There are two or three places that address whether the originals survived into the second century. Tertullian, writing in c. 180 CE, said, “Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over [to] the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally”1 The key term here is authenticae (‘authentic’). Schaff has a note on this as follows: “This much disputed phrase may refer to the autographs or the Greek originals (rather than the Latin translations), or full unmutilated copies as opposed to the garbled ones of the heretics. The second sense is probably the correct one.” However, Schaff’s view is not the only one out there. For example, the Oxford Latin Dictionary offers this definition for the nominal cognate, authenticum: “An original document, autograph.” There is no other definition given. For the adjective, authenticus, which is used by Tertullian, OLD gives the meaning as “(of documents) Original.” Again, no alternative is given. I have not done a TLG-like search on authenticae litterae, which would be what is needed to settle the issue most likely.
Tertullian goes on to discuss each of these ‘authentic writings’ as being found in the very churches to which they were written. He mentions Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome. He urges his reader to visit these sites to check out these authentic writings. This seems to suggest that he believed that these documents were the autographs. In the least, it suggests that by his day carefully done copies of the originals were considered important for verifying what the apostles meant, and such copies had a strong connection to the churches to which they were originally written. One still has to wonder why Tertullian focuses on the very churches which received the originals if he didn’t mean by the comment that these churches still preserved the autographs. Perhaps Schaff was trying to salvage the credibility of Tertullian’s testimony by shifting the normative meaning of authenticus to a copy that was reliable. My sense, however, both from the context and from lexical usage, is that Tertullian meant the autographa.
Of course, whether Tertullian’s testimony actually represents the facts may be a different matter. Most scholars would reject his testimony as apologetically motivated and not in line with the facts (see especially Scrivener’s discussion). Even if that is the case, by Tertullian’s day carefully done copies of the originals were apparently considered important for verifying what the New Testament authors wrote. There was an awareness of the variants and an appreciation for the original text. Even taking the worst case scenario, Tertullian’s statement tells us that some early Christians were concerned about having accurate copies and that the earliest ones still in existence were not quietly put on the shelf. But that there is no reliable witness after the time of Tertullian with similar claims suggests that the originals were by the early third century, at the latest, disappearing.
Although it would have taken the early church some decades to recognize, say, Paul’s letters as scripture, there would still seem to be a sense from very early on that his letters were important and needed to be preserved if at all possible. At the same time, this cannot be pressed too far: First, the early Christians were the first known group to adopt the codex form of the book, and perhaps were even the ones to invent it. One of the possible reasons suggested for the quick adoption of the codex form by Christians is that their religion was one of an embattled faith. They would thus need to find the passages that supported their views as easily as possible. The codex provided that far better than the roll, which continued to be used for hundreds of years after the Christians adopted the codex by the rest of the Greco-Roman (not to mention Jewish) world. Second, only two of Paul’s four letters to the Corinthians have been preserved in manuscript copies, and most likely several other letters have not been preserved. Yet there are reasons why two of the Corinthian letters have gone missing,2 and as for the rest there is the likelihood that until Paul’s letters had circulated to some degree (sometimes at his own instruction3), the churches receiving them might not have prized them at first as much as they would later.4 Certainly, as the years wore on, and especially when Paul’s letters began to get copied by more than the original recipients, there would be a sense of the importance of the autographs and especially of what was written in them. But since they were no doubt written on papyrus, and were not preserved in particularly dry climates, they could not have lasted more than two or three hundred years even under the best conditions in the ancient world (although papyrus is more durable than paper). The likelihood that they only lasted for several decades at the most strongly suggests that they were repeatedly examined and copied by interested parties struggling for their faith in a hostile environment.
Irenaeus devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of the variant in Rev 13:18 (AH 5.30). He does not speak of the original text, however, but does address the earliest copies that he had seen. He compares the two readings, 616 and 666, and gives the palm to 666. However, since he also gives it a spiritual interpretation, one has to wonder whether his motives clouded his judgment and whether the church, under his spell, began to copy out 666 here instead of 616. Until just a few years ago, the only known manuscript to have 616 in Rev 13:18 was Ephraemi Rescriptus (codex C), a fifth century codex and the second most important manuscript of the Apocalypse. Then, with the discovery of sixteen or seventeen NT papyri at the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University just a few years ago, confirmation of this reading appeared. The earliest manuscript on Rev 13, now P115 from the third or perhaps fourth century, also has the reading 616. I looked at the papyrus in 2003 while visiting Oxford, examining it under a microscope. Clearly, it had the reading 616 in the original hand—no erasures, no alterations. Nevertheless, back to Irenaeus: It is a curious thing that he doesn’t appeal to the original text of Revelation, which would end all dispute. He only appeals to early copies. Perhaps the reason is simply his distance from the source. By comparing what he says with what Tertullian says, access to the original church(es) seems to have been considered crucial for verification of the original wording. Hence, the reason Irenaeus only speaks of the copies may well be due to his geographical location. But if Irenaeus was speaking in absolute terms, then the original draft of the Apocalypse had disappeared. If so, this certainly puts some doubt on Tertullian’s statement about some of the letters of Paul still existing. One other item that may be important here: Revelation was copied less often than any other book of the NT, and yet Irenaeus admits that it was already corrupted—within just a few decades of the writing of the Apocalypse. Scribal corruption is to be expected, of course, but that Irenaeus’ best argument is to appeal to early manuscripts rather than to the original—even if he had not seen the original—might suggest that it no longer existed. And if Revelation no longer existed, how much more likely is it that Paul’s letters no longer existed by the middle of the second century?
There is at least one other reference to the original documents still existing into the early fourth century, this time by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria (who died in the last year of the Diocletian persecution, 311 CE). In fragment 1, he speaks of the autograph of the Gospel of John as still existing in his day: “the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.” He is here discussing a textual variant at John 19:14, but his statement about the reading and his assessment of what was at Ephesus are both almost surely incorrect. By the fourth century, relics became quite important to the growing church, and claims were often made to bolster a church’s prestige. The question that I cannot yet answer is how soon such veneration of relics and documents became the norm. (I’m sure the answer is out there somewhere; if anyone knows what it is, please write to me!) But as I suggested above, I think the early church did not immediately have such adoration for the apostolic writings, though surely by the end of the first century they would have. Further (again, as alluded above), for the Christian community, at least in the first several decades of the church’s existence, it seemed to be more important to disseminate copies of the NT documents than to venerate them. The very form of the codex suggests that the early Christians were far more interested in what the text had to say than in treating the original documents as some sort of lucky charm. This would thus both contribute to the demise of the autographs but also would mean that the very process that brought about their destruction was one in which they were examined and copied. Otherwise, they would have survived longer and remained in cases to be worshiped from afar, just like so many countless relics that are found in Orthodox and Catholic churches in Europe are doing to this day.
An important ramification of all this is as follows: By the middle of the second century, when canon conscientiousness was on the rise, the Christian community regarded the autographs, or at least the earliest copies of the New Testament documents, as important witnesses. They were concerned about the purity of the text with regard to select textual variants. Most likely, this implies that the copying of the manuscripts in the early decades of the Christian faith was not that of strictly linear descent (one copy of another copy of another copy). Rather, there would be times when at least a few scribes would want to check behind their exemplar and look at its exemplar. This would especially occur whenever a disputed reading cropped up. So, there seems to have been a bit of a check on the quality of the transmission of the text from very early on. Of course, those scribes far removed from the churches that received the autographs, and far removed from the disputes about their wording, would have created copies that were simply copies of other copies, without thought of making sure that the wording reflected the original. Yet even into the medieval ages, we know of occasional scribes who undertook to find the earliest and best copies they could locate and use them as their exemplar. The scribe Ephraim who penned codex 1739 and codex 1582 was one such scribe. How many more nameless scribes who came hundreds of years before him attended to their duties in the same way? In the least, historical probabilities would tell us that at least some of them did.
1De Praescriptione Haereticorum, Chapter 36; Schaff’s translation. The Latin reads as follows: Age iam, qui uoles curiositatem melius exercere in negotio salutis tuae, percurre ecclesias apostolicas apud quas ipsae adhuc cathedrae apostolorum suis locis praesident, apud quas ipsae authenticae litterae eorum recitantur sonantes uocem et repraesentantes faciem uniuscuiusque.
2 Most likely, they caused the Corinthians so much embarrassment that they were unwilling to expose their own dirty laundry to this degree by having copies made for other churches. With what is already in 1-2 Corinthians, the tongue-lashing that Paul gave them must have been brutal. (Of course, if 2 Corinthians is a composite letter with part of one of the lost letters incorporated into it, this scenario would change a bit. I take it, however, that 2 Corinthians is a literary unit.)
3 See Col 4.16. Although it is often suggested that the letter to the Laodiceans is lost, there is a good chance that this refers to the letter to the Ephesians. This has some plausibility to it because (a) the earliest witnesses to Ephesians have no recipient mentioned, though grammatically leaving the recipient blank is quite awkward. This suggests that the letter was meant to be circulated among several churches, and Ephesians was just the first one. Each church after that would make a copy of the original document and fill in its own name. See my note in the NET Bible on this point. (b) Marcion’s canon list mentions the letter to the Laodiceans, but not the letter to the Ephesians. This is almost surely the same letter and serves as some confirmation on our suspicions in the first point. (c) Going counter-clockwise in Asia Minor, beginning at Ephesus, Laodicea would be the stop prior to Colossae. If Tychicus gave instructions to the Ephesian church to make a copy of the letter, leaving the recipient line blank, and then sending on the letter to Laodicea with instructions for them to fill in the blank, he could have made his way to Colossae knowing that the letter from Laodicea would be soon coming. Somewhere along the line, the instructions got garbled and hence the earliest textual variant that leaves the recipient blank. Perhaps one reason this scenario is not often considered today is because many scholars do not regard Ephesians to be Pauline.
4 Two indications suggest this. First, in 2 Thess 3.17 Paul refers to ‘every letter’ that he has written to churches. Yet, only Galatians (assuming the South Galatian theory) and 1 Thessalonians are prior to 2 Thessalonians in the corpus Paulinum! Surely, this indicates that Paul had written other letters to churches that are no longer preserved. But second, if 2 Peter is authentic, then its almost casual reference to Paul’s letters as scripture suggests that by the mid-60s at least one or two folks in the nascent church recognized that Paul’s letters were so authoritative as to deserve such nomenclature. (The problem with this second point is that even if authentic, we have to wonder why 2 Peter made almost no impact on patristic writers for nearly a century in terms of identifying Paul’s letters as scripture. I personally believe that Peter did write this letter, but I also think that it did not circulate widely, and thus would have had minimal impact on patristic assessments of Paul’s writings.)