Saturday, December 4, 2010

Estimates of Early MSS - Timothy J. Finney

Here is a quotation from

The Freer biblical manuscripts: fresh studies of an American treasure trove

 Editor Larry W. Hurtado (SBL, 2006),
Article: Manuscript Markup, Timothy J. Finney, p. 284:

"An important question in this respect is, What proportion of manuscripts do we have?  Taking Greek NT manuscripts of the Pauline Epistles as a case in point, about 15 remain from the time before Constantine.  Given that the population of the Roman Empire was about 50 million, it is possible to obtain a rough estimate of the number of copies that would have been produced during this era.  Assuming that Greek-speaking Christians constituted about 10 percent of the population by 300 C.E. and that there was one manuscript of the Pauline Epistles per 1000 Christians, there would have been about 5,000 of these manuscripts when Constantine became emperor.  We thus arrive at a survival rate in the region of 15 per 5,000, or 0.3 percent.  Even if this estimate is off by a factor of 10 in either direction, the fact remains that we have a very small remnant of the entire textual picture. (20)
20.  Those interested in a slightly more sophisticated treatment may wish to look at my manuscript-copying simulation program: Timothy J. Finney, "MSS: A Manuscript Copying Simulation" (2002).  Online: 


  1. Finney seems to be making an unwarranted assumption here, viz., all churches in the 50-million-man Roman Empire would have been Greek-speaking. On the contrary, many congregations worshiped and read the Scriptures in other languages. Take, for the Schoyen Codex, the earliest extant manuscript for many portions of scripture--yet it is not Greek, but Sahidic.

  2. Great point. The overly large numbers are suspicious.

    Assuming that Greek-speaking Christians would operate in close communities rather than spread all over the empire, perhaps there was less demand and especially less resources for abundant manuscript production so early.

    I'm thinking about an underground church in which manuscripts were scarce, papyrus was only available in certain areas, and manuscripts took special skills to copy. Only apostles and disciples, pastors, elders would be in possession of community copies.

    Add to this the constant confiscation and destruction of copies by the Romans, and it is hard to imagine any large number of copies existing at any one time, no matter how fast they were manufactured...


  3. Yes, he is. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Saviour.

    Tim Finney