Craig A. Evans, ‘How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism’ Bulletin of Biblical Research 25 (2015), 23-37.
Abstract: 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.This is a very interesting article which raises some good questions. Essentially, basing himself on the work of Houston on Roman Libraries, Evans thinks that normal papyrus bookrolls in antiquity would have been in use for a long time (an average of 150 years, p. 26). This suggests to Evans that the NT autographs would probably have survived several hundred years (this he takes to be supported by Tertullian’s knowledge of autographs of Paul’s letters kept in the churches to which they were written). The implication for NT textual criticism is that ‘the longevity of these manuscripts [i.e. the autographs] in effect form a bridge linking the first-century autographs and first copies to the great codices, via the early papyrus copies that we possess.’ (p. 35) I’m not convinced by any of the steps in this argument, but it may be helpful to have a conversation about this in the coming days.