One of the standard challenges for New Testament textual criticism is whether we can work our way back to the original text. Some scholars are notoriously skeptical in this regard. Since we only have later copies, it is argued, we cannot be sure that the text was not substantially changed in the time period that pre-dates those copies.
Helmut Koester and Bart Ehrman are examples of this skeptical approach. Koester has argued that the text of the New Testament in the earliest stages was notoriously unstable. Most major changes, he argues, would have taken place in the first couple centuries.
Ehrman makes a similar case. Since we don’t have the originals, and only copies of copies of copies, then who knows what the text was really like before our extant copies were made.
But is it really true that we only possess copies of copies of copies? Is there really an enormous gap, as Koester and Ehrman maintain, between the autographs and our earliest copies?
A recent article by Craig Evans of Acadia University suggests otherwise. In the most recent issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, Evans explores the question of how long manuscripts would have lasted in the ancient world, and whether that might provide some guidance of how long the autographs might have lasted–and therefore how long they would have been copied.
Evans culls together an insightful and intriguing amount of evidence to suggest that literary manuscripts in the ancient world would last hundreds of years, on average. Appealing to the recent study of G.W. Houston, he argues that manuscripts could last anywhere from 75 to 500 years, with the average being about 150 years.
The implications of this research on the textual stability of the New Testament are not difficult to see. Evans says:
Autographs and first copies may well have remained in circulation until the end of the second century, even the beginning of the third century…The longevity of these manuscripts in effect forms a bridge linking the first-century autographs and first copies to the great codices, via the early papyrus copies we possess (35).
In other words, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that some of the earliest copies of the New Testament we posses may have been copied directly from one of the autographs. And, if not the autographs, they may have been copied from a manuscript that was directly copied from the autographs. Either way, this makes the gap between our copies and the autographs shrink down to a rather negligible size.
In the end, we do not possess merely copies of copies of copies (etc.) as some skeptics maintain. The early date of our copies, combined with the likely longevity of the autographs, can give us a high degree of confidence that have access to the New Testament text at the earliest possible stage.
If so, then there are no reasons to think that there were wild, unbridled textual changes taking place in this earliest period. On the contrary, Evans’ study provides good reasons to think the NT text was transmitted with a high degree of accuracy and fidelity.
If you want to check out Evans’ full article, see: “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism” BBR 25.1 (2015): 23-37.
If you want to dive even deeper into the transmission of the New Testament text, see my recent book (edited with Chuck Hill): The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 2012).