How long were the manuscripts in use?

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How long were the New Testament manuscripts in use? Were the autographs (the originals) still in existence when our papyrus fragments we have today were written out? Craig Evans has explored and investigated Judeo-Christian libraries to see how long they were in use. With the discovery of the manuscripts from Oxyrinchus in south Egypt, a rich trove of documents, made up mostly of papyri was discovered. 

One of the important finds at Oxyrhynchus and at a few other sites has been the discovery of libraries or collections of related books and documents that were thrown out together [1] A recent study by George Houston who investigated Greco-Roman libraries argues for the extensive use of these manuscripts and they wern’t just thrown away within 100 years. 

“was clearing texts, old or no longer wanted, out of his library, and had them taken out together and thrown on the dump Support for the possibility of coherent collections being preserved in dumps comes from the large numbers of similar bodies of documentary materials, in which specific names and dates often prove that the papyri in the concentration belonged together and came from a single original archive”.

G W Houston [2]

Houston has reviewed more than 50 collections or libraries of this kind [3] A small chunk of these have revealed that these libraries have significant chronological information [4]. The collections fluctuate in size, time period and time gap between associated manuscripts within the same collection. There were some highly specialized libraries including works on philosophy, medicine, grammar, commentaries, glossaries, and half finished works. Many of these works Houston has identified were prepared by professional scribes and then checked by a second scribe [5] Many of these manuscripts Houston discovered give evidence of being carefully studied. The texts are glossed and corrected and sometimes are accompanied with notes [6]

The scholar Craig Evans informs us of the surprise finding of interest discovered at Oxyrinchus:

“During excavations by Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, a collection of second and third-century manuscripts was found in a layer of fill that was dated to the fourth and fifth centuries [7] A number of other collections or libraries were found suggesting similar longevity of their manuscripts In some cases, dated correspondence added support to the evidence of stratigraphy” 

Craig Evans

George Houston finds that literary manuscripts were in use anywhere from 75 to 500 years, with the average of about 150 years [8]. Many of these manuscripts were being handed down to descendants or sold in some cases. What Houston can assess is that a manuscript for example, from the first century BC would have been read, studied, annotated, corrected, and copied over a period of two or more centuries and then would have ended it’s use around the third century AD. Considering the cost of Papyrus and time and effort to rewrite, many scrolls were kept in circulation as Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere testify [9].

How do they work out the date on such documents? There were legal papers, receipts and material which referred to this or that ruler and what year of his reign in some cases. 

“For all of the literary texts of antiquity we have no dates put on them. How do you date them? You date them by palaeography which is to say a very careful examination of the nature of the lettering used. These are all done by hand so paleographers talk about the ‘hand’ of this manuscript or the ‘hand’ of that manuscript and they mean simply the visual appearance of the writing or script in the manuscript. The only kind of texts that have dates are what we call documentary texts, so what we call letters, shipping manifests, tax records, things like that will have dates on them, which is a no brainer… these become the pegs on the wall on which to say we can have a secure date for ‘that’, secure date for that as well’ and when you come to literary manuscripts you look at the handwriting and basically try to judge what do they most closely resemble? What dated manuscript do they most closely resemble?”.

Larry Hurtado, University of Edinburgh [10]

There are some helpful examples from Ptolemaic Egypt which include the archive of the family of Philosarapis, which spans some 135 years, the archive of Patron, which was passed on to his sons and then to his grandsons, thus spanning three generations, and the well-known Zenon archive, numbering some 2,000 documents that date from 261 B C to 229 BC. [11] Though as would make sense, these legal papers, receipts etc. We’re not in use anywhere near as long as works of philosophy, cooking etc. 

Greco-Roman examples

We have references in the Greco-Roman world to people talking about seeing or having original documents sometimes centuries after they were penned.

  1. First-century Pliny the Elder (died in A D 79) claims to have seen autographs of some of the Gracchi letters, which during his time would have been about 200 years old [12] 
  2. Late second-century Galen tells us that “some also had desired to find very old volumes, written three hundred years ago, which I had at Pergamum, of which part were preserved in rolls, part on papyrus , and part on excellent lime-tree bark” [13]
  3. T C Skeat tells us of the the discovery at Scepsis of a number of manuscripts of Aristotle, which were seized by Sulla around 86 BC and taken to Rome [Plutarch, Sulla 26] If this is true, then the papyrus manuscripts mentioned would’ve been 250 years old [14]

Jewish examples

Now if we turn our attentions to the Qumran community, a similar longevity of manuscript s has been observed. As a consequence of the Jewish revolt, the Qumran community came to a sudden end around 68-73 AD. Most of the scrolls found there were 100 to 150 years old when the community ceased to exist. However, approximately 40 scrolls, many of them are Bible scrolls, were 200 to 300 years old were still in use when the community was destroyed and has not been discarded. [15]

Christian examples

The same holds in the case of a number of Christian Bibles. The fourth-century Codex Vaticanus was re-inked in the 10th century, this shows 600 years [16]. Codex Sinaiticus was worked on and protected up to the 7th century. [17] A monk named Dionysius in the 12th century added their own annotations to the Codex, showing extensive usage [18] Fifth-century Codex Bezae was repaired “between 830 and 850 ” [19] showing 300 years usage at minimum and was likely used beyond repair date.  Many other biblical codices show signs of reinking, correcting, and annotations hundreds of years after they were produced, which again testifies to their great longevity [20] 

We are on less firm ground when it comes to the papyri, given their fragmentary condition.  However, in the cases of P66, P72, and P75 we may know James Robinson thinks these texts came from the monastery founded by the monk Pachomius in the early fourth century (320 AD) [21] If that is the case, then with respect to P66 and P75, they would have been at least one century old at the very founding of the monastery [22] The survival of these papyri may well have been due to their long preservation at the monastery. As well as this, the apparent affiliation between P75 and Codex Vaticanus is consistent with this hypothesis (See textual criticism article(s) [23] That is, if P75 was still being read and copied in the fourth century, when Vaticanus was produced, the appearance of its text-form in a fourth-century codex should not be a surprise 

So what we can know so far is

  1. Houstons findings support longevity of manuscripts
    1. Manuscripts were greatly valued and were used for long periods of time
    2. They were studied, interpreted and copied
  2. Houstons findings correlate with Jewish community prior to New Testament communities
  3. Houstons findings correlate with early Christian codifies
  4. Houstons findings correlate with very early Christian papyri

If manuscripts were in use for two or three centuries before their deterioration beyond use, we should entertain very realistically that the autographs and first copies of first-century NT writings continued to circulate, to be studied, and to be copied throughout the second century and, in some cases, even on into the third century. We will pursue some additional reasoning for this position further.

One possibility if Houstons findings are correct and they appear to be a strong witness, it would mean that the original copy of the Gospel of Matthew—first circulated in A D 75 (if we take the late dating) may actually have remained in use until the time of the production of P45, approximately 150 years later (P64,67,103 and 104 would apply to this). If this is the case, we can be confident that the autograph of Matthew would have been present/influencing the copies of Matthew either as reference, to check against or as direct copy of.

The Autographs: Tertullian

Houston’s findings seem to correlate with Church Father claims as well. Tertullian appears to declare that the “authentic” letters of Paul were still availiable for examination and he writes around 190AD. In his Prescription against Heretics 36 1–2 he writes: 

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre- eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings [ipsae authenticae litterae eorum] are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus Since, moreover, you are close to Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves) [24]  

Quoting Craig Evans, he has this to say on that funny sentence I’ve left in “ipsae authenticae litterae eorum” and what that could mean: 

“By “apostolic churches” (ecclesias apostolicas), Tertullian means the churches founded by apostles Paul did not found the church at Rome, but he did (Tertullian presumes) visit it The crucial question here is the meaning of ipsae authenticae litterae eorum (36 1), which, as we have seen, Peter Holmes has rendered “their own authentic writings ” But Holmes is not quite sure how to render the Latin In fact, he really has not rendered it at all The word “authentic” is more transliteration than translation Holmes admits in a footnote: “Authenticae This much disputed phrase may refer to the autographs or the Greek originals (rather than the Latin translations), or full unmutilated copies as opposed to the garbled ones of the heretics The second sense is probably the correct one.” To be sure, the second sense (Greek originals rather than Latin trans- lations) is a legitimate lexical option But the first sense, autographs, is the more probable Indeed, the Oxford Latin Dictionary defines authenticum as “An original document, autograph ” I can hardly fault Holmes for deciding against autograph The idea that autographs of as many as six of Paul’s letters survived some 130 to 140 years would have struck Holmes and other scholars in the late 19th century as most improbable, if not altogether impossible But the papyri, which at the time Holmes was translating Tertullian, were only beginning to be recovered from the dry sands of Egypt Study of these many thousands of documents, including the remarkable discoveries of dozens of book collections and libraries, has forced scholars to reconsider the lon- gevity of literary manuscripts that circulated in late antiquity It turns out, as we have seen, that books in late antiquity often did remain in use, being read, copied, and studied for 100 years or more Some of the autographs of Paul’s letters could have survived to the end of the second century, as Tertullian asserted”  [25]

Craig Evans, Bulletin for Biblical Research, p23-37

So what Tertullian implies is that the autographs of Paul’s letters to the Christian churches in the cities of Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome were still with the churches they were associated with in Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Italy. [26] Now in an age where the heretics are emerging, to point to the originals if you have them is an efficient argument and suicide in debate if you don’t. Tertullian doesn’t make the claim lightly. Here see how Tertullian addresses Marcion’s mutilation of the Gospel of Luke.

“I say that my Gospel is the true one; Marcion, that his is I affirm that Marcion’s Gospel is adulterated; Marcion, that mine is Now what is to settle the point for us, except it be that principle of time, which rules that the authority lies with that which shall be found to be more ancient; and assumes as an elemental truth, that corruption belongs to the side which shall be convicted of comparative lateness in its origin we have proved our position to be the older one, and Marion’s the later a century later than the publication of all the many and great facts and records [opera atque documenta] of the Christian religion”  

Tertullian, Against Marcion 4 4 1–2 [28]

In defending the older, pre-Marcion version of the Gospel of Luke, Tertullian appeals to its antiquity, in contrast to the novelty of Marcion’s version for which no old authority can be produced. Tertullian rightly recognizes that new texts and versions are likely to contain errors and falsifications and that examination of older texts is important, he’s a historical figure of interest to us!

Tertullian can confidently state

“the Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication [ab initio editionis suae]”

Tertullian, Against Marcion 4 5 2 [29]

So Tertullian tells us

  1. Older texts were available for confirmation
    1. This could be used to point out later heretical works with no earlier source
  2. Autographs in some cases were known and accessible hundreds of years later

The Autographs: Peter, Bishop of Alexandria

What’s better than a second century reference about the autographs? One over 100 years after! In a Paschal treatise, of which only fragments are extant, Peter, Bishop of Alexandria (died in A D 311), is remembered to have said the following: 

“Now it was the preparation [cf John 19:14, 31], about the third hour [cf Mark 15:25], as the accurate books have it, and the autograph copy itself of the evangelist John, which up to this day has by divine grace been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful” (frag 5 2)

J B H Hawkins, “Fragments from the Writings of Peter,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers [30]

At this time the Bishop Peter would’ve written around 300AD, the autograph of the Gospel of John would have been about 200 years old by this point. Given Houston’s findings, this statement by Peter is impressive and very possible.Even if Peter was mistaken and the copy of John venerated by the Christians of Ephesus was not the autograph itself, the copy in their possession likely would have been very old. One thing to make clear, a new copy just wouldn’t look as old as a newish copy and hardly be mistaken for a 200 year-old autograph. This correlates again with the long term us of important manuscripts and John certainly would have been, coming later than most of the New Testament, disciples writings would be considered even more precious to local Christian groups than ever before.

Early copies, Irenaeus

Another useful statement comes from St. Irenaeus who testifies he had access to the earliest copies of Revelation which suggests that the early church fathers considered these documents with high regard, to preserve the faith passed down from the apostles. [31]

Multiple autographs?

In antiquity, no one wrote a single letter and sent it out, especially important documents. [32] First a scribe would produce the autograph and the author would sign it in his own hand and then the scribe made a second copy for the authors records or vice-versa. [33] 

And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.

Colossians 4:16

Autographic letters would be readily recognized, for the hand of the sender, who signed his name and perhaps added a line or two of personal greetings and well wishes, would be easily distinguished from the more practiced hand of the professional scribe who had penned the letter [34] 

In some circulation letters that were to be shared with several churches, several signed autographs would be sent out. The Qumran community provide evidence of this . The Halakic (or Legal) Letter (4QMMT), which speaks of the “works of the law” that one must perform to be regarded righteous by God. This letter is extant in no fewer than six fragmentary copies and scholars now can remake the original by taking fragments from each and overlapping them. [35] Paul could well have done as such with his letters, there are statements like “to the churches of Galatia” could imply they each received a copy. As unlikely as it would be, this does increase the chance of finding original New Testament autographs.

Craig Evans declares

“It seems to me that recognition of the probable survival of several NT autographs on into the second and, in some cases, into the third century should throw the text-critical question into a new light The supposition that some scholars entertain, that the transmission of the text of the Gospels and other NT writings in the first two centuries or so was without any controls, is highly improbable”

Craig Evans, Bulletin for Biblical Research 23–37 [36]

Autographs and first copies may well have remained in circulation until the end of the second century or even until the beginning of the third century. The evidence also suggests that late second and early to mid-third century manuscripts, such as P45, P46, P66, and P75 may well have remained in circulation until the fourth century, when the great codices such as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus were being produced and if this is the case the implications for textual criticism are groundbreaking. 

So there is a bridge formed with these early manuscripts

  1. The early autographs
  2. The autographs overlap with P45,46,66,75 etc.
  3. P45,46,66,75 etc. Overlap with Codex Vaticanus/Sintaiticus (the great Codices)

Craig Evans has done comparisons to Gnostic works and they simply do not have this kind of data [Source: Bulletin for Biblical Research] and the New Testament is considered very stateless, whereas the Gnostic works are not. Why is this? The New Testament manuscripts were probably more numerous and—unlike the secretive and private Gnostic writings—the New Testament was read in public. Public reading may well have created something like a “standardized” text [37] and undoubtedly facilitated memorization, which would also have a stabilizing affect on the text [38] The NT writings appear to be taken more seriously by their readers and copyists compared to the Gnostic writings which were probably read and studied in private, as is part of the nature of Gnostic, “secret” knowledge—seen more or less as “interpretations” of the dominical and apostolic traditions. 

Craig Evans says this of Fred Wisse in the documentary Fragments of Truth

“Fred Wisse a long-time professor at Yale said that the stability of the Greek New Testament text is such that he considered it nothing less than a miracle. This is fascinating because he had no intended preach, but he ought to know about the topic because he is indeed a scholar of Coptic Gnostic texts and knew what instability was all about”.

Craig Evans, Fragments of Truth documentary [39]

Given the evidence that we have and taking into consideration the probability that the autographs and first copies that circulated and were in use for one century or longer, there really is no justification for supposing that the text of the New Testament writings underwent major changes in the first and second centuries. 

One of the criticisms the Textual Critic Bart Ehrman has against the Bible is the New Testament copies are too late, but this would not be the case if the above is true, nor did Christians destroy manuscripts after they were done with them. In response to critics claiming Christians discarded their manuscripts early on, Daniel B Wallace has been immensely clear that you need evidence for such an assumption

“Every time somebody translates the bible they don’t say “well I’ve gotta take this manuscript. That I translated from and destroy it now. That’s stupid, we don’t do that. It’s never been done in the history of the church”.

Daniel B Wallace, Fragments of Truth documentary [40]

Craig Evans tells us with the collective knowledge of manuscript usage, with the references from Peter and Tertullian amongst others to autographs, the burden of proof has shifted.

[With reference to Peter and Tertullian] So this means the burden of proof has shifted away from those who say the text is stable, the burden now rests heavily on those who say we shouldn’t trust the text, the text has been changed, therefore we may never know what the text originally showed”.

Craig Evans, Fragments of Truth documentary [41]

Key factors to takeaway

  1. Manuscripts were in use a long time around 1st century antiquity
    1. George Hueston’s Research into Greco-Roman Biographies
    2. Qumran communities 
    3. Christian Codices
  2. We have manuscripts in use along time
    1. Greco-Roman
      1. Pliny the Elder on Gracchi Letters (200 years)
      2. Galen on Hippocrates (300 years)
      3. TC Skeat on Aristotle (250 years)
    2. Qumran Jewish community
      1. Bible scrolls (200-300 years)
    3. Christian 
      1. Codex Vaticanus (In use at least 600 years, still exists today)
      2. Codex Bezae (In use at least 800 years, still exists today)
      3. Codex Sintaiticus (In use at least 350 years, still exists today)
  3. We have references to the New Testament Autographs still in existence
    1. Tertullian, end of 2nd century (~150 years)
      1. Corinthians
      2. Philippians
      3. Thessalonians 
      4. Ephesians
      5. Romans
    2. Bishop Peter of Alexandria, end of 4th century (~200 years)
      1. Gospel of John
  4. These autographs form a bridge to the great codices we have today
    1. Autographs being in use 150-200 years is more than likely
    2. P45,46,66,75 etc take us from the 2nd century and would be in use around the time of the great codices
    3. An example of this bridge is P75 & Vaticanus which have a stunning resemblance, as if they were in the same chain of copying one generation prior.
    4. The great codices of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus exist today
  5. We can have great confidence we know the autographs were still around when our papyrus fragments were written. 


  1. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37] 
  2. G W Houston, “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (ed W A Johnson and H N Parker; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 233–67
  3. See the tables in Houston, “Papyrological Evidence,” 238–39, 249–50, 252–54 
  4. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  5. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37]See K Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 85–87 
  6. See the third table in Houston, “Papyrological Evidence,” 252–54 
  7. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  8. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  9. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  10. Fragments of Truth documentary, 
  11. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  12. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History 13 83
  13. Galen, On Hippocrates 18 2
  14. Skeat, “Early Christian Book Production,” 38–39 
  15. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37 
  16. J K Elliott, “T C Skeat on the Dating and Origin of Codex Vaticanus,”in The Collected Biblical Writings of T. C. Skeat (ed J K Elliott; NovTSup 113; Leiden: Brill, 2004) 281–94, here, p 293:
  17. B M Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (2nd ed ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968) 46 
  18. David Parker, Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (London: British Library / Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 2010) 117–19 
  19. D C Parker, Codex Bezae: An Early Christian Manuscript and Its Text (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 1992) 282 
  20. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  21. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  22. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  23. C L Porter, “Papyrus Bodmer XV (P75) and the Text of Codex Vaticanus,” JBL 81 (1962) 363–76
  24. P Holmes, “On the Prescription against Heretics,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (ed A Roberts and J Donaldson; 10 vols , Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1898) 3:260 
  25. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  26. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  27. Translation based on P Holmes, “The Five Books against Marcion,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (ed A Roberts and J Donaldson; 10 vols , Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1898) 3:348–49
  28. Against Marcion 4 4 1–2
  29. Against Marcion 4 5 2
  30. J B H Hawkins, “Fragments from the Writings of Peter,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (ed A Roberts and J Donaldson; 10 vols , Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1898) 6:283 (The original Greek treatise survives only in Latin quotations) 
  31. Adversus Haereses
  32. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  33. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  34. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  35. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  36. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  37. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  38. Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23–37
  39. Fragments of Truth documentary, 
  40. New Testament Bible Reliability by Daniel Wallace, PhD, Heights Baptist church, 
  41. Fragments of Truth documentary,

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