How Long Were Ancient Manuscripts Used?

The following is another post from a good colleague and friend, Larry Hurtado.


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 yeras 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 manuscripts through greater frequency of usage.  OK.  Let’s suppose that early manuscripts 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.