Mercy Hill Church New Testament Letters Blog

“Paul Just Dropped His Latest Letter, Did You Read It?”: Circulating the New Testament

This blog is a part of the “From Testimony to Testament” blog series where we are tracing the history of how the New Testament came to be. Read the introduction here.

It has been awhile since I’ve posted a blog in this series, so let me do a quick summation of where we came from. The charge from liberal scholars is that the New Testament that is on our shelf is somehow corrupted compared with the original writings of the New Testament. We have seen that the dating of the New Testament books and letters, the use of eyewitness testimony, the nature of the pristine oral tradition in the ancient world (especially in Jewish culture), and the early valuing of these books as scripture in the church all attest to the reliability of the gospels and the letters.

In this part, I want to focus on the area of how these New Testament documents spread throughout the Roman Empire once they were written. This is probably the area that we know the least about, but one thing is for certain that the gospels and letters did spread. There is archaeological evidence that most of the books spread to the edges of the Roman Empire within 100 years. Likely even much quicker than that. But how?

“Oooo! Can I get a copy of that?”

Once the gospel or letter was written, there was most likely a copy made on the spot. The original or copy was kept with the author and the other was sent out to its recipient. In a non-digital world, this makes sense as there is no copy saved on a hard drive somewhere. Sometimes it was sent to a specific person (e.g. Paul to Timothy or the church in Galatia, Luke to Theophilus, etc.). This letter would have been carried by a trusted messenger of the author to its intended recipient.

Once it reached its destination, the gospel or letter (that was deemed important and authoritative) would have many copies made of it. These copies would be sent out to be read in other churches for the benefit of those churches. There is even evidence that people who were extremely interested in having a copy of these works would travel where a copy existed to make their own copy. Do you think that people copied these writings in a sloppy way? Remember the importance that people in the church would put on a letter from Paul himself or an apostle discussing the events concerning Jesus. Imagine the care that you would take in making a page by page copy of a book from your favorite author if that was your only way of having a copy of their latest novel.

The Roman Road

It was truly an act of God that these things happened and were recorded during this ancient time. Rome had united most of the known world and had control of sea travel, built roads, protected those roads, and advanced technology in travel. This allowed letters and mail to travel fast and relatively safe. Also, the world was united in the fact that almost the entire Roman Empire could understand Greek as a second language at the least. This allowed for most the Empire to benefit from the New Testament documents since they were written in Greek. And honestly, the fact that they were all written in Greek and not Hebrew or some other language shows that the writers wanted people across the world to be able to benefit from them and share them.

The question that commonly arises from these details is “When all these copies were being made, weren’t there errors introduced into the copies which make the Bible completely untrustworthy?” That’s the question we are going to answer in the next blog.

-Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)
Read the previous “From Testimony to Testament” blog here