Scholars today often note that the original New Testament disappeared long ago. Although late in the second century, Tertullian speaks confidently of the originals still existing, his reliability has been discredited. Even if he were right, that would hardly mean that the original documents still exist today.

But what if the originals were discovered? Would scholars even know it? After all, there would be no statements like, “This is the actual original letter of Paul to the Romans. Get your grubby mitts off it!” So, how would we know?

As much as I would love to have the original documents still with us, it is doubtful in the extreme that they’re still in one piece. Extreme as in me winning the Texas lottery next week—without the benefit of buying a lottery ticket. (Those of you who think you have won some Internet lottery can now excuse yourself from this discussion since you’re way too gullible.) But let’s assume, for sake of argument, that they still could exist. If so, how would we know?

There would be three or four signs that we should look for. First, we would not see an entire New Testament. Instead, we would find single books only. If someone claimed that a particular manuscript was the autograph, but it contained the four Gospels or a couple of Paul’s letters, that would immediately discount it. Each book of the New Testament was sent to a particular audience for a particular occasion. Paul didn’t sit down and say, “Let me write letters to the Romans and the Corinthians and just bundle them together as one book. I’ll let those guys figure out which one goes to which church.” No, the books of the New Testament were ad hoc documents. So, if a manuscript showed evidence of having had more than one book within its covers (even if it currently had only one book), it would not be the original.

Second, we would expect the originals to be written on rolls or scrolls, rather than on a codex. The codex form of book (binding on the left side in a rectangular shape, pages that turn; in other words, what modern books look like) was invented, as far as we know, shortly before AD 100. But the only New Testament book that comes close to that date is Revelation. And it speaks about a ‘book’ on more than one occasion. The seven-sealed book mentioned in Revelation 5.1 is a scroll (even though the KJV and ASV translate this as ‘book,’ most modern translations render it ‘scroll’). To seal a book seven times so that you have to break the seals in sequence means that the book must be a scroll. As you unroll the scroll, the wax seal stops you from reading further until you break it. You roll further along, and another seal stops your progress. But a seven-sealed codex would seem to be one that could be opened at any section rather than sequentially (Rev 6.3, 5, etc. speak of ‘the second seal,’ ‘the third seal,’ etc.). In other words, the most natural way to read the text is to see this as speaking of a scroll, rather than a codex because the seals appear to be broken in sequence.

Third, paleographically the manuscript would have to be dated to the first century. The science of paleography principally uses handwriting analysis to date manuscripts. Some manuscripts give their dates of writing, which then become sort of a template for how handwriting at that time in history was done. Although this may seem completely subjective, it isn’t. Consider the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Anyone who has seen these documents knows that they were not produced in the twentieth century. Why? Because no one wrote that way in the twentieth century. They belong to an earlier era. With biblical manuscripts there are all sorts of clues about the date of a manuscript. For example, if the introductory letter to a paragraph is oversized and ‘outdented,’ the manuscript is typically not considered to be any earlier than the fifth century (since that’s when such a motif became popular). If a manuscript has accents, it’s not original since accents weren’t used on the biblical manuscripts for several centuries. There are letter combinations known as ligatures that help to locate a manuscript by date. A ligature is a combination of two or more letters into a single form. We have—or I should say had—them in English, too. In the word, archaeology, older English works will combine the ‘a’ and ‘e’ into a new form, a ligature. And normally you can date such printed books to no later than the early to mid-twentieth century because of this ligature. With Greek manuscripts, there are all sorts of ligatures, as well as several other clues, as to when a document was written.

Fourth, if the manuscript is a letter by Paul, we should expect to see handwriting by two different people. The second hand would be larger and occupy only a verse or two, toward the end of the document. Paul almost always hired a secretary or amanuensis to write his letters by dictation. But he also signed off on the letter by adding a note of authentication at the end. Note 2 Thessalonians 3.17: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter.” Paul is here declaring that when he takes the pen from the amanuensis and signs the letter, he is putting his stamp of authenticity on it. This must imply that the letter also was read by Paul carefully before it was dispatched (otherwise the note of authenticity loses much of its force). This is also probably the meaning of Galatians 6.11: “See what big letters I make as I write to you with my own hand!” Scribes would be trained to write in a petite hand, but the authors would authenticate their documents with an obviously less trained and larger hand.

These are the basic things we would expect to see if we want to claim that an original New Testament document had been found. How do our current manuscripts stack up? First, although some of them are indeed only fragments of individual books, there are very, very few manuscripts of the New Testament that seem to have been originally just one book. If we isolate those, however, they don’t measure up to the other tests. Second, all of our manuscripts, except for three or four, were originally written on a codex. And the three or four that are on a scroll were written on the backside of some other document, usually a literary document (such as Homer’s Iliad). In other words, the scroll was intended for something other than the New Testament. A Christian scribe simply used what was at hand to copy out a portion of the New Testament. Scrolls were normally written only on one side (note again Rev 5.1, where the unusual feature of the scroll is that it was written on both sides), while codices were written on both sides. Thus, already we have eliminated all contenders without having to go further. But third, there is only one manuscript that could possibly qualify as a first-century document. Known as papyrus 52 or P52, it is a small fragment from John’s Gospel containing John 18.31-33 on one side and John 18.37-38 on the other. The fact that it is written on both sides and that the text on the second side is very close to the text on the first side (four verses away) tells us that this manuscript was originally a codex. Adolf Deissmann dated this manuscript to the 90s AD, while most paleographers have dated it to c. AD 100-150. Thus, even if John was written in the 90s, this would not be the original document because it was written on a codex. If John was written in the 60s, as a growing number of New Testament scholars think, then P52 could not possibly be the original. Fourth, I am not aware of any New Testament manuscripts in which the handwriting changes near the end of the manuscript only, is larger, and includes just the relevant verses that would suggest that the author wrote that portion. Hands do change in manuscripts, but when they do they almost always continue with the new hand for a long way.

With this evidence, it seems that it is quite safe to say that the original manuscripts of the New Testament have not been discovered. One question to ask, though, is why? Why didn’t God preserve the originals? Why are all the copies imperfect? Another question to ask is, if a manuscript met all of the above-mentioned criteria, could we then say that it was the original text?

    16 replies to "What If We Found The Original New Testament But Did Not Know It?"

    • Joanie D

      I think this “theme” has the makings of a good novel or movie. Let’s say there is a monastery that has been hiding for centuries the first letter that Paul is known to have written to one of the early churches. The letter is intact and complete. The monastery maintained secrecy all those centuries because they feared that it would be stolen either by factions within the church that wanted it for themselves or by “enemies” who wanted to destroy the letter for whatever reason. BUT…rebellion erupts within the monastery itself and the letter disappears. The story then develops as the abbot attempts to find out who stole the letter, why it was stolen, where it is now and how to recover it.

      Dan asks, “Why didn’t God preserve the originals?” Well, God really left it to mankind to preserve or not. So many things can have happened to the letters: intentional destruction, got burned in a general fire, got wet and moldy, got lost. I think we have done fairly well with the copies we do have.

      Joanie D.

    • Peter Gurry

      Dr. Wallace,
      Are you aware of any MSS where the scribe provides information about his source MS? I would think that if a scribe knew he was using a very reliable source MS, he could give credibility to his new copy by referencing his source MS. Related to your discussion, then, I wonder if the first copies of the NT autographs would have included a note to that affect.

    • Nick N.

      Isn’t the standard argument for God not preserving the autographs that people would end up worshipping it? I think it’s a little simpler than that — I believe that the autographs weren’t preserved because it was unnecessary for the furtherance of the Gospel. The Gospel was transmitted orally for decades before even Paul dictated his first epistle. As important as a written record is to us it wasn’t nearly as important to the ancients.

      In reference to why all of the copies are imperfect I think this is another simple answer — men had their hands on them! As long as men can make mistakes they will make mistakes.

      And to answer the last question — we couldn’t say with absolute certainty that a manuscript that met the abovementioned criteria were original — We can judge the probability of it and it probably would not be original although it would certainly be early.

      As always, good post.

    • Vance

      Dan, I love this series you are on right now, it is informational and thought provoking. Thanks!

      I am going to pull a “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!” (at least for now). I will say again to this intriguing question of preservation that I think God DID preserve the essentials of each book that he inspired. There was no need to keep His hand on the original when He could keep His hand on the copies to make sure that the message He intended is the message that got to us. The conflicts do not bother me since they do not impact the text in any essential, doctrinal way.

      Thus, I am heretic enough to say that I don’t hold to the “inerrant in the autographs”. Not because I think the autographs were in error. No, I think go the other way and say that not only was the autograph inerrant, so is the Message as it has come to us, since I do not see those types of inconsistencies which the various copies might have as “errors”, since I don’t think the true and essential Message is at that level of detail.

      This makes sense for a series of texts that would be translated into dozens of languages, modernized, summarized and paraphrased. Even if we had the originals in our hands, the first thing we would do is translate it, with a dozen scholars giving a dozen translations. So, the level of the Message, if we are to view Scripture as inerrant, could not be at that level of detail, in my opinion.

    • Chad Winters

      I could imagine it would be like the Koran, no Bible you or I could use would be valid. Only if you read it from the original would it be Scripture

    • JohnT3


      I always enjoy reading one of your posts or hearing you on the radio (Converse with Scholars). I do have a question regarding the idea of the orginal manuscripts,

      Is it possible that with the persacution that the Christians faced at that time that some of the originals were actually written on something or hidden in something and then transcribed back into a more traditional letter form of the period?

      Oh I just remembered one more you mentioned that ther would not be originals that were multi volumes sets, Then Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts were actually written on seperate occasions?

    • James Snapp Jr

      Just a few things:

      I don’t grasp your description of scroll-sealing. I agree totally with the main point that the “book” in Revelation 5:1 is a scroll. But it’s described as a scroll written on both sides. Doesn’t this present a difficulty for the idea that it was sealed to keep some sections secret as the scroll was read (since whatever was on the reverse-side would be unsealed as the first side was unrolled)? Perhaps a better way to picture the seven seals (all of seem to have been visible as soon as John sees it) is as seven seals along the scroll’s outermost edge. This would mean that we should interpret the question in 5:2, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” as a restatement, like, “Why is able to hit a home run and win the game?”.

      About Galatians 6:11 – we should probably suspend judgment about the use of a secretary for this epistle; Paul himself may have written down the entire epistle. Also, the larger lettering in this case might have been unique to Paul (an effect, perhaps, of poor eyesight). (Subject for further investigation: what is the evidence that first-century professional secretaries tended to write in smaller lettering than non-secretaries?)

      DW: “Why didn’t God preserve the originals?”

      I think God entrusted the written words to man, knowing we were not going to preserve them in a pristine state, for about the same reason that He entrusted the Incarnate Word to man, knowing that He would be crucified and pierced. I thought that Christ’s love was conveyed perfectly by His unwounded hands, until I saw how it was conveyed by His pierced hands. Or perhaps it’s a matter of divine economy — like a ship-captain who will make sure his crew keeps the cargo intact, without making sure that the ship’s hull is completely free of barnacles.

      DW: “If a manuscript met all of the above-mentioned criteria, could we then say that it was the original text?”

      Besides single-book scroll-form and first-century lettering, it would also need a lack of systematic nomina sacra.

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.

    • C Michael Patton

      One of my areas of study has been the examination of texts from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. (Now you can see them online!). This is a collection of all kinds of papyri from an ancient Egyptian garbage dump. Most specifically I was looking for the use of the Greek huper (“in stead of” or “for”) with regards to the amanuensis. As Dan said, and an amanuensis was a scribe or secretary that would write on behalf of someone else. Taken from servus a manu, “a slave with hand(writing)”

      For example, the common saying among the amanuensus way “I write this letter on behalf of [huper] . . .” I was really studying this for research on Paul’s understanding of Christ’s substitution.

      In the end, what struck me as most relevant were three things:

      1) An amanuensis was used more often than I had expected. I came to the point where I was surprised when one was not used!
      2) Amanuensis were used by those who could not write as well as those who could write. In other words, it was not simply the illiterate that used them. How I can tell this is that the author’s hand would be seen at the end of the letter, as Dan described, with different handwriting. Sometimes this salutation would go on for quite some time, longer than intended. Sometime this extended salutation would be more elegant than the amanuensis!
      3) It was very easy to tell the difference in the writing of the amanuensis and that of the author. Often the signature and salutation would be in very large print just as Paul described.

      Anyway, thought I would share. BTW: This was a project that Dan put me on 7 years ago. While it was tedious and time consuming, it was well worth it. Especially as I read Dan’s article here.

    • Dan Wallace

      Hey, thanks folks for the good comments, input, questions, etc. I was in California this weekend, speaking at the Bay Area Theological Library of Palo Alto, on issues in Romans. Great time with some great people! Thanks, Bill Risk, for your unflagging hospitality and for keeping the BATL going strong.

      As for P&P people (is that P&PP??): Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. One of you asked if we are aware of any scribes that provide source material about the exemplar they copied. Yes, there are a few dozen such MSS for the NT I believe. But the problem with the references is twofold: first, most of them are quite late; second, they don’t always give enough information for us to be able to determine the manuscript that they copied. For example, if a scribe writes, “This was copied from a very good manuscript written in Caesarea by so and so,” that might not be enough information for us to go on. Unless the original scribe penned his name to the document and the scriptorium where he did his work, the trail usually ends there. However, by a careful comparison of manuscripts we can sometimes determine what manuscript a particular scribe copied from even if no comments are made. (Of course, if the exemplar is lost, the game is over.) The Nestle apparatus refers to such copies as Abschriften, using the superscripted abbreviation Abs.

      When it comes to the original documents, however, I don’t think that the earliest scribes were aware of the vastness of the textual corruptions being created in their era. Consequently, they were not sensitized to the issue of pointing to authenticity or excellent copies. Within a few generations, however, this started to happen. One of the interesting sidenotes about this phenomenon is that some scribes noted patristic comments concerning authenticity of a given passage. For example, manuscripts from family 1 (specifically 1, 205, 209, and 1582) have a marginal note at Mark 16.8: “In some copies [of Mark’s Gospel] the evangelist completes [his gospel] at this point, which Eusebius of Pamphilia also ‘canonized.’ But in many others these [words, referring to vv. 9-20] are also written.” Although the manuscripts are late, they refer to a much earlier tradition, presumably reaching all the way back to the early fourth century. Now, these same manuscripts have the long ending of Mark, but the marginal note records at least a differing opinion about whether such verses are to be considered scripture, and it’s an opinion that the scribe recognizes to be very ancient, perhaps even authoritative. In the least, this should warn us about accepting the long ending of Mark just because it occurs in the vast majority of manuscripts. The scribes of some of those manuscripts, like modern translations, kept the long ending in but offered a mild protest to its authenticity.

      The basic problem I have with saying that the message, but not the text, is inerrant is that the more contradictions one finds in the translations, the smaller the message becomes. It may be by bits and pieces, but it gets chopped away here and there. Further, I do not think that I could say that “the message [God] intended is the message that got to us.” The reason is that there is more than purity of text to consider, and more than ‘us’ than us to consider. For most of church history, millions of Christians didn’t even have a text, let alone a pure one. The first time the whole Bible was translated into English, for example, was the late fourteenth century. Until that time, the masses of English-speaking Christians certainly did not have the message that God intended. And the English Bible was the first modern European translation. You said that you didn’t think “the true and essential Message is at that level of detail” (although I’m unclear what you mean by ‘that level of detail’). But in this statement, I think the rules of the discussion have changed. Earlier this comment was speaking about the message; now it changed to the ESSENTIAL message. If I understand it correctly, it’s saying that the essential message of scripture is inerrant, and that essential message can be seen in translations, paraphrases, etc. Fair enough. But I rather doubt that most of those who hold to inerrancy would restrict it to just the essential message. I can agree that the essential message of the gospel is clear, no matter what translation one uses. But whether that is what inerrancy is addressing is a different matter. It’s kind of like restoring an old classic automobile. It’s one thing to say that the car runs fine; it’s quite another to say that, right down to the bolts, everything is original manufacturer specs and parts. In this illustration, inerrancy would relate to the details, but general reliability of the vehicle would not. I am not aware of anyone who would define inerrancy as merely the general reliability of the message.

      As for Luke and Acts, no, I’m not saying that they were written on separate occasions. I believe they were written on the same occasion, but had to be dispatched as two documents because of the unwieldy size that a scroll containing both of them would be (about 60 feet long).

      As for the scroll-sealing issue, James, you are quite correct: a scroll written on both sides is somewhat problematic for this view. Of course, we are not told what is on the outside, so I’m not sure that it’s a real difficulty. I think, however, that to read this as a seven-sealed codex creates greater problems for itself. The text not only does not scan that way, for the seals could then be opened in any order (and there would be the temptation to open the last seal first), but BIBLION customarily has the meaning of scroll. Regarding Galatians, there is some really decent literature on the use of amanuenses routinely in the ancient world. Richard Longenecker, for example, concluded that probably only Philemon among Paul’s letters was written directly by the apostle. What has convinced me that this is most likely correct, besides the wealth of papyrological data, is that in 2 Thess 3.17 Paul does not indicate who his amanuensis is. In fact the only evidence that we have that Paul used any amanuensis here is by way of inference from this verse. But here, Paul is telling us what his custom was—to append a note in every one of his letters, by taking the pen from the secretary, and writing for himself. Why would we think that he did things differently in his letter to the Galatians? Again, I think that Longenecker and others have given some decent arguments on this score.

    • James Snapp, Jr.

      Dear Dr. Wallace,

      Briefly following up:

      The notes in MSS 1, 205, 209, and 1582 almost certainly descend from a common ancestor-MS; scribes replicated (some) marginalia along with the text. Probably the note is based on a copyist’s awareness that (a) Eusebius’ Canon-tables did not (originally) retain Mk. 16:9-20, and (b) Victor of Antioch had opposed Eusebius’ non-inclusion, apparently because Victor had found the passage in a substantial number of copies, including a highly esteemed Palestinian exemplar. There’s no doubt that the transmission-channel that did not include Mk. 16:9-20 reaches back to the fourth century, since that is when Eusebius made his Canon-tables and wrote “Ad Marinum.”

      DW: “In the least, this should warn us about accepting the long ending of Mark just because it occurs in the vast majority of manuscripts. The scribes of some of those manuscripts, like modern translations, kept the long ending in but offered a mild protest to its authenticity.”

      The note in these f-1 MSS is not so much a mild protest against the inclusion of the passage as it is a brief *defense.* The note explains the inclusion of Mk. 16:9-20 as the reading upheld by the most MSS. In MS 1582 (the best representative of f-1), another margin-note mentions that Irenaeus cited Mk. 16:19 in the third book of “Against Heresies,” which, again, seems to be the sort of thing one would mention to defend, rather than protest, the inclusion of Mk. 16:9-20.

      DW: “I am not aware of anyone who would define inerrancy as merely the general reliability of the message.”

      Me neither. Still, if a translation did not actually convey errors to the reader, wouldn’t it still qualify as inerrant? Think of Hebrews 11:21 – the Septuagint text used there does not convey the same message as the Hebrew text. But if both statements are true, then they are both inerrant. (Which still doesn’t help regarding some numbers in the OT.)

      DW: “Why would we think that he did things differently in his letter to the Galatians?”

      (1) There’s no mention in Galatians of a co-author or assistant at the beginning or the end of the epistle.
      (2) Where we would normally expect a secretary to be mentioned, we find instead an explicit statement that Paul has written in his own handwriting. A statement from Paul that he himself had written down the words in the entire epistle would look a lot like Galatians 6:11.

    • Sean

      If the original documents survive, then they are propably in the Vatican archives of the Catholic Church, the first and true Christian church.

    • Sarah Wilson

      Hi, there! Found your blog today and noticed you were citing Adolf Deissmann. Thought you might be interested in a brand new pre-publication offer from Logos Bible Software on the works of Adolf Deissmann! Thanks and let me know if I can help in any way!
      Sarah Wilson

    • William Baker

      You should never take the claims of anyone at face value, especially if it caters to your prejudices. That is how propaganda works. I can assure you that there are no historical documents that can cast any doubt upon the books of the New Testament. We have the writings of the Apostolic fathers that go back to the first century, such as Clement ( A.D. 30 – 100) Ignatius (A.D. 30-107) Justin Martyr (A.D. 110 – 165) and Irenaeus, (A.D. 120 – 202) All of whom quoted profusely from the New Testament showing that their New Testament was ours. – “The Christian Scriptures were quoted so familiarly as to suggest that they had been in regular use a long time. It is difficult therefore to place the final form of the Gospels or collection of Pauline letters much later then A.D. 80.” (Frend, Rise of Christianity, 1984, p.135)

    • Dear Dan, Thank you for this valuable post that only now came to my knowledge. Apart for my appreciation for the whole post and your answer to the comments, I especially want to thank you for explaining the process and criteria use in paleography.
      I tried to reblog this article on my blog, but failed. I will copy and past it instead and give credit to your blog.
      Thank you for sharing your excellent insights with us.
      God bless,
      Herman Grobler

    • […] Ek plaas ‘n baie interessante artikel wat die Nuwe Testament Manuskrip kenner, Dan Wallace op 13 September 2007 op die blog Parchment and Pen Blog geplaas het.Hierin verduidelik hy o.a. watter kriteria paleontoloë gebruik om die ouderdom van ‘n manuskrip te bepaal.WHAT IF WE FOUND THE ORIGINAL NEW TESTAMENT BUT DID NOT KNOW IT? […]


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