Saturday, November 10, 2018

Helmut Koester on the Autographs of the New Testament

Helmut Koester (December 18, 1926 -- January 1, 2016) was a German born scholar of the New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.[1] In his widely used New Testament introduction Koester makes reference to the earliest form of the New Testament autographs and the corruptions that they underwent.

"There are numerous examples of alterations and corruptions of the autographs of the NT writings during the earliest period of transmission. These problems cannot be solved with conventional text-critical methods, but require the aid of literary criticism. The edition of the Gospel of Mark which was used by Matthew and Luke, for example, was substantially different from the Gospel of Mark which we know as transmitted in all texts and manuscripts. In the Gospel of John, a redactor made several editions to an earlier work (the most significant is John 6:52-59). In the compilation of the writings which the manuscripts transmit as 2 Corinthians, the editor had combined a number of smaller letters of Paul to produce this major epistle; the same seems to be the case with Philippians. How severely such new editions and redactions could alter the original text is demonstrated in Marcion's edition of the Pauline letters--and Marcion had no intention but to restore the original text of Paul's writings. Also instructive is the example of 2 Peter, which, written in II CE, incorporated the entire letter of Jude in a new edition (2 Peter 2)." (Koester, Introduction, 20)

I find it intriguing that, despite being altered and corrupted, Koester still manages to appeal to a definitive "autograph" of the New Testament writings, though, without defining the term "autograph."
[1] Elaine Pagels of Princeton University has recently shared her traumatic story of being sexually assaulted by Koester during her time as a graduate student under his supervision.


Helmut Koester. Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature of Early Christianity. Volume 2 (German Edition, Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1980; English Translation, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).


  1. Tim, do you think if possible that Koester held to plural autographs rather than a single one for something like Romans? I sometimes wonder if previous generations of scholars would call Paul's extra copy, or a second version, or a second coy for a friend all autographs simply because they came from him. Thoughts?

    1. Chris,
      It is very possible. His comments on the autograph of Mark are interesting because he implies a single edition from a definitive aithor. Whereas it is certainly possible that the copy later transmitted in our MSS as Mark was a later edition by the same author (I don't hold to this view but it is certainly possible). All in all it is impossible to know what Koestwr meant by "autograph" because he never defines it.

  2. Tim,
    The initial assumption of Koester that the early period of copying was wild has been challenged, I think successfully, by Hurtado among others. I also agree that what Koester meant by autograph is anyone’s guess. A traditional understanding which historically means what was written by the original author seems to be unlikely, if not impossible, based on his belief in multiple redactions.


    1. Thanks Tim for the reference to Hurtado, very relevant here. Also, I agree, I find it confusing that Koester appeals to a definitive autograph but seems to describe a situation in which there is no discernible autigraph.