Updated 6/28/11

George Houston has addressed an interesting question that has direct applicability to the reliability of the NT documents: How long did manuscripts remain in use?  From the available evidence Houston concludes that some manuscripts continued to be used for 200-300 years before they were finally discarded, while the majority were used for at least 100 years.

While Houstonlooked at secular documents, Craig Evans had this to say about religious documents:

Most of the [Dead Sea] scrolls were one hundred to one hundred-fifty years old when the community ceased to exist. However, approximately 40 scrolls, many of them Bible scrolls, were 200 to 300 years old—and evidently still in use—when the community was destroyed. The same holds in the case of a number of Christian Bibles. Fourth-century Codex Vaticanus was re-inked in the tenth century, which shows that it was still being read and studied some six hundred years after it had been produced. Codex Sinaiticus was corrected in the sixth or seventh century. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, produced in the fifth century, was in use four or five centuries before being overwritten in the twelfth century. Retired and discarded mss were not corrected: only those still in use.

If this is true of the NT autographs as well, then the popular claim that the early transmission of the NT text was wild and erratic is false. The gap between the original autograph and our earliest copies would be largely bridged. Churches and scribes could have checked their manuscript copies against the originals for an extended period of time following the death of the apostles, correcting any errors that might have crept in.  There are two reasons to think the church preserved and continued to use the originals for some time.  First, manuscripts were valuable and would not be quickly discarded.  They would only be discarded once they had deteriorated from use.  Secondly, the NT autographs were viewed as authoritative documents, and as such they would have been preserved by their original recipients.  Indeed, Tertullian seems to affirm that at least some of the original manuscripts were extant in his day: “Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over [to] the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally.” (AD 180 — it is possible that Tertullian was not claiming these churches had the original autographs, but rather that they had copies of the autographs that were not corrupted as were the copies used by heretics)

HT: Larry Hurtado