And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus, II Timothy 3:15.
I was recently asked how long an Old Testament Scroll could survive. The inquirer was wondering how long an original scroll actually written on by Moses, David, Isaiah or any other Old Testament author could have lasted. I had no idea, but I did have an idea who would. I am friends with an Israeli scholar who as a practicing Jew takes his religion seriously. He is an expert on dead languages from the Middle East. He is also a man who has conversed, studied and thought in Biblical Hebrew since he was a child. He is probably the utmost expert in classical Greek that I know of as well as the many languages that flourished in the Middle East for the millennia before Jesus Christ.
He visits Black Creek, NY every couple of years and loves studying King James Bible believers. He laughs and says that we are like Jews because we parse and argue over little words and how they change the meaning of a verse. He has a deep respect for the King James Bible and is always happy to help me when I need historical or linguistic help. I asked him how long an individual scroll could possible last.
I thought that his answer to my question could be of help to some of you who hear the constant nonsense about how that only the original manuscripts could truly be called scripture. No single person in the time of Jesus Christ could possibly have scripture if what the "original only" crowd say is right. No scripture had been written for 400 years prior to the birth of Jesus Christ.
Mr. Gold's answer:
You asked about traditional scrolls. My experience with them in synagogues, in museum exhibits, and in archaeological contexts shows me that a Torah scroll can certainly survive for a century, and if kept very carefully it might survive two centuries. It's considerably rarer to find one which survives for three. This is not only because parchment is a perishable material in general. It's also because traditionally a Torah scroll is rolled. In the course of a year, one rolls through the entire scroll and then rolls it back. Over time, friction itself takes its toll, even with great care taken. And obviously, if a Torah scroll is missing pieces, it is no longer possible to read from it.
Actually, even so much as the friction on a single letter can invalidate a Torah scroll. Each and every letter must be clearly visible to the reader. When a letter is seen to show some signs of friction, if it is unclear whether or not the letter has been invalidated, the method used is to call for a young child who knows the alphabet and ask him "What letter is that?" If he misidentifies it, it clearly is too worn out. The reason for calling for a child is that the adult reader knows the verses so well, he knows what letter should be there, even if that's not what he's clearly seeing. A child lacks this detailed knowledge, but as long as it is known the child is well-acquainted with the Hebrew alphabet, his identification of the letter is considered reliable.
Based on what I've described, you can see that it's likely a particular scroll could have survived for several generations before it was declared invalidated. Naturally, the scribes always had plenty of work.