The inspired writings of the 1st century apostles and apostolic witnesses are the closest to us in time of any of the writings that God inspired. They are the last before God closed his canon. How long did the actual media on which these inspired words were written survive? 1st century? 2nd century? 3rd? 4th?
It has been suggested that the reason God did not allow the autographa (original media of the inspired writings) to survive is so that we would not elevate them to items of worship. That is likely true in God’s providence. Is it possible that the rise of veneration of relics speaks to the possibility of how long the original media of the apostolic authors survived?
Veneration of relics
The veneration of relics cropped up early in the superstitions of Romanism and Greek Orthodoxy. Relics such as pieces of wood supposedly from the “True Cross,” the Shroud of Turin, the Cincture of the Theotokos (a belt, sash, or girdle supposedly worn by Mary the mother of Jesus), the bones or ashes of marytrs, as well as various pieces of clothing or other personal possessions (e.g., books) of “saints,” have been and are venerated (usually honored with some type of outward gesture, such as kissing, touching, bowing).
This veneration of martyrs and their relics seems to have been well in place by the late 4th century. Around 404, Jerome wrote to Riparius in Spain, after Riparius has informed him that Vigilantius of Gaul condemned the worship of relics. Jerome’s answer suggests that at least Jerome though veneration of relics was a common practice.
“We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are.” Jerome of Stridon, Letter 109, To Riparius (Ad Riparium)
Early statements on apostolic autographa
Writing around AD 180, in The Prescription Against Heretics (De Praescriptione Haereticorum) Chapter 36, Tertullian suggests the original writings of the apostles could be found by those willing to look for them.
“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, uttering 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, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves).”[i]
Another such reference is in a fragment of a writing by one Peter, a Bishop of Alexandria, indicating he believed the original of John’s Gospel still existed in Ephesus in his lifetime. Writing before AD 311 (the year he died), Peter states, “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.” It is likely that Peter was wrong not only about how the text read (he says third hour), but also of the autograph’s survival at Ephesus. He may have been trying to bolster his opinion by appealing to an unavailable autograph. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to accept that he believed the writing was there in Ephesus.
It may be likely that autographs were still extant in Tertullian’s day (2nd century). My thought is that by the 4th century the original autographs were no longer extant. One reason to think so is that by that time superstitious churches and Christians were already venerating relics. Most assuredly they would have raised the autographs to the level of veneration if they still existed. This itself is not conclusive, but deserves thoughtful consideration in the investigation of the matter of how long the autographs were available to the early churches.
[i] In reference to documents, authenticae (authentic) normally means an original, autograph.