- I sent a message a week ago, but I don't think that it got through to
everyone. D.C. Parker seems to have got it as he says he doesn't believe
that there was a standard life time for a papyrus manuscript.
Just in case my earlier post didn't get through to everyone, here is a
I made a histogram of extant NT papyri and uncials, plotting number vs
century. (When a ms was dated c. 200 I said it was 2nd C., etc.) Instead
of seeing a gradual increase in number vs. time, as I was expecting, I
saw something completely different.
For the papyri, the number increases in what looks like an exponential
fashion for the 2nd and 3rd centuries, peaks, drops down, peaks again
around the 6th/7th C. then falls away.
For the uncials, the number peaks around the 4th C. and drops away, but
flattens out for a couple of later centuries (6th and 7th again?) before
dropping down to zero.
Upon reflection I interpreted this as follows (thanks to my friend Tim
Sullivan for suggesting the word saturation):
The papyri picture might be explained in terms of maximum likelihood of
deposition in the sand, and, consequently, maximum likelihood of digging
up later, corresponding with a couple of historical events: the
persecutions of the 3rd C. and the Moslem conquest around 640.
The uncial histogram might be explained as rapid production within an
organisation that has suddenly changed from being illegal and poor (hence
use of papyrus) to being legal and supported. It can be interpreted as
being consistent with large scale parchment scripture production
continuing until saturation was reached in the 5th century i.e. everyone
who had the resources to commission one (probably beyond individuals but
within reach of bishops) had one. After that, production was for new
churches and replacement of worn out mss.
Now for the contentious point. We have about 18 uncials from the 4th
century. Du Placy estimated 1600 - 2000 mss were produced in the 4th C.
That means a 1% survival rate. At this point my rusty physics suggested
that a situation analogous to radioactive decay was at hand. If 1% of mss
have survived the random destruction process after 1600 years, then
assuming exponential decay (i.e. number lost proportional to number extant
in any given time period) leads to a NT uncial half-life of about 250
This is an estimate of the average life span. In fact there is an average
life of all NT uncials ever produced. There must be. We don't know it, but
the number I derived is a reasonable estimate provided that the no. of mss
lost in a given time period is proportional to the no. extant in that
As to how long an individual ms will last, all the wiles that beset mss
will come into play, resulting in some living shorter, some longer than
this estimate, according to some kind of statistical distribution
Another point. Looking at the initial rise in numbers, exponential growth
seems to be at play. That is, the rise might be explained as a doubling
every X years. How big is X? Strangely, it is about the same for the
uncials and papyri: just over twenty years. This might be interpreted as
reflecting the doubling time of the Church in Egypt in the 2nd C., but is
probably not much to do with the Church's population in the case of the
And, to the glee of the weary reader, a last point. I did a histogram for
the minuscules given in the UBS4 insert. The same kind of picture emerges
but with a much slower initial growth. The peak is reached at about the
11th C. then drops down again -- perhaps the decline can be interpreted as
due to the contraction of demand for Greek New Testament mss.
In conclusion, histograms of date vs number for the Greek New Testament mss
represent samples of the original population. Assuming exponential growth
and decay of this population allows a doubling time and half-life for the
class of mss under study to be derived. The half-life estimate depends on
an estimate of the total population at some point. I used Du Placy's
estimate of 4 to 5 copies per century for 400 sees in the 4th C. Happily,
his estimate of 4 - 5 copies per century is consistent with the doubling
time that can be derived from the initial portion of the uncial
histogram. All This relies on the mss being correctly dated in general.
It can be looked on as a confirmation that the datings are sound,
especially the correspondence of population peaks in the papyri with
known times when mss would be likely to end up in the sand.
Profuse apologies for this monstrous post.
Baptist Theological College
and Murdoch University
Perth, W. Australia
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