In doing the research for my new book, Inspiration to Ink: The Big Picture of How We Got the Bible, I have uncovered some amazing but little-known details. Some were hiding in plain sight. One of these pertains to a repository for the safe-keeping of certain sacred texts.
The Autograph Copies
Once a New Testament document was dictated and edited, a published archetype was produced. Philip Comfort writes, “The handwriting of archetypal texts is a different story than the autographs because published archetypal texts would normally have a polished look to them” (Encountering the Manuscripts, p. 10). This was a “master copy” from which additional copies would be made for distribution. In some cases, there was likely a wealthy patron who sponsored or funded the enterprise at the outset. Theophilus may have filled this role for Luke and Acts.
Letter from Francois I, king of France, to Henry VIII of England.
Many New Testament documents were similarly transcribed,
then signed by the author at the end
In most cases, there were likely at least two “autograph” copies – one intended for the original audience and one kept by the author. Paul probably stored master copies and played a pivotal role in putting together his own collected writings. Comfort suggests that in 2 Timothy 4:13, when Paul “asked Timothy to bring him his books, most especially his parchment notebooks (which were codices), Paul was asking for copies of his epistles, not Old Testament scrolls.” Moreover, he adds that Paul’s charge to Timothy to “guard the deposit” was a sacred trust that likely included the safe-keeping and dissemination of his writings after his death (2 Tim. 1:12-14). If Timothy was indeed the designated appointee or “trustee” of Paul’s epistles, then he had the task of preserving, organizing, and combining them into a single collection – a process that may have begun much earlier than is ordinarily supposed (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
There was no official postal system for the masses in the Roman Empire. Letter writers put their communiques into the hands of trusted envoys. This served two purposes. First, this was a form of “certified mail” delivery to a destination, so that the intended recipients would indeed receive their mail. Second, the one transporting the document had the additional role of verifying the circumstances of its origin, and of filling in any additional details. The New Testament is full of intriguing clues describing this process (Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 4:17; Col. 4:7-18; etc.). One of the best-known examples is found near the end of Ephesians – “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts” (Eph. 6:21-22).
In the process of entrusting the New Testament to the people of God, “delivered” and “received” are operative terms. The faith was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The apostle Paul “delivered” what he had received from the Lord (I Cor. 11:23; 11:2; 15:3).
The faithful in turn “received” this revealed truth as a precious gift. “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). There are many other passages that use this vocabulary of delivering and receiving (Acts 7:53; Gal. 1:9; 1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:6; etc.).
Deposit for Safe-Keeping
Once receiving a New Testament document, the original recipients had a sacred responsibility to safeguard the message, to certify the contents, and to begin the circulation process (1 Cor. 14:37-38; 2 Thess. 3:17; Col. 4:16). None of the original autograph documents of New Testament books has survived to the present day, so far as we know. Had any of them lasted down through the ages, they would probably be treated as relics and objects of worship. However, the essential content of each document has been preserved in thousands of copies.
Nonetheless, those privileged to receive the autographed original documents were entrusted with a vitally important mission. The first copies of the writings that would later form a complete New Testament must be accepted, read, safely stored, and then copied for a wider audience. The same process occurred with the Old Testament documents (Deut. 31:24-26; Josh. 24:26-27; 1 Sam. 10:25). Just as the Ten Commandments were placed in the Ark of the Covenant, or a copy of the Torah is stored in a synagogue “ark,” there is no doubt that the original manuscripts were normally kept in a safe place.
In a recent development, Dr. Craig Evans has argued that the autograph originals of New Testament books may have had a much longer lifespan than is normally thought. Entire papyrus libraries were thrown away in the garbage dumps of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and the average lifespan of literary documents which can be dated with precision is about 150 years. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were 100 to 150 years old (with some 200 to 300 years old and evidently still in use) when the community was suddenly destroyed. So when Tertullian says in AD 190 that the “authentic writings” of the apostle Paul were still extant in Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome, we should not automatically dismiss this as improbable. Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, writing about AD 300, speaks of “the autograph copy itself of the evangelist John, which up to this day has by divine grace been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.” This opens up the possibility that the earliest New Testament manuscripts to which we have access today were copied at a time when some of the autograph originals still existed! (See Craig A. Evans, “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23-37. There is also an allusion to this in the 2018 film, Fragments of Truth, a Faithlife Films production).
Copies – Not the “Originals”
There are about 5800 Greek manuscripts of New Testament books, and probably between 15,000 and 20,000 manuscripts in other languages, including over 10,000 in Latin. The decentralization of the manuscripts, often viewed as a weakness, is actually a guarantee that we can reconstruct the original text with near-100% accuracy. Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary argues that if the pages of these manuscripts were collected and stacked, they would be a mile and a quarter high. He also says that the average size of a Greek New Testament manuscript is 450 pages long, which means that there are about 2 ½ million pages of Greek text, not counting the versions in other languages. In other words, there is a wealth of abundance from which to accurately recreate the original text.
The Ultimate Repository – Found!
Ultimately, God’s purpose was not to store the divine message on paper and ink, treasured as some sort of religious relic. The message is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), and it deserves a better repository than a perishable treasure-chest. Paul says, “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3). This is what God has always wanted. In contemplating the New Covenant, God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).
The original hand-written biblical documents have probably long since perished, victim to the ravages of age and the flames of persecution. However, the Word of God lives on. It can be reconstructed, and the millions of Bibles in the world are accurate representations of what God has delivered to his people down through the ages. However, the ultimate repository of this precious message is deep within the recesses of the heart of every true believer. May we all replicate the holy sentiment, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). And even if the external receptacle should not seem impressive in the eyes of the world, the power of God is magnified all the more. As the apostle Paul confessed, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Mike Wilson, Santa Clara, CA
The upcoming book, Inspiration to Ink: The Big Picture of How We Got the Bible, is available for pre-order:
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