How Long did the Autograph or Original New Testament Manuscripts Last?


My last article was What is the Difference Between an Autograph and an Original?. Now I want to research how long the autographs by the Apostles may have lasted. I own a few books which are nearly 100 years old (I collected The Hardy Boys series for many years, and have some of the originals printed in the 1920’s), and some of the books are pretty good condition. If a few of my unimportant The Hardy Boys books have lasted nearly 100 years, is it reasonable to think the autographs of the New Testament may also have lasted a long time?

It’s impossible for us to know how long the New Testament autographs actually lasted, but some educated guesses can be made. None of the books in the New Testament mention the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in A.D. 70, which would be surprising (particularly for the history book Acts) if the books were written after the event. Also, several of the Apostles were martyred1 before A.D. 70, but John the Baptist2, Steven3 and James4 are the only martyrs mentioned by name in the New Testament. Because these important events are missing in the New Testament, it’s reasonable to conclude most of the books of the New Testament were written before A.D. 705.

The Church Father Tertullian lived about A.D. 155-240, and wrote about the authentic writings of the Apostles. Tertullian claimed the Apostolic writings were still available 100 years or more (possibly closer to 175 years) after the Apostles wrote their books.

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 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 upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves).6

Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, martyred in A.D. 311, claims the autograph of the Gospel of John was still available for people to see in Ephesus.

…John, the divine and evangelist, teaches us in the Gospel written by him, where he thus speaks: “Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment-hall, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the passover.” And after a few things more. “When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment-seat, in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha. And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.7

Two of the early church fathers indicate there are autographs are in Ephesus, while Tertullian adds a few other locations. Their claim is the writings of Apostles lasted a long time, over 200 years for the autograph of the Gospel of John. Could they really have lasted that long?

Tertullian wrote in Latin, and the word he used was authenticæ. Well, some translators couldn’t believe that he should be taken literally. Maybe what he meant was the original Greek, as opposed to a mutilated copy or a translation. But authenticum, or in the feminine plural, authenticæ—referring to Paul’s Epistles (another feminine plural), it literally means “autographs.”8

Skeptics often claim that the Bible is copied from a copy, from a copy, from a copy…with an unknown number of generations of scribes copying mistakes and making more mistakes.

With the 27 books of the NT, the reality is, there probably were at least 54 autographs—one set sent out for circulation, and one set retained. Actually, it’s even more than that. Letters, by their very nature—especially circular letters, like probably Ephesians, maybe 1 and 2 Peter; perhaps also James; perhaps some of the other letters by Paul—would have two, three, four copies made that were then sent out and circulated. This would mean…that the chances of an autograph surviving 100, 150, or even 200 years would be greatly increased, because there is not just one that might get lost or perhaps deliberately destroyed, but by having a second or third, we have, in effect, backup. We have redundancy, which would increase the chances for survival. This is a very important observation to make, and so we should not think then that the autographs disappeared after just 10 or 20 years, but rather [that they] circulated for a long time, influencing, even controlling, the textual tradition in subsequent years.9

We shouldn’t be surprised documents can last for centuries if stored properly. The United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution are stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and they’re both over 200 years old. About a year ago I saw a Gutenberg Bible 10, printed in A.D. 1455, about 565 years ago.  The Leningrad Codex, a copy of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), was written in A.D. 1008, about 1012 years ago, and it still exists in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It is quite reasonable to think the original writings by the Apostles could have lasted for centuries.

For example, the great codices—Vaticanus, which dates to the early fourth century [A.D. 300-350], and Sinaiticus, which also dates to the early fourth century—they were used for hundreds of years, and we know that because they were re-inked. In the case of Vaticanus, in places where the original ink had faded—these pages were re-inked, we estimate, about 500 years after the book had originally been produced.11

The New Testaments we use today reliably transmit the Apostles’ message to us, even after nearly 2000 years. There weren’t dozens, or hundreds, of copies between the autographs and our versions, with each one introducing new errors.  They are copies of copies, but there are probably far fewer intermediate copies than skeptics like to claim. The oldest known complete New Testament is Codex Sinaiticus. It’s possible the autograph of the Gospel of John still existed in Ephesus at the time Codex Sinaiticus was written, since it was reported by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, just a few decades earlier (although it’s unlikely Codex Sinaiticus was directly copied from the autograph of John’s Gospel). We have what the New Testament authors intended the church to have.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. A List Of New Testament Martyrs
  2. He [King Herod Antipas] sent and had John [The Baptist] beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl [Herod’s stepdaughter], and she brought it to her mother [Herodias]. (Matthew 14:10-11 (ESV))
  3. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I [Apostle Paul] myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him. (Acts 22:20 (ESV))
  4. About that time Herod [Antipas] the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword… (Acts 12:1-2 (ESV))
  5. Revelation may have been written a few decades later.
  6. Tertullian (A.D. 155-240). The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 36 (CCEL)
  7. Peter of Alexandria. Fragment 5, Section 1, Paragraph 7. (CCEL)
  8. Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts, (Lexham Press: 2014) Section 7.
  9. Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts (Lexham Press: 2014) Segment 5: Ancient Writers and Multiple Autographs
  10. What is the Gutenberg Bible?
  11. Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts, (Lexham Press: 2014) Segment 7.

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