If they’re used very much at all, written materials nowadays eventually wear out and fall apart and must be discarded. Our modern economy of disposable and replaceable abundance — including cheap paperbacks and, now, e-books — makes this "waste" inconsequential.
In the ancient world, though, papyrus scrolls and parchments (animal skin) were very expensive and much more durable than modern books. Since they were written out and copied by hand, such books were both relatively rare and highly treasured.
Thus, they weren’t thrown away lightly, or soon. A 2009 study of ancient libraries, archives and document collections demonstrates that Greek and Roman manuscripts were in active use for an average of 150 to 500 years before they were discarded.
The same seems to be true of biblical texts. When the Romans destroyed the community at Qumran around A.D. 68, for example, all of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls there seem to have still been in use. Roughly 40 of the scrolls — most of them scriptural texts — were already two to three centuries old when the community buried them during the Roman wars. This suggests that, under ordinary peaceful conditions, they could almost certainly have been used even longer.
Ancient Christians, too, appear to have used their manuscripts for a very long time. The fourth-century Codex Vaticanus (B), for instance, was apparently re-inked in the 10th century, which shows that it was still being cared for, read and studied fully six centuries after its original production. Many other biblical codices likewise bear the marks of re-inking, annotations and corrections centuries after their date of origin, which demonstrates they were still in use. Retired or discarded manuscripts weren’t corrected; they weren’t worth the trouble.
Why is this significant?
Papyrus 45, part of the Chester Beatty collection in Dublin, dates to approximately A.D. 220 and contains large portions of all four New Testament Gospels. It’s extremely unlikely that a modern museum just happens, by sheer dumb luck, to possess the earliest copy of those Gospels ever made. It’s much more likely that others once existed but haven’t been found or have long since perished — indeed, we actually have older fragments of Gospels.
Still, for purposes of argument, let’s arbitrarily declare Papyrus 45 the first and oldest copy of the Gospels ever made. Even on that assumption, if the first-century originals or “autographs” of the Gospels remained in use for at least 150 years, this means that it’s possible, even probable, that the original Gospels were still in circulation when Papyrus 45 was created.
Moreover, ancient writers and record keepers knew full well the risk of losing what they had so laboriously written. Evidence from antiquity shows that very commonly duplicates were prepared of significant documents before the originals were given out. Sometimes, in fact, multiple copies were made from the original, especially if — as in the case of the New Testament epistles of James and Peter, the epistle to the Hebrews and perhaps a couple of Paul’s letters — these documents were intended for wide circulation.
Although we have no evidence to prove it, there is no reason to believe that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were exceptions to this practice. It seems entirely reasonable to expect that similar precautions would have been taken with them as with other important ancient texts. And this is vital: At a minimum, if it’s true, this doubles the chances that first-century originals of the Gospel texts survived well into the second century and perhaps even considerably beyond.
Some, including many critics of Christianity, have assumed that the original New Testament autographs were lost early and that many generations of carelessly or even dishonestly copied and recopied texts intervened between those lost originals and the earliest third-century manuscripts that survive as our oldest versions of the Gospels. Accordingly, they imagine that there was plenty of time for major alterations to be made to the texts that make up our modern New Testament. But, in fact, there seems to be little, if any, room for such serious distortions to have occurred.
If there were significant changes made to the text of the earliest New Testament, they probably involve the suppression or loss of whole chapters or books, or the fundamental reinterpretation of the meaning of texts that survive. Fundamental Christian beliefs do not, however, rest on dubious and uncertain documents.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Galen S. Woolley, dedicated physician, missionary and father.
Professor Daniel C. Peterson is editor of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and a blogger for Patheos. Professor William Hamblin is co-author of “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” Their views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.
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