since, he claims, it is difficult to exactly copy by hand any document, almost every copy of every New Testament book made without a printing press (or computer) is an original.

Summary

I think few people would disagree with the idea an autograph is the manuscript (media and text) the author was personally involved with creating. The author may not have personally put pen to papyrus, but was present when it happened.

I’m inclined to use original in the same way as autograph. A copy made later may have the original text, but it’s not the first one that existed; it’s not the original. 

For my 15th anniversary gift at work, I requested a copy of a piece of art called Walk of Faith. The picture is a Thomas Kinkade Limited Edition print on paper from Thomas Kinkade Studios, and I have a certificate of authenticity. Although it’s genuine and authorized by the artist (or his estate), it’s still a copy, not an autograph or original. This print would be analogous to a manuscript with original text, in that it wasn’t personally created by the author, it isn’t oil paint on canvas (like the first one), but it accurately conveys his meaning.

Thomas Kinkade, Walk of Faith
Thomas Kinkade, Walk of Faith

In the same way, the content of the New Testament autographs is more important than the autographs themselves. Christians can be confident the New Testament we have today is very close to the original text written by the Apostles.

Footnotes

  1. Bart D. Ehrman in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

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