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How Long Were Manuscripts Used?

March 31, 2011

In addition to reacting in a “tetchy” mode to sensationalist claims about unexamined artifacts, I also try to do some serious research.  In the course of it recently, I’ve come across an interesting study of the remains of book-collections/libraries in the Roman period (OK.  I’ve already admitted to being a bit of a textual geek.)

George W. Houston, “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 233-67.

One matter Houston addresses is how long manuscripts appear to have been in use.   On the basis of manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus and from Herculaneum in particular, Houston notes numerous examples of manuscripts discarded when they were ca. 2-3 centuries old.  Overall, he judges that the evidence indicates “a useful life of between one hundred and two hundred years for a majority of the volumes, with a significant minority lasting two hundred years or more” (p. 251).  And, as he notes, the evidence from Qumran leads to a similar view.

This is of potential relevance for questions about the transmission of early Christian texts, especially those that became part of the NT.   If early copies were intact for something approaching a century or more, then this could be a factor against notions that these texts were highly unstable and susceptible to major revision in the course of transmission.  But we might adjust our thinking to allow for an earlier wearing-out of NT manuscripts through greater frequency of usage.  OK.  Let’s suppose that early manuscripts of NT writings typically wore out sooner:  twice as fast (ca. 50-75 years)?  That still means that the manuscripts from which copies were made remained available for potential checking for a fair period of time. 

There are a number of factors to take account of in considering the textual transmission of NT writings, certainly.  But this is one that I haven’t seen frequently considered.

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  1. One always has to be aware that the nature of the evidence attesting to the lifetime of a text on papyrus are not very exact. First, paleographical dates are not historical dates (except in the most general way), but stylistic assessments. Second, a scribes were not the same as computer software, that automatically updates every so often. Once learned, a scribe might maintain a certain writing style for all his working life. Third, even in the case of a papyrus found in an archaeological context, such as the Karanis Psalter fr., one can only speak in general terms, reigns of emperors (not before Diocletian, not later than Constantine) or known individuals during the lifetime (e.g. Aur. Isidorus or his father). That said, there are documented cases of books remaining in use 100-150 years (4 to six generations say?) Not generally impressed with Houston’s scholarship, but I will look again. Perhaps I am being too harsh.

    • All you say is true (and well known amongst anyone acquainted with papryology). My own sense/recollection is that Houston was drawing upon the judgements of others who have worked with the collections he treats. If so, then it isn’t his judgement alone involved in the question.

  2. Eric permalink

    What an interesting question.

    I wonder if there is a difference between, say, a manuscript of Homer and an early copy of Matthew. Although the manuscript from which a copy was made might still be in existence, it might be in existence in Rome, while the copy was in Alexandria. Something like Homer might have existed in many places at the same time, but at least early on, I would wonder whether Christian manuscripts had saturated the world enough that there would have been copies available *in a particular place* to compare with?

    Put another way: is there a difference between the copying and distribution of established works and that of novel works, like the NT documents?

    Here, a comparison of the LXX with NT documents might be illustrative.

    • Actually, it’s a fair guess that NT writings (or more correctly some of them) were likely copied and distributed rather widely and frequently. We have proportionately more NT MSS than the proportion of Christians to the general population would lead us to expect.

  3. Does the existence of manuscripts against which copies can be checked imply that the checking actually occurred? How far would a scribe or manuscript holder be willing to travel in order to cross check a copy? Do we have evidence of individuals doing this?

    This is much the same question I have concerning Cor 15. Would Paul’s audience really be expected to seek out the still living of the 500 to make sure that Jesus really appeared to them? I am uncertain of how much mobility and communication I should assume the average person had in the first century .

    • A couple of things to say: We do see evidence of readers/users of ancient literary texts comparing copies and anxious to have the most reliable readings. In NT manuscripts (e.g., P66, John, ca. 200 CE) we have abundant evidence of the copyist checking his work and making lots of corrections, made against his exemplar from which he copied.

  4. Interesting observations in that study it would seem.

    I wonder if formulae to estimate longevity of Christian scrolls in particular might have to take into account the somewhat “outlaw” nature of the early believers. Would the need for secrecy and potential threats from others result in a rate of decline at variance with say, safe texts – such as those used in religious practices or official activities that were countenanced by the authorities?

    • We should restrain our romantic fancies here. I see little evidence that earliest Christians were particularly secretive. Indeed, they seem often to have gone out of their way to make themselves known to the authorities, and to make themselves visible in their societies. In the third century, we have refs to Christian books being confiscated and destroyed, but that seems to have been somewhat less than successful!

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