How Long Were Late Antique Books In Use? Possible Implications For New Testament Textual Criticism -- By: Craig A. Evans
BBR 25:1 (2015) p. 23
How Long Were Late Antique Books In Use? Possible Implications For New Testament Textual Criticism
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.
Key Words: NT papyri, textual criticism, libraries of late antiquity
At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century nearly a half million documents were recovered from rubbish heaps on the outskirts of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus (Behnesa) in southern Egypt (28 º 32/N 30 º 40/E), a few kilometers west of the Nile River and about 200 kilometers southwest of modern Cairo.1 Only a small portion of this rich trove of documents, made up mostly of papyri, has been published to date.2 New Testament writings, as well as a few extracanonical writings, have garnered most of the attention. Among the latter the Gospel of Thomas (P.Oxy. 1, 654, 655) is probably best known.
BBR 25:1 (2015) p. 24
One of the important finds at Oxyrhynchus and at a few other sites has been the discovery of libraries or collections of related books and documents that were thrown out together.3 In recent studies George Houston argues plausibly that the evidence suggests that in each case someone in antiquity
was clearing texts, old or no longer wanted, out of his library, and had them taken out together and thrown on the dump. Support for the possibility of coherent collections being preserved in dumps comes from the large numbers of similar bodies of documentary materials, in which specific names and dates often prove that the papyri in the concentration belonged together and came from a single original archive.4
BBR 25:1 (2015) p. 25
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