It appears that the vast majority of early manuscripts are fragments, and often very small fragments at that. Papyrus is heavily overrepresented amongst these fragments up to the 6th century. Since papyrus mainly survived in the dry climate of Egypt, they come from a geographically limited area. Which leads to the question, what is the value of these early but small pieces with very limited text?
First, a little bit of testimony to some of the text is more informative than nothing at all. It enables us to make tiny spot checks of individual words or phrases. We learn about early copying errors that were made and about spelling patterns. Some variants in the wording known only from much younger manuscripts turn out to be quite a bit older, and some variants may have been local or individual errors, but are nowhere to be found later in the transmission of the text.
We also learn that the New Testament was copied frequently. The manuscript evidence tells us that there was a distinctive Christian book culture. From very early on, Christians preferred the codex form (like a modern-day book) over the scroll, which was used for “real” literature well into the 4th century. From as far back as the evidence allows us to see, Christians were using a set of in-house abbreviations for a group of special words (nomina sacra, or “sacred names”). Words such as “God”, “Jesus”, “Christ”, and “Lord”, were written by using only the first and last letter with an overhead stroke. There is no real parallel for this phenomenon. So, even though the early small papyrus fragments give us sometimes little more than a couple of dozen letters and come from a restricted area, they are still useful and can even help us to assess the balance of manuscript evidence with greater precision.
At the same time the fragments leave us with many unanswerable questions. Why do we have so many manuscripts that consist of a fragment from only a single page? What does this tell us about the chances of manuscripts’ survival in general if so many of the other pages are completely lost? And was the situation in rural Egypt any different from that of the churches in the big cities? In the late 2nd century the church father Irenaeus wrote about copies of the text of Revelation that had the number of the beast as 616 instead of 666. He had many reasons to reject the lower number, but one of them was that the “oldest and approved” copies of the text all read 666. It stands to reason these approved copies did not end up on the rubbish heaps of Egypt like many of our papyrus fragments, but were the treasured possession of some central church. So do we have any manuscript remains that could come from a more central part of the transmission of the New Testament?