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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: When Is the Last Time That the Autographs of the Biblical Books Were Known to Still Exist?

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When Is the Last Time That the Autographs of the Biblical Books Were Known to Still Exist?

The Words of the Bible – Question 9

As far as we know, all of the originals (autographs) of Scripture have long since perished. This brings up the question as to the last time the original of any biblical book was still known to exist. Do we have any information about this particular issue? Did the originals last for centuries?

1. The Book of the Law Found During the Time of Josiah

We know from the Old Testament that a copy of the Book of the Law was found during the time of King Josiah of Judah. This occurred in about 621 B.C. We read about this in Second Chronicles. It states it in this manner:

While they were bringing out the money that had been brought into the house of the LORD, Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the LORD given through Moses. Then Hilkiah answered and said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan. (2 Chronicles 34:14-15 ESV)

We are not certain what “the Book of the Law” refers to. It may be the entire writings of Moses, or it may have been a portion of the Law, we cannot be certain.

In addition, we do not know whether this was the original Law of Moses or merely a copy of it.

Whatever the case may be, it was an ancient copy of what Moses had written that had been neglected for a number of years. From the time Moses originally wrote the Law, until the time of the discovery of this book in the temple, about eight hundred years had passed.

Apart from this passage, we have no reference to the original of any Old Testament book existing later in time.

2. The Original Copy of the Book of Jeremiah Was Destroyed

We know that the prophet Jeremiah had a copy of his text destroyed. However, after it was destroyed God told Jeremiah to compose it again. The Bible records the episode in this manner:

The Lord spoke to Jeremiah after Jehoiakim had burned the scroll containing what Jeremiah had spoken and Baruch had written down. He said, “Get another scroll and write on it everything that was written on the original scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah burned... Then Jeremiah got another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah. And as Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote on this scroll everything that had been on the scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah burned in the fire. They also added on this scroll several other messages of the same kind.” (Jeremiah 36:27, 28, 32 NET)

Happily, none of his original words were lost.

The Information Is Slight for the New Testament

Unfortunately, not that much information about the autographs of the New Testament books has come down to us. At best, we seem to have only a couple of references. They include a reference from Peter of Alexandria as well as a reference from the church father Tertullian.

The Testimony of Peter of Alexandria

In the writings of Peter of Alexandria, who died in A.D. 311, we find a reference to the autograph of the gospel of John still existing. He wrote:

Now it was the preparation, about the third hour, as the accurate books have it, and 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. (Alexander Roberts et al,, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers down to A.D. 325, Revised by. A Cleveland Coxe, American and auth. ed. 10 Volumes (New York: The Christian Literature Co., 1885-1887, reprint edition., Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956-1957) Volume 6: Fathers of the Third Century, p. 283)

The Writings of Tertullian of Carthage

Tertullian was an early Christian leader who died around A.D. 220. We may have a reference in his writings about the existence of some of the originals of New Testament books. He wrote:

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over 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, utter the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, to get to Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes into our own hands the very authority of the apostles themselves). (Alexander Roberts, vol. 3 Latin Christianity: It’s Founder Tertullian, arranged by A. Cleveland Coxe, p. 260)

While this reference may be to the existence of the originals of some of the New Testament documents at that time, there is a certain ambiguity about what Tertullian wrote.

It seems the best that can be said is that he may have referred to the originals when he used the words “their own authentic writings are read.”

As we can observe, the information we possess about the missing autographs is scarce and any conclusions we draw are only tentative.

Summary – Question 9
When Is the Last Time the Autographs of the Biblical Books Were Known to Still Exist?

There is not much available information concerning the existence of the autographs of Scripture. There is a reference in 2 Chronicles to the discovery of the Book of the Law in the temple. This was more than six hundred years after the time of Moses. Whether this was the original writing of Moses or a copy of it we are not told.

We find two references in the writings of men in the early church who refer to the original still existing in their day. Peter of Alexandria speaks of the existence of the original Gospel of John as still existing in the fourth century.

Earlier in the third century, Tertullian seems to allude to certain originals of New Testament documents that existed in his day. Beyond that, we have little information about the fate of the originals of the books of Scripture.

How Is the Age of an Ancient Manuscript Determined? ← Prior Section
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