We use the term “autograph” to refer to the original document written by the author. In most cases, it would have been dictated and written down by an “amanuensis”—that is, a secretary. Paul used Tertius to write Romans (Rom 16:22) and Peter may have used Silas (also named “Silvanus”) to write 1 Peter (1 Pet 5:12). I’m convinced that Paul used Luke to write 1 Timothy and perhaps 2 Timothy and Titus. (1) As a general rule, the amanuensis would have been given some freedom as to what he wrote—word choice, grammar, style. This would explain the unusual frequency of medical imagery in 1 and 2 Timothy, since Luke was a physician. The author would have proof-read the written document and, if necessary, made corrections. We also believe that in many cases a copy would have been made by the amanuensis. (2) One of these manuscripts would then be sent to the recipient, and the second kept as a backup.
You can imagine the church in Rome receiving Paul’s letter and the instant desire for copies, or what we call “manuscripts” (often abbreviated “ms” or in the plural “mss” in the footnotes in your Bibles). Wealthy Christians may have wanted their own copies, or perhaps a church in another city had heard about the letter and wanted a copy (Col 4:16). In the pre-Gutenberg era (prior to A.D. 1516), these copies would have all been made by hand. We know that some of the scribes copied one or two letters at a time; we know that other scribes copied one or two words at a time, or more. Both methods reflect the desire for accuracy on the part of the scribe. While most people in the first century were illiterate, unable to read or write, there were enough literate people to produce the copies needed. Most were not professional scribes, trying to create a work of art, but they were trying to accurately convey the message of the biblical books.
Despite their best efforts, they made mistakes. Sometimes they made an unintentional mistake, such as skipping a word or transposing letters. Other times they made intentional changes for good reasons, such as correcting a misspelling. We know that scribes added notes to the margins, perhaps explaining a word or adding background information that they were aware of. We know this happened because we can look directly at these manuscripts and see the marginal notes.
The differences between the texts are called “variants.” Sometimes we talk about a manuscript having a certain “reading.” A variant is any variation among the manuscripts. This includes differences in wording (additions, omissions, changes), word order, and spelling. It doesn’t matter if a variant occurs in one manuscript or a thousand, and it doesn’t matter if a variant occurs in the second century or the tenth; it’s still counted as one variant. There are about 400,000 variants in the approximately 5,600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. To state it another way, we have so many variants because we have so many manuscripts.
1. William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, in Word Biblical Commentary (Zondervan, 2000) lxiv.
2. Documentation is in Craig A. Evans, Jesus and the Manuscripts (Hendrickson, 2020) 89–91. He summarizes, “An ‘autograph’ was produced by a scribe, the author of the letter signed it in his own hand, usually along with a greeting, and then the scribe made a second copy, which was retained for the author’s records. Sometimes it was the reverse: a draft was prepared, and then a polished autograph was written and dispatched. Autographic letters would be readily recognized, for the hand of the sender, who signed his name and perhaps added a line or two of personal greetings and well wishes, would be easily distinguished from the more practiced hand of the professional scribe who had penned the letter” (90).