Evans culls together an insightful and intriguing amount of evidence to suggest that literary manuscripts in the ancient world would last hundreds of years, on average. Appealing to the recent study of G.W. Houston, he argues that manuscripts could last anywhere from 75 to 500 years, with the average being about 150 years….
In other words, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that some of the earliest copies of the New Testament we posses may have been copied directly from one of the autographs. And, if not the autographs, they may have been copied from a manuscript that was directly copied from the autographs. Either way, this makes the gap between our copies and the autographs shrink down to a rather negligible size.
In the end, we do not possess merely copies of copies of copies (etc.) as some skeptics maintain. The early date of our copies, combined with the likely longevity of the autographs, can give us a high degree of confidence that have access to the New Testament text at the earliest possible stage.
If so, then there are no reasons to think that there were wild, unbridled textual changes taking place in this earliest period. On the contrary, Evans’ study provides good reasons to think the NT text was transmitted with a high degree of accuracy and fidelity.
In an article several years ago, I wrote:
Bruce Metzger notes that some patristic sources refer to the preservation of some of the original copies of the New Testament documents (CNT, n. 4 on 4-5). Metzger cites the example of Tertullian's claim that the church of Thessalonica still possessed the original copies of the letters Paul sent them.
These issues also have implications in contexts other than textual transmission. For example, if the Thessalonian church possessed originals of both letters Paul wrote to them, a comparison of handwriting and other details would provide evidence for authorship attribution.