Monday, April 13, 2020

Did the New Testament Autographs Wear Out?

P.Fam.Tebt. 15. British Library Papyrus 1885 (ca. 114 CE)
It has been a common statement for scholars to claim that the autographs of the New Testament writings would have worn out quickly through their frequent use. Metzger's comments in his The Text of The New Testament are representative;
"Their [the autographs] early loss is not surprising, for during persecutions the toll taken by imperial edicts aiming to destroy all copies of the sacred books of Christians must have been heavy. Furthermore, simply the ordinary wear and tear of the fragile papyus, on which at least the shorter Epistles of the New Testament had been written (see the reference to χαρτης in 2 John, verse 12), would account for their early dissolution. It is not difficult to imagine what would happen in the course of time to one much-handled manuscript, passing from reader to reader, perhaps from church to church (see Col. 4.16) and suffering damage from the fingers of eager, if devout readers as well as from climatic changes." Metzger and Erhman, p. 266, footnote 20)
Though these kinds of statements about the autographs appear reasonable, they are rarely supported by any actual evidence.
A recent issue of Mnemosyne highlights some documentary evidence that might shed light on these common claims of the New Testament autographs wearing out.
Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2288 and Ancient Reinforcements of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne (2020):1-34.
This article discusses in detail a fragment of Sappho's Ode to Aphrodite with an underlying layer of papyrus used as a repair to the Sappho roll. It is section 4 of the article that is relevant to the New Testament autographs, "Papyri Repaired or Reinforced in Antiquity." This is a brilliant discussion of the remains of two papyri that were part of a family archive in Tebtunis Egypt. There was a dispute regarding the poor state of the documents found in the public archives of the Arisinoites. The first papyrus P.Fam.Tebt. 15 dates to ca. 114 CE, and the second, P.Fam.Tebt. 24 dates to 124 CE.

The court case involved the terrible state the public archived documents were in. Accusations arose between clerks charged with the care of the archival rolls and there were disputes as to whom the responsibility of repairing the documents fell. It is apparent that the records were in disrepair for some years as the earliest reference to the poor state of the archive was made in 71 CE (Jennifer Cromwell, "Law and the Art of Bookroll Maintenance," Papyrus Stories). The disputes between clerks in taking responsibility in repairing the damaged rolls continued into the ensuing decades with the clerks' heirs. Eventually the Prefect steps in to settle the argument (for a summary of the entire dispute spanning decades and involving the heirs see P.Fam.Tebt 24).

The relevance to the longevity of New Testament autographs can be found in the description of the state of the papyrus documents;
"The documents shown to me by the clerk Leonidas … were in some cases deprived of their beginning, or damaged, or moth-eaten, and do not allow an estimation of the cost of the διακόλησις." (P.Fam.Tebt. 15, ll. 35-37. transl. by the authors)
The beginning and end of these documents were missing and other damage such as by moths is mentioned. The explanation as to why these records were in such a poor state comes later;
"Since the books have been hastily moved from one place to another, repeatedly, lying on top of each other and unattached, due to the quantity, since the nome is so large, and since they are being handled daily, and their material is brittle, it happened that some were destroyed in parts, some others were without beginnings, and some had even fallen apart." (P.Fam.Tebt. 15, lines 68-71. transl. by the authors)
It is this description of the worn papyrus rolls and other documents that sheds some light on the autographs of the New Testaments writings. If the New Testament writings began to be copied and distributed rapidly (within a few years) throughout the first century Mediterranean world, then it is possible that the "autographs" (however one may define this) would have been subjected to similar miss-handling and damage through frequent use.
It is difficult to know precisely how long these official archival records were in a bad state, though it is clear that they were in a poor condition for at least forty years. Significant portions of these documents had to be reconstructed from duplicate archives.
"And Mettius wrote to Archelaus, sometime strategos, to make sure that we copied the missing parts from the documents entered at Alexandria and completed those rolls in the archive that are without beginnings." (P.Fam.Tebt. 15, ll. 83-85. transl. by the authors)
It is important to note here that there was text missing from these documents that had to be compared with duplicate copies in Alexandria for the missing text to be restored. Thus, if the state of these records can be compared with the "original" copies (however one may define this) of the New Testament writings, then their ability to be used by scribes as master copies in order to transcribe new copies would greatly diminish at a rapid rate. Using the example of the archival documents, within a period of 50 years the "autographs" of some of the New Testament writings could have been in an almost unusable state of preservation.



Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2288 and Ancient Reinforcements of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne (2020): 1-34.

Metzger, Bruce Manning, and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Origen: Comparing his Manuscripts to Jewish Copies

In the midst of discussing a textual reading at John 1:28 in his "Commentary on John" Origen of Caesarea (ca. 184 - 253 CE) waxed long on the various place names found in the Gospel accounts and the variations in spelling that can be seen in the manuscript tradition.
“We are aware of the reading which is found in almost all the copies, "These things were done in Bethany." This appears, moreover, to have been the reading at an earlier time; and in Heracleon we read "Bethany." We are convinced, however, that we should not read "Bethany," but "Bethabara." We have visited the places to enquire as to the footsteps of Jesus and His disciples, and of the prophets. Now, Bethany, as the same evangelist tells us, was the town of Lazarus, and of Martha and Mary; it is fifteen stadia from Jerusalem, and the river Jordan is about a hundred and eighty stadia distant from it. Nor is there any other place of the same name in the neighbourhood of the Jordan, but they say that Bethabara is pointed out on the banks of the Jordan, and that John is said to have baptized there." (Comm.  Jo. 6.24)
I find it fascinating that Origen is validating the proper spelling, and ultimately, the location of these various places with his own first hand knowledge of the geography of Palestine. He talks of having walked in some of the regions discussed and even gives some distances between locations. Origen places greater confidence in his first hand knowledge rather than the manuscripts in his possesion because he states that,
"In the matter of proper names the Greek copies are often incorrect." (Comm. Jo. 6.24)
The inaccuracies of the Greek copies as to place names is not not limited to the Gospels alone. Origen laments that certain Greek translations of the Old Testament are also allegedly filled with errors. Origen goes on to say,
"The same inaccuracy with regard to proper names is also to be observed in many passages of the law and the prophets, as we have been at pains to learn from the Hebrews, comparing our own copies with theirs which have the confirmation of the versions, never subjected to corruption, of Aquila and Theodotion and Symmachus." (Comm. Jo. 6.24)
Origen is in the habit of comparing his copies of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament  ("the law and the prophets") with the copies in the posession of the local Jewish community. Apparently Origen had a good working relationship with these local Jewish scholars and was able to cross check his own copies of the scriptures with those in the posession of the Jewish community. 


Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, translators. Ante-Nicene Fathers The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Volume 9, the Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Vision of Paul. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Seneca the Younger on Quality Texts

Brian J. Wright has published an excellent book that covers, quite exhaustively, communal reading events in the first century; Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). The work is a gold mine of references to little known primary source materials relating to communal reading. One particular nugget that Wright mentions is in reference to Seneca the Younger (4 BCE - 65 CE: p. 99-100). In his famous work, "On Anger" (De Ira), Seneca analyses circumstances that can lead to anger. In one such passage he discusses a poorly copied book.

"We are angry, either with those who can, or with those who cannot do us an injury. To the latter class belong some inanimate things, such as a book, which we often throw away when it is written in letters too small for us to read, or tear up when it is full of mistakes, or clothes which we destroy because we do not like them. How foolish to be angry with such things as these, which neither deserve nor feel our anger! "But of course it is their makers who really affront us." I answer that, in the first place, we often become angry before making this distinction clear in our minds, and secondly, perhaps even the makers might put forward some reasonable excuses: one of them, it may be, could not make them any better than he did, and it is not through any disrespect to you that he was unskilled in his trade: another may have done his work so without any intention of insulting you: and, finally, what can be more crazy than to discharge upon things the ill-feeling which one has accumulated against persons?" (Ira 2.26)

As many know, in the trash mounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus were found many discarded books, Christian and non-Christian works. Many of them appear to have been torn-up before they were cast into the garbage dump (see Anne Marie Luijendijk on this phenomena). Of course we can never know for certain, yet Seneca's comments may apply to some of the fragments of books discovered in places like Oxyrhynchus. Perhaps their owners were disgusted with the perceived poor quality of the text or the style of writing employed. Considering the cost of making a book at this time, Seneca's comments reflect the vain anger of a member of Rome's wealthy elite who can afford to throw something as costly as a book away simply because they do not like it.


Anne Marie Luijendijk, “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.” Vigiliae Christianae 64:3 (2010): 217-54.

Aubrey Stewart, trans. L. Annaeus Seneca, Minor Dialogs Together with the Dialog "On Clemency" (Bohn's Classical Library Edition; London, George Bell and Sons, 1900)