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.

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