How long were ancient manuscripts used?

An interesting but unsatisfying post at Ben Witherington, actually by Larry Hurtado: How long were ancient manuscripts used?

George W. Houston, “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 233-67.

One matter Houston addresses is how long manuscripts appear to have been in use.   On the basis of manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus and from Herculaneum in particular, Houston notes numerous examples of manuscripts discarded when they were ca. 2-3 centuries old.  Overall, he judges that the evidence indicates “a useful life of between one hundred and two hundred years for a majority of the volumes, with a significant minority lasting two hundred years or more” (p. 251).  And, as he notes, the evidence from Qumran leads to a similar view.

This would tally with the sort of evidence we get in Aulus Gellius, of manuscripts of the time of Cicero or Vergil being available.  A set of literary testimonia would be useful, I think.

I’ve found the book, and the article appears to be a very useful one, packed full of data and intelligently analysed.

H/t Jim Davila at Paleojudaica.


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