Did the Original New Testament Manuscripts still exist in the Second Century?

By Daniel B. Wallace

Papyrus66There 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…

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