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.

  • John Shelton

    Thanks for the Bib entry. This will be helpful to me.

  • Barry Applewhite

    I wonder how anyone knows when a manuscript was discarded. A manuscript may be dated by handwriting style, among other things, but how would you determine the discard date? The alleged conclusion would be useful, but I wouldn’t run too far with it until the underlying assumptions are clear.


  • Robert T.

    @Barry: Oxyrhynchus was a trash heap…in some places 30 feet deep with papyri, according to Craig Evans. What they found were entire libraries discarded, complete with manuscripts, letters, business papers, etc. Many of those were dated and because of that, you would be able to date surrounding manuscripts reasonably well using those dates. He goes on to discuss how they actually had “book clubs” comparing individuals copies of manuscripts and discuss them amongst themselves.

    You can find Dr. Evans lecture at Southeastern Bible College, 2010 Legacy Bible Conference – Dr. Craig Evans – “Can We Trust the Biblical Manuscripts?”. here:

  • Greg Monette

    I think I heard Craig A. Evans talk about that a couple months ago at the Greer Heard Series in New Orleans. Hurtado must have got that from him.

  • hotshot bald cop

    Right on my man!