Michael Kruger reports on an article by Craig Evans, who says “Autographs and first copies [of the New Testament] may well have remained in circulation until the end of the second century, even the beginning of the third century.” If Evans is correct, then papyri we possess today (like these) could have been copied while the original documents were still available:
[I]s 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 abstract from Evans’s article explains more about the kind of evidence he cites in his paper:
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.
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.
Read the rest of Kruger’s article here.