An explicit reference to the continued existence of an autograph is found in fragments from the writings of Peter, bishop of Alexandria from A. D. 300-311:[i]
But after His public ministry He did not eat of the lamb, but Himself suffered as the true Lamb in the Paschal feast, as John, the divine and evangelist, teaches us in the Gospel written by him, where he thus speaks: “Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment-hall, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the passover.” And after a few things more. “When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment-seat, in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha. And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.[ii]
Another slightly different version of this fragment from Peter renders the section particularly of note as:
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.[iii]
Peter testifies that the original MSS of the gospel of John, the “copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist,” was still extant and available in the church at Ephesus to “the faithful,” and was used for textual-critical purposes, such as the “third” hour variant here referenced.
Peter’s reference to the “third” hour is a problem, since hekte, not trite, is undoubtedly the correct reading. “Sixth” is not only the reading of the preserved Textus Receptus, but of the Nestle-Aland text as well; textual critics of all persuasions affirm the evidence for this reading is overwhelming.[iv] Several solutions are possible. First, Peter could simply be wrong about the reading of the autograph at Ephesus. This, however, would undermine his credibility concerning the continued presence of the original. Second, a copy with the incorrect reading replaced the genuine autograph at Ephesus, and Peter accepted the substitute copy as the autograph. This would change the patristic testimony in this passage from an affirmation of textual stability and continuity to one that suggested widespread textual corruption. Third, the patristic fragment itself could contain the error—perhaps the bishop of Alexandria originally wrote six, and the reading three is a product of an erroneous scribal transcription. The practice of substituting the similar Greek numeral letters gamma and episemon for the words three and six, and the consequent ease of a copyist mistake,[v] is used to explain the interchange of the numbers in NT MSS—why could not such a substitution have occurred in the very poorly attested fragments of Peter of Alexandria? Peter’s actual work is not extant—its modern reproduction depends upon quotations in later writings.[vi] The reading three in the current text of Peter could easily be corrupt; a copyist could have substituted it in for an original numeral letter six accidentally, or, perhaps influenced by Mark 15:25 or NT MSS that read three in John 19:14, deliberately altered his copy of the text of the Alexandrian bishop. If such a numerical substitution in the patristic text took place, its testimony to the longevity of the autograph at Ephesus is essentially undiminished. The witness of Peter of Alexandria to a still extant autograph in the early fourth century, although vitiated by the uncertain origin and significance of the reading three, is still remarkable.
Augustine of Hippo, in his Reply to Faustus the Manichean, c. A. D. 400,[vii] seems to indicate the continued existence of the NT autographa even in his day:
Augustin replied: As I said a little ago, when these men are beset by clear testimonies of Scripture, and cannot escape from their grasp, they declare that the passage is spurious. The declaration only shows their aversion to the truth, and their obstinacy in error. Unable to answer these statements of Scripture, they deny their genuineness. But if this answer is admitted, or allowed to have any weight, it will be useless to quote any book or any passage against your errors. It is one thing to reject the books themselves, and to profess no regard for their authority, as the Pagans reject our Scriptures, and the Jews the New Testament, and as we reject any books peculiar to your sect, or any other heretical sect, and also the apocryphal books, which are so called, not because of any mysterious regard paid to them, but because they are mysterious in their origin, and in the absence of clear evidence, have only some obscure presumption to rest upon; and it is another thing to say, This holy man wrote only the truth, and this is his epistle, but some verses are his, and some are not. And then, when you are asked for a proof, instead of referring to more correct or more ancient manuscripts, or to a greater number, or to the original text, your reply is, This verse is his, because it makes for me; and this is not his, because it is against me. . . . Accordingly, should there be a question about the text of some passage, as there are a few passages with various readings well known to students of the sacred Scriptures, we should first consult the manuscripts of the country where the religion was first taught; and if these still varied, we should take the text of the greater number, or of the more ancient. And if any uncertainty remained, we should consult the original text. This is the method employed by those who, in any question about the Scriptures, do not lose sight of the regard due to their authority, and inquire with the view of gaining information, not of raising disputes.[viii]
Augustine states that the ultimate ability in a textual dispute to “consult the original text” remains an option. Had a statement such as this occurred in a writer two or three centuries earlier, one would naturally conclude that he referred to the MSS originally penned under inspiration; in light of the date of his testimony, it might be supposed that he referred only to the original language of the NT documents, rather than the common Latin Bible. However, the context militates against this possibility. Augustine is defending the legitimacy or spurious nature of textual readings, not translational accuracy. Furthermore, the original language would naturally be consulted in matters of Biblical interpretation long before one went through the much greater difficulty of acquiring and comparing “more correct or more ancient manuscripts” or “a greater number,” but here reference to the original is only mentioned “if any uncertainty remained” after first pursuing these other options. Such a reference to the original is the ultimate and decisive answer to the Manichean argument that “This holy man wrote only the truth, and this is his epistle, but some verses are his, and some are not.” If the “original” referred only to the original language, a resort to further more correct, ancient, or numerous manuscripts could be required, only now in Greek instead of in Latin. The context makes it clear that Augustine makes the stunning assertion that, around A. D. 400, the original copies of the New Testament were still extant and available for consultation in the churches founded by the apostles.[ix]
God promised to perfectly preserve Scripture (Psalm 12:6-7; Matthew 24:35; etc.). Scripture has therefore been perfectly preserved, the Omnipotent’s testimony superceding all requirements of historical testimony. Since the logic of preservation requires that the Textus Receptus is the preserved text,[x] the autographs represented a TR text, and the copies made from it were TR MSS. However, patristic testimony suggests that the original MSS, not to mention faithful copies made directly from them, were extant for centuries. Since even anti-Byzantine critics admit that the traditional NT text began by the fourth century its rise to unquestioned dominance, evidence that the autographa or copies made directly from it likely existed into that century eliminates the gap between the inspiration of the TR and the period of its unquestioned ascendancy.
[i] Pg. 831-2, “Petrus I,” A Dictionary of Christian Biography.
[iv] “The manuscript evidence is overwhelmingly in support of eºkth (P66 a * B E H I K M S U W Y G Q L P ¦1 ¦13 all minuscules [except four, with one with tri÷th in the margin] Old Latin vg syrp, h, pal copsa, bo arm eth geo pers al),” A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., Metzger, Note on John 19:14. Note also the commentaries of Alford, Barnes, Clark, Gill, Henry, and Robertson on John 19:14 and Mark 15:25. The CT does alter the TR w‚ra de« w‚sei« eºkth to w‚ra hjvn wJß eºkth, but neither text inserts tri÷th.
[v] The sources mentioned in the previous footnote discuss this practice. Irenaeus, evaluating the 666/616 variant in Revelation 13:18, specifically mentions that “numbers also are expressed by letters” by “copyists,” which, he states, can easily lead to numerical confusion (Against Heresies, book 5, AN:XXX:1:7331).
[vi] AN:Footnotes:15:53032; AN:Footnotes:31:53048. Also note the Translator’s Introductory Notice to Peter of Alexandria, AN:52703-52706.
[ix] He tells his Manichean opponent Faustus that “if he produces his own manuscripts of the apostolic writings, he must also obtain for them the authority of the churches founded by the apostles themselves, by showing that they have been preserved and transmitted with their sanction” (NPN-1:XII:4:15962). These churches would have the ultimately authoritative manuscripts. However, Jerome’s letter to Pope Damascus in A. D. 383 gives no indication that the NT autographs had survived; it appears to presuppose their loss (Prefaces to the Vulgate Version of the New Testament: The Four Gospels, NPN-2:The Four Gospels:41486ff.). While authoritative MSS with very short lineal derivation from the autographs were very likely extant and available, unless MSS such as these satisfy Augustine’s assertions, he is probably incorrect if he affirms the continued existence of the autographs themselves in his day.
[x] This essay is not the place to prove this presupposition. See Thou Shalt Keep Them, ed. Kent Brandenburg, El Sobrante, CA: Pillar and Ground Publishing, 2003, for a book-length treatment.