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How Long Were Biblical Manuscripts in Use?





I speculated that if the Gospel of Matthew were published and circulated in 75 CE and if it and some of the first copies of it were in use as long as the manuscripts in the collections and libraries studied by Houston were in use, then some of these manuscripts could still have been in circulation, being read, studied, and copied, as late as the end of the second century and perhaps even on into the third century. This means that New Testament autographs and first copies could still have been available when our oldest extant papyri manuscripts (e.g., P45, P46, P66) were produced. If still in circulation and being read and copied, the autographs and first copies would have continued to give shape to the text. In a sense, then, the gap between autograph and extant manuscript is bridged.



By Craig A. Evans
Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Acadia Divinity College and Acadia University
Wolfville, Nova Scotia B4P 2R6
Canada
June 2011


In 2010, I purchased and read as many books on papyrology, textual criticism, and ancient literacy and education as I could lay my hands on. Along the way I picked up William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (eds.), Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). The whole book is informative and a delight to read. What I found most intriguing was the chapter by George Houston, “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire” (pp. 233–67). Houston reviews some fifty collections and libraries (mostly) from the second century BCE to the third century CE. These were libraries and collections that were thrown out intact and centuries later recovered more or less intact. In addition to literary works were dated correspondence, notes, and commentaries that have made it possible in many cases to determine when manuscripts were copied and how long they were in use before being replaced or discarded. Houston finds that literary manuscripts were in use anywhere from 150 to 500 years, with the average usually 200 to 300 years (pp. 248–51).

I made use of Houston’s findings in public lectures that I gave in Birmingham, Alabama, in October of 2010 and in New Orleans, Louisiana, in February 2011. In preparation for the latter, I sent my printed lecture in early February to six biblical scholars, five of whom are New Testament textual critics. Two of the latter (Larry Hurtado and Daniel Wallace) kindly wrote back and made helpful comments. In New Orleans, I presented the lecture at the annual Greer-Heard conference hosted by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (February 25–26). Bart Ehrman and I were the keynote speakers. We presented opposing views on a theme centered on the question, “Can We Trust What the New Testament Says about Jesus?” Other speakers included Craig Keener, Dale Martin, and Ben Witherington.

One of the points in my lecture concerned George Houston’s observation about the longevity of manuscripts, that is, how long they were used before being discarded. I wondered what implications his observation might have for New Testament manuscripts. I speculated that if the Gospel of Matthew were published and circulated in 75 CE and if it and some of the first copies of it were in use as long as the manuscripts in the collections and libraries studied by Houston were in use, then some of these manuscripts could still have been in circulation, being read, studied, and copied, as late as the end of the second century and perhaps even on into the third century. This means that New Testament autographs and first copies could still have been available when our oldest extant papyri manuscripts (e.g., P45, P46, P66) were produced. If still in circulation and being read and copied, the autographs and first copies would have continued to give shape to the text. In a sense, then, the gap between autograph and extant manuscript is bridged.

Since circulating and presenting my lecture, I have noticed this point being discussed on a few blogs. In a note posted on his blog March 31, 2011 (also posted by Ben Witheringon June 2 on his blog), Larry Hurtado supportively comments: “If early copies were intact for something approaching a century or more, then this could be a factor against notions that these texts were highly unstable and susceptible to major revision in the course of transmission.” This was precisely my point, and I am greatly encouraged that a textual critic of Hurtado’s stature agrees. The only slip is that in reference to Houston’s study, Hurtado adds, “as he [Houston] notes, the evidence from Qumran leads to a similar view.” Actually, the references to the Dead Sea scrolls come from my paper. (Houston does not discuss religious libraries.) But the point nonetheless is correct. If I may quote myself: “Most of the scrolls were one hundred to one hundred-fifty years old when the community ceased to exist. However, approximately 40 scrolls, many of them Bible scrolls, were 200 to 300 years old—and evidently still in use—when the community was destroyed.” The same holds in the case of a number of Christian Bibles. Fourth-century Codex Vaticanus was re-inked in the tenth century, which shows that it was still being read and studied some six hundred years after it had been produced. Codex Sinaiticus was corrected in the sixth or seventh century. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, produced in the fifth century, was in use four or five centuries before being overwritten in the twelfth century. Retired and discarded mss were not corrected: only those still in use.

I might add that the papyrological evidence assessed by Houston lends a degree of plausibility to Tertullian’s claim that in his time (early third century) some of the “authentic”writings (autographs?) of Paul were still available for examination (Prescription Against Heretics 36). Of course, we are not sure if Tertullian is referring to autographs or to complete and unmutilated (Greek) copies of the apostle’s letters. (On this passage in Tertullian and its possible significance I refer readers to Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace, Dethroning Jesus [Thomas Nelson, 2007] 45–46.)

Another point I make in my paper is that in addition to the autographs, back-up copies were made before the autographs were circulated. This is obviously the case in letters, for we have substantial evidence from both the correspondence found in the papyri and in literary sources (e.g., where Cicero refers to copies of his letters). It is highly probable that copies of the Gospels and other New Testament writings were also made before the “originals” were circulated. I also noted in my lecture that we find multiple copies of major sectarian documents at Qumran, such as the Damascus Covenant, the Community Rule, and the halakic letter known as MMT (Miqsat Ma‘eseh ha-Torah, “Some of the Works of the Law”; because we found six copies of the latter, we have been able to reconstruct most of the text). The existence of multiple original copies would only improve the odds of some originals/autographs surviving to the end of the second century and beyond.

Many of the manuscripts considered by Houston give evidence of being carefully studied. The texts are glossed and corrected and sometimes are accompanied with exegetical notes. There is evidence that readers compared duplicate texts and engaged in what we today call textual criticism. We should assume that sometimes early Christians did the same with their sacred texts. It is likely that few texts were sloppily copied or freely revised, abridged, or expanded. And it is not likely that texts that were poorly copied or mutilated would have been preserved and seen as competitive, at least not in mainstream Christian circles. The evidence that Houston has uncovered militates against this kind of textual carelessness and lack of discrimination. Indeed, second- and third-century church leaders readily identify texts that had been altered, charging that these alterations were at the hands of heretics or groups whose teachings differed substantially from the early, apostolic church.

There is another implication that might arise from Houston’s study. I did not pursue it in my public lecture because it was not immediately relevant to the topic of the New Orleans conference. What I propose is that the New Testament canon of writings be viewed more as a library or collection. Many of the libraries and collections that Houston studied were assembled either by families or by groups of literate friends with common reading interests. Members of these groups met together from time to time to read and study. They acquired manuscripts, sometimes multiple copies, compared and discussed texts, and made notes, which in some instances approximate what we today would regard as commentary. I should think that some of these activities were very much those of early Christian groups that collected the founding documents of the Christian faith. In short, some of the dynamics behind the collecting, reading, and studying of the literary collections studied by Houston might be very close to the dynamics behind the collecting, reading, and studying of sacred texts by early Christian groups.

We all know that understanding the Bible as a “book” is a late development, reflecting the emergence and recognition of the canon of Scripture. But I wonder if we have given sufficient thought to the first two or three centuries of early Christian writings as libraries and collections, for purposes of study, public reading (in worship settings), private study, evangelism, and apologetics. In my view, I think that in the light of Houston’s study we should rethink the process that led to the recognition of a canon of Scripture.

A more informed and nuanced understanding of the origin of what in time emerged as the Christian canon of Scripture will be helpful, I suggest, in responding to the misleading and simplistic assertions and insinuations found, for example, in Bart Ehrman’s latest attack on naïve fundamentalism, Forged: Writing in the Name of God —Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (HarperOne, 2011).


The full text of my New Orleans lecture will be published as “Can We Trust what the New Testament says about the Historical Jesus?” in a book, perhaps with a similar title, edited by Robert B. Stewart. I also plan to expand the lecture into a small book. I invite comments and questions.