Manuscripts 101: What is an Autograph?

By: Preston Russell

When you think of the word “autograph,” what comes to mind? Perhaps Michael Jordan’s signature on a framed jersey he wore in the final game of the 1996 playoffs, or maybe even John Hancock’s famous signature on the Declaration of Independence…

Well, despite these colloquial usages, in the world of New Testament scholarship the term “autograph” can refer to the original document written by the original author of a specific literary work. However, even this definition may not be so simple, according to many textual scholars. In fact, the term has become a buzzword in New Testament studies. The conversation about the term is an important one, because a person’s definition of “autograph,” in large part, determines their goal when they study New Testament manuscripts.

As we dive into the question “What is an autograph?” we’ll quickly realize that we need to also ask how writing and publishing worked back in the 1st century.  We’ll find that as we gain a better understanding of writing and publishing in the 1st century, we can better grasp the important and curious term—“autograph.”

How Writing and Publishing Worked “Back in the Day”

In our quest to answer “What is an autograph of the New Testament?” we will take two important steps to understand the world in which the New Testament writings and letters were written. First, we will look at the New Testament itself to see if it gives us any clues about how its books were composed. Then we will take a look at contemporary documents, written and circulated around the same time and place as New Testament writings. The context provided by these two steps will allow us to better define “autograph.”

What We Know from the New Testament

Surprisingly the New Testament does not say much about how it was written and published.  There are, however, a few fascinating passages that provide hints about how some of the New Testament books were written, and at least one passage that tells us how it was circulated.

The New Testament speaks in multiple passages to the authors’ use of a scribe to write down what they were dictating to them (scholars call this type of person an “amanuensis”). For example, we see this occur at the end of the book of Romans, where Paul’s scribe writes “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Romans 16:22).

When we understand that dictation to a scribe was a thing that Paul did, it makes sense that Paul frequently let his readers know at the end of a letter that he is writing with “his own hand” (2 Thess 3:17; Col 4:18; 1 Cor 16:21; Phlm 19; Gal 6:11). When Paul is saying this, he is implying that he did not write the majority with his own hand; someone else did. The statement about his hand, then, acts as his stamp of approval on the letter. 

We also see that Peter had some help in the writing of 1 Peter, too: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you” (ESV).” Both the written words of the authors and scribes of the New Testament reveal that many of the letters were produced by dictation. 

[Paul] charges the church there “to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thes 5:27). This is the clearest statement by a New Testament author about his work being “published.”

The New Testament also helps us in understanding not only how some books were written, but also how they were published. Paul again provides clues to the reader on this question when he mentions sending certain people to his letter’s recipients. In Colossians 4:7-9 he says, “Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.” Although he does not explicitly say that Tychicus and Onesimus are the carriers of his letter to the Colossians, it is easily implied that they would also be the ones who would take his letter to them.

In addition, Paul also provides us with more direct statements about the reception of at least one of his letters (1 Thessalonians), when he charges the church there “to have this letter read to all the brothers” (5:27). This is the clearest statement by a New Testament author about his work being “published,” or officially disseminated.

What We Know from the World of the New Testament

When Paul, Peter, and the other New Testament authors composed their letters and writings, we can assume that they, for the most part at least, followed the normal writing and publishing practices of their day. While we could draw on numerous pieces, we’ll look at two particular writings that provide insight into the first-century world.

The first text we will look at is by a Roman author and administrator called Pliny the Younger. A collection of his private letters provide a glimpse into life at the peak of the Roman Empire. One gem we receive from Pliny is the description he gives to his own writing process: “In the first place, I revise my composition in private, next I read it to two or three friends, and then give it to others to annotate; if I doubt the justness of their corrections, I carefully weigh them again with a friend or two. Last of all I recite the piece to a numerous assembly, and this is the time, if you can believe me, when I exercise the most rigid criticism; for my attention rises in proportion to my solicitude” (Ep. 7.17).

Pliny the Younger teaches us that composing a work, at least for him, was (1) rigorously edited and (2) a communal process. We notice that the process of revision expands from just Pliny himself to “a numerous assembly.”

Another author from the first century was a man by the name of Quintilian, a Latin teacher and rhetorician. In his Institutes, he lets his readers know about works in circulation with his name, but that are not published by him:

“Two books on the Art of Rhetoric are already circulating in my name, though they were never published by me nor prepared for this purpose. One is a two days’ lecture course which was taken down by the slaves to whom the responsibility was given. The other lecture course, which spread over several days, was taken down by shorthand (as best they could) by some excellent young men who were nevertheless too fond of me, and therefore rashly honored it with publication and wide circulation.” (Inst. Or. 1.prologue.7-8).

We gain some key information from Quintilian. First, once a work has left the hands of its author, the author loses control of its copying and contents. Second, we learn that Quintilian was upset that his work was circulating in a form that was not in accordance with what he intended to write. In light of this, we can deduce that authors like Quintilian were not okay with unapproved doctoring, editing, and/or tampering, but rather desired the copies of their compositions to be true to the original(s).

These two passages, from Pliny the Younger and Quintilian, provide a glimpse into the world of writing and publishing during New Testament times, which included an authors intended form of the letter and a community of editors and recipients.

Defining “Autograph”

As we review these Biblical and historical evidences, a definition of “autograph” begins to emerge, as being the author-approved document that was sent out and circulated. Paul’s writing with his own hand and Quintilian’s frustration over rogue dissemination of his work tells us this: ancient authors consented to their work’s publication, only when the work is marked by their personal “stamp of approval.” This does not infer that the author was the only person who physically wrote the work, but rather that the author was solely responsible for composing the content of the work. Along with this, we also learn that Paul’s charge to the Thessalonians and Quintilian’s frustration over the circulating unapproved editions of his work demonstrate that circulation of the work was a crucial part of the autographic process.

[A] definition of an autograph begins to emerge. It is the author-approved document that was sent out and circulated.

If you are passionate about studying the books of the New Testament, it is necessary to grasp what a New Testament autograph is, as this understanding affects many facets of study today. A New Testament textual scholar must know what an autograph is before she or he can successfully embark on tracing the history of copying back to the original manuscripts. And, for those studying the contents, a recognition of the contexts of the documents’ writing and publishing provides a greater understanding of the New Testament as a whole. Today we find the New Testament printed widely and translated in numerous languages. People have preserved, copied, and shared these sacred writings for centuries. This collection of carefully composed documents was written by real humans using the conventions of writing and publishing in their time to compose what they viewed as the most important message in human history.

A note from the author:

“This blog is indebted to the great work done by Timothy N. Mitchell in his chapter entitled “Myths about Autographs: What They were and How Long They May Have Survived” in Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. You should study his chapter if you would like to explore the subject of NT Autographs further.”