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The manuscript autographs of the gospels and epistles have perished or been lost. How long would the average autograph last before it perished or became unreadable? Take Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians as an example. It is thought to have been written sometime around 55 AD. No doubt, it would have been well looked after by the Church in Corinth, and many copies made. Given normal use, and a natural desire to preserve the autograph, is it reasonable to assume that it was still readable after 50 years? After 100 years? Longer, perhaps?

Edit: There is an answer here: "How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism" by CRAIG A. EVANS Bulletin for Biblical Research Vol. 25, No. 1 (2015), pp. 23-37 See https://www.jstor.org/stable/26371610?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Abstract: "Recent study of libraries and book collections from late antiquity has shown that literary works were read, studied, annotated, corrected, and copied for two or more centuries before being retired or discarded. Given that there is no evidence that early Christian scribal practices differed from pagan practices, we may rightly ask whether early Christian writings, such as the autographs and first copies of the books that eventually would be recognized as canonical Scripture, also remained in use for 100 years or more. The evidence suggests that this was in fact the case. This sort of longevity could mean that at the time our extant Greek NT papyri were written in the late second and early to mid-third centuries, some of the autographs and first copies were still in circulation and in a position to influence the form of the Greek text."

Evans says the evidence suggests that autographs remained in use for 100 years or more, and perhaps as long as two centuries.

I accept Evans' answer as reasonable. Does anyone have other information?

  • Possibly related Oldest discovery date manuscript. – Nigel J Feb 26 at 13:42
  • I agree that Evans' answer is a reasonable one. It will obviously vary depending on how much the documents were used and by whom. – Mac's Musings Feb 26 at 21:24
  • Are you familiar with the book "Eyewitness To Christ" by Carsten Peter Thiede & Matthew D'Ancona? While the book may not provide an answer to your question, its authors have dated to 60 AD three pieces of papyrus on which there are excerpts from Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 26, verses 7, 8, 10, 14, 15, 22, 23, 31, 32, and 33. These papyri have been called "The Magdalene Papyrus," and are thought to be parts of a very early codex which has Matthew's words on both sides of the papyri fragments, verso & recto. Final thought: God obviously knew that His Word would be preserved back then by methods we – rhetorician Feb 27 at 19:49
  • todaywould call primitive. Nevertheless, early Christians copied the New Testament Scriptures assiduously and accurately, although eventually the autographs were handled so much that followers of The Way had to rely on copies of the autographs, and then copies of copies, until the corpus was finally assembled around A. D. 400, in Latin (the Vulgate). – rhetorician Feb 27 at 19:56
  • @rhetorician I am not familiar with that book but I will look into it. Thanks. And the "The Magdalene Papyrus", too. If manuscripts could last 100 to 200 years in use, then the Codex Vaticanus (AD 300) is perhaps as early as a second or third generation copy. – Poppy Feb 27 at 20:01
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As there are no further responses, I will close this question. It seems likely that autograph manuscripts of the NT were in use for 100 years or longer. Refer to "How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism" by CRAIG A. EVANS Bulletin for Biblical Research Vol. 25, No. 1 (2015), pp. 23-37 See https://www.jstor.org/stable/26371610?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

  • There is one important difference. Roman scribes had the support of Rome. Jewish Scribes had the support of the Jewish King (or later the Herods). Christians were persecuted, their belongings seized, and likely their manuscripts burned. Thus the average longevity might be much less. – Paul Chernoch Mar 15 at 19:24
  • @PaulChernoch Good point. However, if the manuscripts were in danger of Roman or Jewish destruction (as no doubt they were), it is likely that the Christians would give them extra special protection, by making more copies, and by storing 'back-ups' in hidden locations. It also seems likely that the autographs (or master copies) would be secured, and only copies used, in the event they were seized. While deliberate destruction might shorten the average lifespan of manuscripts, it might also (ironically) extend them. – Poppy Mar 16 at 23:41

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