What would it even *mean* to say that we have an “original” letter of Paul to the Philippians?

In my previous two posts I began answering a series of questions asked by a reader about how we got Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In my previous post I explained why some critical scholars maintain that the letter was originally two separate letters that have been spliced together.  That obviously makes the next question the reader asked a bit more complicated than one might otherwise imagine.  And it’s not the only complication.   Here is the reader’s next question:

QUESTION:  Do you agree that the first copy of the letter written by Paul to the Philippians was also an original? 

RESPONSE:  First off, my initial reaction that I gave a couple of posts ago still holds.  I’m not exactly sure what the reader is asking.  If he’s asking whether a copy of the original letter to Philippians is itself an original of Philippians, then the answer is no.  It is not the original.  It is a copy of the original.  Big difference.   But what if this copy was exactly like the original in every single respect – with no differences of any kind: wouldn’t it then be the original?  No, then it would be an accurate copy of the original.  But it would not be the original.

But the question does raise an important and virtually insoluble other problem – or set of problems.  What, in the case of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, would it even mean to call something (a papyrus manuscript with writing on it) the “original.”  Or rather, what would the “original” be – how could we imagine it?   There are so many problems that it is hard to know where to begin.

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