Michael Kruger responds to Bart Ehrman’s objection, “What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don't have the originals!”
Ehrman's focus on the autographs (or the absence of them) is not unusual in modern critiques of biblical authority. However, this sort of argument often creates the impression (even if it is unintentional) that the autographs are the original text—almost as if the original text were a physical object that has been lost.
But the original text is not a physical object. The autographs contain the original text, but the original text can exist without them. A text can be preserved in other ways. One such way is that the original text can be preserved in a multiplicity of manuscripts. In other words, even though a single surviving manuscript might not contain (all of) the original text, the original text could be accessible to us across a wide range of manuscripts.
Preserving the original text across multiple manuscripts, however, could only happen if there were enough of these manuscripts to give us assurance that the original text was preserved (somewhere) in them. Providentially, when it comes to the quantity of manuscripts, the New Testament is in a class all its own. Although the exact count is always changing, currently we possess more than 5,500 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek alone. No other document of antiquity even comes close.
Even though we do not possess the autographs, textual scholars have acknowledged that the multiplicity of manuscripts allows us to access the original text. Eldon Jay Epp notes, "The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the NT . . . that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material."
Historically, Christian affirmations of biblical authority are often expressly restricted to the "autographs”…. But does the lack of autographs mean such affirmations of biblical authority are meaningless? No, because the authority does not reside in a physical object, but in the original text. And the original text has been preserved in another way, namely through the multiplicity of manuscripts.
(HT: The Poached Egg)