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, â€œThis is the actual original letter of Paul to the Romans. Get your grubby mitts off it!â€ 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 theyâ€™re still in one piece. Extreme as in me winning the Texas lottery next weekâ€”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 youâ€™re way too gullible.) But letâ€™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 Paulâ€™s letters, that would immediately discount it. Each book of the New Testament was sent to a particular audience for a particular occasion. Paul didnâ€™t sit down and say, â€œLet me write letters to the Romans and the Corinthians and just bundle them together as one book. Iâ€™ll let those guys figure out which one goes to which church.â€ 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 â€˜bookâ€™ 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 â€˜book,â€™ most modern translations render it â€˜scrollâ€™). 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 â€˜the second seal,â€™ â€˜the third seal,â€™ 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 isnâ€™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 â€˜outdented,â€™ the manuscript is typically not considered to be any earlier than the fifth century (since thatâ€™s when such a motif became popular). If a manuscript has accents, itâ€™s not original since accents werenâ€™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 haveâ€”or I should say hadâ€”them in English, too. In the word, archaeology, older English works will combine the â€˜aâ€™ and â€˜eâ€™ 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: â€œI, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter.â€ 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: â€œSee what big letters I make as I write to you with my own hand!â€ 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 donâ€™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 Homerâ€™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 Johnâ€™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 didnâ€™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?