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Paleography is the study of ancient handwriting and manuscripts. The discipline includes the practices of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts and the cultural context of writing, including the methods with which writing and books were produced and the history of scriptoria.
Greek Paleography and Its Beginnings
Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741), a French Benedictine monk, who established the new discipline of paleography, laid the groundwork for the meticulous study of Greek manuscripts. He is also viewed as the originator of modern archaeology. As time passed, other scholars would make their contributions, as well. Tischendorf would comb Europe and its libraries, cataloging and discovering manuscripts along the way. During several trips to the Middle East, he had the opportunity to investigate several hundred other manuscripts. In the end, he would publish his findings in numerous critical editions of the Greek text, but his eighth (1869-72), to this day is used by textual scholars as a colossal thesaurus of variant readings.
The 20th century saw an explosion of tools that have served as helps to paleographers. We have the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts (SDBM), the Marcel Richard list of some 900 catalogs that describe 55,000 Greek manuscripts, The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, and the Institute for New Testament Textual Criticism in Münster, Germany. All of these are found on the internet, giving access to anyone who owns a computer. For the textual scholar and the paleographer, this storehouse of information has made the job of determining a manuscript’s age much easier and more precise.
How do Paleographers Date Manuscripts?
Imagine that we are paleographers rummaging through the library of an old monastery, one that dates back to the third century C.E. As we carefully move books aside, we discover that there are other loose pages within one of the books on the shelf. As we pull out the pages, we have discovered what looks to be an ancient uncial Greek document. As we continue to work our way through the books, looking for more pages, we are wondering about the age of this document. To our delight, the last page provides a clue that would establish the date within 50 years. It was not the same manuscript, but it was the same hand, the same style, the same handwriting, the same punctuation, as well as other features that would establish this as the same person who made the other Biblical manuscript. However, this manuscript has a date on it.
Sadly, it was not a practice of scribes to place dates in their manuscripts after they had completed them. Thus, the textual scholar must compare other documents that have dates, both Biblical and non-Biblical documentary texts, to make a determination from an investigation of the handwriting, punctuation, abbreviations, and the like. What we may have at times is a literary text on one side of the page, and a documentary text on the other side, making it easier to establish the date of the literary text.
How do textual scholars know that the manuscript dates to the second, third, or fourth century C.E. or any other century? If we were to pull any book from our bookshelf and turn a few pages in it, we would generally find the publication date on the copyright page. If we bought a used book that was missing the copyright page, we would have no idea when it was published. It is only because of modern technology that we could date the book. Extant ancient literary manuscripts hardly ever had dates on them. However, ancient documentary manuscripts do, which is crucial in our ability to date the undated literary manuscripts.
By means of the art and science of paleography, we can arrive at an approximate date when the manuscript was written. Terminus post quem (“limit after which”) and terminus ante quem (“limit before which”) specify the known limits of dating a manuscript. A terminus post quem is the earliest time the manuscript could have been written, and a terminus ante quem is the latest time the manuscript could have been written.
Paleographers could be viewed as manuscript detectives; through their knowledge of the writing of ancient texts, the forms, and styles, we get a reasonably close idea of when a manuscript was copied. For example, when looking at our modern languages today, we can see subtle changes within every generation or two. This holds true of ancient languages as well. A paleographer can provide us with a date that is usually correct to plus or minus 25 to 50 years through a painstaking comparison of hundreds of small features within an ancient manuscript. Such features can distinguish certain periods as the amount of punctuation within a manuscript, abbreviations, and the amount of spacing between words. There are certain documents such as receipts, letters, leases, and petitions that do contain dates. These have formed a library of letters with the styles that go into making each letter during different time periods.
The Rylands Papyrus 52 at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England
John 18:31–33, 18:37–38
110-150 C. E.
C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”
John Rylands University Library
C. H. Roberts, “An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library” (Manchester University Press, 1935)
8.9 cm x 6 cm
Seems to be Alexandrian
At left and below is P52, a fragment of John’s Gospel. If we were to look closely at the actual copy (See high definition mage CSNTM), we would see that this copyist added a little hook or embellishment to his manuscript. For example, a loop or curly line, while also omitting certain marks, incorporating a unique type of cross-stroke and rounded stroke of particular letters, which place this fragment in the early part of the second-century C.E.
While some textual scholars may disagree, 15 codices are dated within the second century C.E., with another 65 codices dated to the third century C.E. These are undoubtedly some of the most valuable manuscripts in establishing the original text of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
Philip Comfort dates P52,
This dating is derived from comparing P52 to manuscripts such as P. Fayum 110 (A.D. 94), the Egerton Gospel (A.D. 130–150), P. Oslo 22 (A.D. 127), P. London 2078 (reign of Domitian, A.D. 81–96), and P. Berolinenses 6845 (ca. A.D. 100). Though each of these manuscripts bears significant resemblance to P52, P. Berolinenses 6845 is the closest parallel, in Roberts’s opinion. Another manuscript shares many similarities with P52, P. Oxy. 2533. The editors of P. Oxy. 2533 said that its handwriting could be paralleled with first-century documents, but since it had the appearance of being second century, they assigned it a second-century date. Thus, both P. Oxy. 2533 and P52 can safely be dated to A.D. 100–125. However, its comparability to manuscripts of an even earlier period (especially P. Berol. 6845), pushes the date closer to A.D. 100, plus or minus a few years. This is extremely remarkable, especially if we accept the consensus dating for the composition of the Fourth Gospel: A.D. 80–85. This would mean that P52 may be only twenty years removed from the original.”
This author would date the writing of the Gospel of John to A.D. 98. Therefore, P52 would have to date to about 110-125 A.D., only a few decades after the original was written. These few decades would have given it time to make its way down to Egypt, where it was discovered at the turn of the 20th century.
Now, all is not settled because some recent scholars are making efforts to redate P52 to a later date. Andreas Schmidt dates it to around 170 C.E. and Brent Nongbri dates it to the late second early third centuries (no earlier than 200 C.E.), and Elijah Hixon has cited these scholars for supporting his position of a later date for P52.
Papyrus Egerton 2, fragment 2 (recto)
Stanley E. Porter has further re-examined in detail the relationship of P52 to P.Egerton 2. Porter has offered two more early biblical papyri [P. Oxy IV 656 (fragment of Genesis) and P.Vindob. G. 2325 (apocryphal gospel, the Fayum Fragment)], as he has offered us a comprehensive examination of the history and the variety of views amongst the papyrologists for the dating of P52 and P.Egerton 2, as he presents his argument that Roberts was correct on all three points: (1) both P52 and P.Egerton 2 are close parallels, (2) they are set apart by widely separate dates, and that P52 is to be set to the earlier date. Porter points out that P.Egerton 2 is in “a less heavy hand with more formal rounded characteristics, but with what the original editors called “cursive affinities.” (p. 82) He goes on to add that “Both manuscripts were apparently written before the development of a more formal Biblical majuscule style, which began to develop in the late second and early third centuries. (p. 83) Based on this, he also notes that even though the hooked apostrophe, which is found in P.Egerton 2 is unique as far as the second century is concerned, people are misconstruing what Turner actually says, “In the first decade of iii AD this practice [of using an apostrophe between two consonants, such as double mutes or double liquids] suddenly becomes extremely common and then persists.” Porter then writes, “Note that Turner does not say that the practice does not exist before the third century AD, but that in the first decade it becomes extremely common’ and then ‘persists.’” (p 83) Porter concludes, “The result is to bring the two manuscripts together, somewhere in the middle of the second century, perhaps tending towards the early part of it.” (p 84)
Stanley Porter has also challenged Nongbri’s contention that legitimate comparisons can be made between P52 and documentary papyri of the later second and early third centuries. Porter notes the warning from Eric Turner, “[c]onfidence will be strongest when like is compared with like: a documentary hand with another documentary hand, skillful writing with skillful, fast writing with fast. Comparison of book hands with dated documentary hands will be less reliable, the intention of the scribe is different in the two cases.” (p 79) Based on this, Porter cautions against Nongbri’s misguided view that literary texts should be compared primarily with documentary hands that have dates, disregarding the comparison of other literary texts. (p 81) Porter goes on to say, “Whereas dated manuscripts must enter into consideration and form the overall basis for much dating, I believe that it is also important to distinguish documentary from literary or semi-literary hands and attempt to use literary manuscripts for comparison with literary manuscripts.” (p 79) Porter goes on to argue that Nongbri’s submitted late second and third-century manuscripts to be compared with P52 are in many cases quite different from P52 so that they require comparison to concentrate on detailed letter forms without thought of the overall formation, trajectory, and style of the script. The final analysis is that “the result is to bring the two manuscripts together, somewhere in the middle second century, perhaps tending toward the early part of it, as a workable and serviceable date of transcription.” (p 84).
While the act of copying the Vaticanus Codex itself dates it to about 300-330 C.E., Westcott and Hort argued that the material (the written text, not the handwriting style) therein was much earlier or even original. Let me offer a generic example, so we can understand how a manuscript can be dated to 300-330, and yet at the same time can be spoken of as containing a written text itself that is much earlier. Assume that we have four hypothetical NT manuscripts: P002 (c.125), P0045 (c.200), P0067 (c.275), and Codex Z (c.325). One means of dating manuscripts is comparing the style of handwriting, as we explained above, i.e., the way the letters are formed. The paleographer will find other Greek texts that have dates on them and match the handwriting in the text. Imagine that there are ten secular Greek manuscripts with the date of 100 C.E. on them, which match our P002 (c.125). We can then date the manuscript up to 50 years in both directions, between 50–150 C.E.
Now, setting aside the date of the manuscript as to when it was made, we find that each of these manuscripts has a written text that is similar to others of that time period. We are not talking about handwriting styles that are used to date the text’s time of being copied; instead, we are talking about certain features: the way words are spelled, the material is added or missing, notes are incorporated from correctors, and the like. As a result, we say that our Codex Z dates to 325 C.E. because the handwriting style places it on this date. However, some of the features mentioned above are not like the other manuscripts of 325 C.E. but are the same as those of our earlier P002, dating to 125 C.E. Hence, going to our codex Vaticanus, we would say it dates to being copied about 300-330 C.E. based on the writing style (form of letters), but its written text (spelling, format, corrections, added/missing material) is earlier, dating to about 150–200 C.E. because it is almost exactly like P75.
Many scholars had felt that Westcott and Hort’s belief that the text of Vaticanus was written earlier, and was perhaps even original, was presumptuous; therefore, these scholars believed that Vaticanus reflected a third- or fourth-century text, from the time of its being copied. However, after the publication of P75, it was openly acknowledged that the two texts are, in fact, essentially the same, vindicating Westcott and Hort. Vaticanus itself was copied about 300-330 C.E., but its written text was from the middle of the second century at least, if not earlier. Hort’s view that Vaticanus is essentially original, minus a few discrepancies, is not so farfetched after all.
Paleographers divide ancient Greek handwriting into two basic categories–book hand, which is elegant and formal, and cursive, a form of “running” or flowing, writing used in nonliterary documents. Greek scribes also used various styles of letters, which can be categorized loosely as capitals, or majuscules to be correct–frequently called uncials–and cursive, or more precisely minuscules. The larger book hand, uncial writing, was used from the fourth-century B.C.E. until the eighth or ninth century C.E. Minuscule writing, the small form of book hand, was employed from the 8th or 9th century C.E. till the middle of the fifteenth-century when printing by means of movable type began in Europe. The minuscule script could be written more rapidly and compactly, which saved both time and parchment.
Let’s date one more manuscript. The dating of Papyrus 4 (P4) is easier to nail down because we know its place of origin (provenance).
- Contents: Luke 1:58–59; 1:62–2:1, 6–7; 3:8–4:2, 29–32, 34–35; 5:3–8; 5:30–6:16
- Date: 150–175 C.E.
- Discovered: Coptos, Egypt in 1889
- Housing Location: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Suppl. Gr. 1120
- Physical Features: P4 is one the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke and contains extensive sections of the first six chapters: 1:58-59; 1:62-2:1; 2:6-7; 3:8-4:2; 4:29-32, 34-35; 5:3-8; 5:30-6:16
Textual Character: P4 is of the Alexandrian text-type and agrees with P75 and B 93 percent of the time. The copyist of P4 was likely a professional scribe. “P4 and P75 are identical in forty complete verses, with only five significant exceptions (Luke 3:22, 36; 5:39; 6:11, 14).” Comfort and Barret in their book Text of the Earliest NT Greek Manuscripts inform us that P4 came from the same codex as P64/67.
Initially, textual scholars’ dates for P4 differed as to its age, being dated anywhere from the late second century to the sixth century. As might be expected because of a lack of knowledge of scholars about papyrus manuscripts, Vincent Scheil in 1892 dated P4 to the sixth century. In 1938, J. Merell dated P4 to the early fourth century. Kurt Aland in 1963 dated P4 to the third century. In 1979, C. H. Roberts set the date for P4 as a late-second-century manuscript, also saying that P4 is part of the same manuscript as P64 and P67. Comfort writes, “If P4 can be shown to have come from the same codex as P64/P67, or at least from the same scribe, then it would naturally have an identical or similar date.”
P4 was used as padding on a codex of Philo’s treatises. It had been hidden in a house in Coptos, a small town in the Qena Governorate of Egypt. This was done so that it would not be seized during Diocletian’s persecution in 303 C.E., as Coptos had been plundered by the Roman Emperor at that time. The codex of Philo’s treatises is from the third century and could be dated to the middle of the third century. On this, Comfort writes, “The owner of the Gospel codex was probably a Christian and therefore would have valued the Gospels. He would not have used a newly copied Gospel as stuffing for Philo’s treatises,26 so this Gospel codex must have been well used and well worn. In fact, it must have been a discarded copy replaced by another codex. Thus, P4 may have been made as early as a hundred years before A.D. 250, if not earlier. So, we are reasonably certain of at least a late-second-century date, but this does not preclude an earlier date because the codex may have been in use more than a hundred years before it was discarded. Therefore, all three papyrus pieces—P4, P64, and P67—fit easily into the same chronological window.
From this, the preliminary conclusion can be that P4/P64/P67 is a second-century manuscript, being dated to about 175-200 C.E. In addition, Comfort adds, “We can conclude, then, that P4/P64/P67 is a second-century manuscript, probably dated to the third quarter of the century. The handwriting style lines up with P. Oxy. 2404 (second century), P. Oxy. 661 (ca. A.D. 175), and especially P. Vindob G 29784 (late second century). It shares some similarities with P. Oxy. 224/P. Ryl. 547 (late second century), P. Oxy. 2334 (second century), P. Oxy. 2750 (later second century), and P. Rylands 16 (late second century).” He then goes on to add another line of evidence, saying, “Another feature of P4/P64/P67 suggests an early date: the small number of nomina sacra (used only for “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Spirit”) compared to other late-second and early-third-century manuscripts, which add to those listed above nomina sacra for “Son,” “Father,” “man,” “cross,” and “crucify.” In P4/P64/P67, we may be seeing the nomina sacra in a relatively early phase of evolutionary development.”
Paleographers have their preferred methods of dating manuscripts. They first take an overall look at the script–wide-angle views, so to speak–and then they examine it more closely, analyzing individual letters. Because it usually took a long time for significant changes to occur in the general style of handwriting, a close examination of the script, while useful, provides only a broad indication of the time of writing.
Thankfully, there are other ways to narrow down the date. These include identifying and dating the introduction of certain handwriting practices. For instance, in Greek texts, after the year 900 C.E., scribes began to increase the use of ligatures (two or more characters joined). Scribes also began to use interlinear writing (the writing of certain Greek letters below the line) as well as pronunciation aids called breathing marks.
As Metzger remarked, a person’s handwriting tends to remain constant throughout his life. Therefore, texts often cannot be dated more narrowly than within 50 years. What is more, scribes sometimes used earlier manuscripts as models, making the copy seem older than it is. Despite the many challenges, however, dates have been assigned to a number of important Bible manuscripts.
Dating Key Greek Bible Manuscripts
Codex Alexandrinus (A or 02) is an impressive codex, now in the British Library, and the most investigated manuscript. It was the first major Bible manuscript made available to scholars. It contains most of the Old and New Testament, written in uncials on vellum, a high quality of parchment made from calfskin. Paleographers date this codex to about the fifth century C. E. This is mainly because of the changes that took place in uncial writing in the middle of the fifth and sixth centuries, as illustrated in a dated document called the Dioscorides of Vienna.
Codex Sinaiticus (01) was discovered by textual scholar Constantin Von Tischendorf at the monastery of St. Catharine on Mount Sinai. Sinaiticus was also penned in Greek uncials on parchment. At present, part of the Greek Old Testament has perished, with the whole of the New Testament surviving. Of this codex, 43 leaves are held in Leipzig, Germany; 347 leaves at the British Library in London; and portions of 3 leaves in St. Petersburg, Russia. Paleographers have dated Codex Sinaiticus to about 360 C.E. They arrive at this date, in part, because of the marginal tables (cross-references) in the gospels, which were invented by the fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea, known as the Eusebian Canons.
Codex Vaticanus (B or 03) is the most valuable of all manuscripts, which contained the entire Bible at one time. As is indicated by its name, it is housed in the Vatican Library at Rome, first becoming known in 1475. It, too, was penned in Greek uncials on 759 leaves of parchment. It still contains most of the Old Testament, except most of Genesis and part of Psalms. It is missing some portions of the New Testament as well. It is dated to about 340 C.E. It is viewed as belonging to the earlier part of the fourth century as it lacks the Eusebian Canons mentioned above.
Treasure from a Garbage Dump
In 1920, the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England, attained a heap of papyri recently discovered in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump. As he sorted out the pieces of unpublished papyri, which encompassed letters, receipts, and census documents, scholar Colin H. Roberts caught sight of a fragment inscribed with text he recognized—a few verses from John chapter 18. Based on the style of the script, Roberts dated this scrap as the earliest Christian Greek text identified up to that time, even to date. It is the early date of P52 that holds its greatest value. Bible critics had argued that the Gospel of John was not penned until the second century, which would mean that the apostle John was not its author. The finding of P52 establishes that John had to be written before the close of the first century C.E., to be copied in Fayum or Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, about 110-150 C.E.
This fragment came to be known as the John Rylands Papyrus 457, designated as P52 because it was penned on papyrus. It was written in Greek uncials and has been dated to about 110-150 C.E., within just a few decades of the original writing of the Gospel of John! Significantly, even though the text only comprises a few verses, the text agrees almost precisely with the Alexandrian family of manuscripts. Its contents include John 18:31-33, 37-38.
Are the “Early Dated” Papyri Really “Early”?
There is a new effort to redate the earliest Greek New Testament papyri by a new wave of paleographers: Pasquale Orsini, Willy Clarysse, Brent Nongbri, and readily accepted by a new wave of textual scholars, such as Daniel B. Wallace and Elijah Hixon. “The twentieth century was foundational for the issue of the dating of early Christian manuscripts. As is commonly known, it was during the twentieth century that the majority of New Testament and related Christian Greek papyri …” We will return once more to P52 and use it as our test case.
Higher Criticism (or “the historical-critical method” is now known as biblical criticism and literary criticism. Some areas are source criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, tradition-historical criticism, and many others. These scholars (not referring to the previously mentioned Wallace and Doxon) do not view the Bible as the Word of God. For these Bible scholars, it is the word of man and a very jumbled word at that. Textual scholar J. Harold Greenlee wrote, “This ‘higher criticism’ has often been applied to the Bible in a destructive way, and it has come to be looked down on by many evangelical Christians.” – The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (2008, p. 2). Baker Publishing Group.
Lower Criticism (or textual criticism): Where higher criticism is destructive, textual criticism or textual studies is constructive. Greenlee wrote, “Textual criticism is quite distinct from literary criticism. Textual criticism simply takes the known [manuscripts] MSS of the New Testament, studies the differences between them, and attempts by established principles to determine the exact wording of the New Testament originals.” (2008, p. 2) Textual criticism looks to the external evidence (manuscripts) and internal evidence (author’s style, words he used, grammar and syntax, and other principles), to determine what the original words were in the original texts. Without knowing what the original words are, one cannot create a translation, interpret the Scriptures, and know God’s will. Now, having laid that groundwork, we can move on to the article itself.
Daniel B. Wallace wrote in the Foreword of Myths and Mistakes In New Testament Textual Criticism, “The new generation of evangelical scholars is far more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than previous generations.” (p xii) An example of this is found in the same book as there are recent attempts by modern scholars to redate P52 from 110-125, the latest 150 C.E. to 175-225 C.E. (Brent Nongbri, Elijah Hixon, Don Parker, Andreas Schmidt, and so on) (Page 103). Why is the early date of P52 important apologetically? Conservative evangelical Christians often cite P52 to those who are of liberal-moderate biblical criticism (higher criticism) school of thought because these Bible critics try to argue that the apostle John did not author the Gospel that bears his name. They believe the Gospel of John was written about 160-180 C.E. Well, the apostle John died in 100 C.E., so for them, it would have been impossible for John to author the Gospel. Well, the discovery of P52 put one very solid nail in that line of thought because it was dated to about 110-125, the latest 150 C.E., and was discovered in Egypt. P52 was just a scrap, but it was a scrap containing John 18:31-33, 37-38. It hampered the discussion that the apostle John could not have written the Gospel. Or did it? Keep in mind, P52 was just one piece of evidence in a line of much more external and internal evidence that John authored the Gospel.
Elijah Hixon (Myths and Mistakes In New Testament Textual Criticism), an advocate of a late date for P52 (third century), explains,
First, P52 does not and cannot offer definitive proof that John’s Gospel is a first-century composition by an eyewitness. Even if P52 were written in the afternoon of April 26, AD 125 (it wasn’t), it would prove only that sections from John 18 were in Egypt by AD 125. Technically, such a date does not prove that John’s Gospel was in its “final” (canonical) form by then, nor does it prove that the text it contains is any more than a few months old. An early date of P52 might render these possibilities unlikely—even extremely unlikely—but it cannot disprove them. Two examples from redaction-critical commentaries demonstrate this point. First, Rudolf Bultmann accepted a date of P52 in the period of AD 100–150 and still argued that as much as forty years could have passed between the original writing of John’s Gospel and a final redaction that left it in the canonical form we have today. Second, Walter Schmithals was well aware of the existence of P52, but he still dated a final redaction of John’s Gospel to around AD 160–180. Given the uncertain nature of paleographical dating and the fact that P52 has not deterred source-critical scholars from adopting second-century dates of a final redaction to John’s Gospel, we quote again Paul Foster’s remarks about the usefulness of P52: “Was John’s Gospel written before the end of the first century? Yes, probably.” (Page 104).
First, Elijah Hixon, like Don Barker was also a sounding board, and we had many back and forth discussions on messenger. Both helped improve this book. Now, notice that Hixson’s concern is very similar to that of Nongbri, the use and abuse of the traditional date range of P52 (100–150 C.E.). They fear that New Testament scholars will use and abuse Robert’s dating of P52 by focusing in on the early part of his date range, without qualifying that it is a fifty-year date range, such as picking a specific date of 110 C.E. or 125 C.E. Hixon’s first and primary concern that is motivating his perception of the evidence is whether P52 can be used to support that the apostle John wrote his Gospel in the late first century C.E. This appears to be more postmodern skeptical thinking that is driving or motivating the investigation. This is a strawman argument. Hixon is setting up hypotheticals that no one suggested and then knocking them down. Here we get a lot of motivation behind why it is supposedly acceptable for ambiguous and uncertain paleographers and papyrologists to redated P52. First, let me offer my brief observation that I believe is simply a pattern of behavior. I believe many modern-day Christian textual scholars have gone the way of …
- Hermeneutics and higher criticism in (subjective interpretation by the historical-critical method [personal feelings] over the objective interpretation grammatical-historical method [facts]), to the …
- Bible translation and dynamic equivalent in Bible translation (interpretive translations of what the translator thinks God said over the literal translation of what God actually said), to the …
- New Testament textual scholars seek to be as skeptical, ambiguous, and uncertain as possible over seeking a position, qualifying anything that may be ambiguous or uncertain.
Response: This logical fallacy is called a strawman argument, where the person overstates the other side’s case or intentions, the opposing argument, ignoring the fact that evidence is abundant for John to be the author of the Gospel and P52 is just one piece, and then Hixon proceeds to knock down his “fake” point that conservative evangelicals have to supposedly have P52 dated early, he has created a straw man argument. Hixon goes on to infer that the renowned textual scholars, paleographers specifically (C. H. Roberts, T. C. Skeat, Fredric Kenyon, W. Schubart, Harold Idris Bell, Adolf Deissmann, Ulrich Wilken, and W. H. P. Hatch, and others), who dated P52 initially to an early date and other later textual scholars (Kurt and Barbara Aland [INTF Institute for New Testament Textual Research], Bruce M. Metzger as of 2006, Philip Comfort, David Barrett) that agreed were biased because of their Christian desire to have an early Gospel of John manuscript. This is called an ad hominem attack of circumstances, that is, attacking their Christianity as intrinsically biased instead of dealing with the evidence.
Hixon writes from above, “Technically, such a date does not prove that John’s Gospel was in its “final” (canonical) form by then, nor does it prove that the text it contains is any more than a few months old.”
Response: Canonical or canon criticism is just another historical-critical method that can take its place alongside source criticism, form criticism, rhetorical criticism, and the like. How dangerous is Higher Criticism (Biblical Criticism)?
Hixon writes from above, “An early date of P52 might render these possibilities unlikely—even extremely unlikely—but it cannot disprove them.”
Response: Another repeat of the strawman logical fallacy, in that, he sets the evangelical Christians as saying P52 absolutely disproves a later date for the Gospel of John. Well, first of all, let’s assume just for a moment that P52 C. H. Roberts and company were correct, and it dates to 100–150 C.E. Or that Philip Comfort and company are correct, and it dates to 100–125 C.E. Well, this would preclude a later date for John and place the Gospel in the first century. You cannot have John’s Gospel clear down in Egypt by 110-125 C.E. and at the same time have it be written between 160-180 C.E. Nevertheless, John was long accepted as the author based on internal and external evidence for 1,800 years before P52 was ever discovered.
Hixon writes above, “Two examples from redaction-critical commentaries demonstrate this point. First, Rudolf Bultmann accepted a date of P52 in the period of AD 100–150 and still argued that as much as forty years could have passed between the original writing of John’s Gospel and a final redaction that left it in the canonical form we have today. Second, Walter Schmithals was well aware of the existence of P52, but he still dated a final redaction of John’s Gospel to around AD 160–180.”
Response: You cannot reason with the unreasonable. You cannot be rational with the irrational. You do not base your textual work on the fear of how you will be seen within the academic community: “They won’t take me seriously.”
Hixon writes above, “Given the uncertain nature of paleographical dating and the fact that P52 has not deterred source-critical scholars from adopting second-century dates of a final redaction to John’s Gospel, we quote again Paul Foster’s remarks about the usefulness of P52: ‘Was John’s Gospel written before the end of the first century? Yes, probably.’”
Response: No one has ever claimed that manuscript dating is certain in nature. The English word certain in the context of setting dates (paleography) means that we know for sure what the date is; our established date is proved, confirmed, authenticated, verified, beyond doubt, having complete conviction about the date we have set; confident. This would refer to setting a specific date, such as dating P52 specifically to 125 C.E. Yet, what we really have in reality is terminus post quem (“limit after which”) and terminus ante quem (“limit before which”) specify the known limits of dating a manuscript. This would be like C. H. Roberts with his 100-150 C.E. A terminus post quem is the earliest time (e.g., 100 C.E.) the manuscript (P52) could have been written, and a terminus ante quem is the latest time (e.g., 150 C.E.) the manuscript (P52) could have been written. 50 years was a common time period with seventy maximum. Now, they want 100 years and even 200 years.
On the other hand, uncertainty means that our dates for any manuscripts are not able to be relied on; not known or definite, not completely confident or sure of our dated manuscripts. Well, if the field of paleography is a field of uncertainty, why even waste the money on getting manuscripts dated. Why even have such a field of study? Being balanced, we can say that setting dates for literary manuscripts (P52) is largely educated guesswork, not beyond doubt, but external and circumstantial factors can help scholars date manuscripts.” Philip Comfort and David Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Volume 1: Papyri 1-72 (Oct 2019, p. 12)
Hixon cites Dr. Don Parker, Papyrologist at Macquarie University, Ancient History Dept, Sydney. “It is difficult to place [P52] into a very narrow time period.” And he lives up to the not so narrow because he places it anywhere in the second to third centuries. He goes on to say, “This may be unsatisfactory for those who would like to locate [P52] in a narrower time frame, but the paleographical evidence will not allow it.”
Response: The paleographical evidence by the new paleographers is not as strong as one might conclude. It is largely dependent on manuscripts that are not dated and an attempt at comparing documentary with literary or semi-literary hands when they should attempt to use literary manuscripts for comparison with literary manuscripts. Turner states, “Confidence will be strongest when like is compared with like: a documentary hand with another documentary hand, skillful writing with skillful, fast writing with fast. Comparison of book hands with dated documentary hands will be less reliable. The intention of the scribe is different in the two cases …; besides, the book-hand style in question may have had a long life.” Moreover, the handful of manuscripts they have used for comparison has a couple of similar characters, but the overall of the manuscript is not even similar.
Michael Gronewald argues that P52 should be dated no earlier than 200 A.D. based on his analysis of P.Köln VI 255, using the hooked apostrophe in recto line 3 to support his redating of P52. To reinforce this argument Gronewald turned to a comment by Eric Gardner Turner an English papyrologist in Greek Manuscripts, suggesting with certainty (certainty when it suits them) that the apostrophe between mute consonants (e.g., lam) was a feature of the third-century (200-300) A.D. However, Turner actually said, “In the first decade of iii AD, this practice [using an apostrophe between two consonants] suddenly becomes extremely common and then persists.” Notice here what Turner does not say, he was not saying that this practice was not taking place in the second century at all but rather it became “extremely common and then persists” in the third century. Then Turner goes on to give examples of using a hooked apostrophe between two consonants from the second century: BGU III 715.5 (101 A.D.) and P.Petaus 86.11 (184/85 A.D.) and SB XIV 11342.11 (193 A.D.). Even P66 that has been dated to 150-200 A.D. has a hooked apostrophe between two consonants, αγ’γελους. Turner states, this practice of a hooked apostrophe between two consonants “is not normally written in documents till iii AD” [third-entury AD] – Turner, Greek Manuscripts, 108. (bold and underline mine)
On this Philip Comfort writes,
Turner indicates that another feature began in the early third century, namely, the use of a separating apostrophe between double consonants. Some paleographers of late seem to have adopted this observation as “fact” and thereby date manuscripts having this feature as post AD 200. Some paleographers would even redate manuscripts displaying this feature. For example, Schmidt redates P52 to ca. 200 based on the fact that its hand parallels that of the Egerton Gospel, which is now thought by some to date closer to ca. 200 based on this feature appearing in a newly published portion of the Egerton Gospel. However, I would argue that the previously assigned date of such manuscripts was given by many scholars according to their observations of several paleographic features. Thus, the presence of this particular feature (the hook or apostrophe between double consonants) determines an earlier date for its emergence, not the other way around. Thus, the Egerton Gospel, dated by many to ca. 150, should still stand, and so should the date for P52 (as early second century). Another way to come at this is to look at P66, dated by several scholars to ca. 150 (see discussion below). Turner, however, would date P66 later (early third) largely because of the presence of the hook between double consonants. What I would say is that the predominant dating of P66 (i.e., the dating assigned by most scholars) predetermines the date for this particular feature. Furthermore, there are other manuscripts dated prior to AD 200 that exhibit the apostrophe or hook between double consonants:
- BGU iii 715.5 (AD 101)
2. P. Petaus 86 (= P. Michigan 6871) (AD 185)
3. SPP xxii 3.22 (second century)
4. P. Berol. 9570 + P. Rylands 60 (dated by the editors of the editio princeps to ca. 200, dated by Cavallo to ca. 50)
Hixon: [In his quoting Roberts] “‘On the whole we may accept with some confidence the first half of the second century as the period in which P. Ryl. Gr. 457 was most probably written.’ Roberts arrived at that date by comparing the handwriting of P52 to that of other known papyri. It is important to note that Roberts did not say that P52 was written between AD 100 and 150 but that it was most probably written then.” (Italics Hixon, 102)
Response: Notice that Hixon is qualifying Robert’s qualification about Roberts’ dating of P52 to 100–150 C.E., most probably written. The italics is Hixon, not Roberts. Of course, it is most probably. No one has suggested that it was an absolute certainty. I would note that Elijah did not italicize the other qualification by Roberts, “we may accept with some confidence.”
Everyone knows that paleographic dating is conditional and difficult. No one has argued that it is the “most effective method.” (Nongbri) Every book on textual criticism and paleography makes this patently clear. There is not one papyrologist who isn’t aware of the immense difficulty in finding suitable comparative manuscripts. Of course, there is going to be a measure of subjectivity when one is evaluating the similarities. Yes, it will be difficult to assign dates to various paleographical features when we are dealing with literary documents, which is what Bible manuscripts are. Yes, it would be great to have corroborating documentary-dated manuscripts if possible, that is beyond all reasonable doubt match. Better yet, it would be great to have our literary document papyri to have been dated at the time of it having been copied. But this is not to be, so we use all measures to get at the best date range possible, including paleography. Hixon, Nongbri, and company have used paleography to undermine paleography that resulted in Roberts’ date range of 100–150 C.E.
Hixon: “A few considerations provide reason for revising Roberts’s early date for P52 (“most probably” AD 100–150). First, Roberts’s two closest matches to the hand of P52 were not themselves securely dated. Second, the securely dated specimens in general were not close matches. Third, there are now many more published manuscripts with which to compare P52 than when Roberts first published it in 1935, such that consensus regarding the paleographic dates can change. In the case of one of the two “close matches”—P.Egerton 2—it did. Roberts compared P52 to an early dated manuscript that is no longer considered to be so early.40 A recent redating of P.Egerton 2 concluded that it dates to circa AD 150–250 and that “it is not impossible that [P.Egerton 2] was produced sometime at the turn of the third century.” (Hixon, p. 102). Bold mine.
Short Response: What I believe Hixon means by securely dated are documentary manuscripts that have dates on them or literary manuscripts with archaeological and circumstantial factors that can help paleographers date manuscripts. The immediate problem is straightforward and unrealistic expectations. Why? All the New Testament papyri are literary documents with no archaeological and circumstantial factors, except for possibly P4,64,67 and P10. Second, all New Testament manuscripts are literary documents, and so they will not have dates on them. Third, there are a number of documentary manuscripts that are securely dated and match or are similar to P52. We should also take note that unrealistic expectations are unhelpful expectations. When we set aside reasonable, rational, acceptable expectations with unrealistic, unreasonable, irrational expectations.
Nongbri: A manuscript can be dated by means of paleography most confidently when it can be compared with a large number of similar manuscripts with secure dates. Thus, there are some grounds for being cautiously confident about assigning paleographic dates to samples of Greek documentary writing of the Roman era since the pool of securely dated tax records, deeds, receipts, and other documents is quite large. By contrast, there are relatively few securely dated examples of literary Greek writing of the Roman era, so it is correspondingly much more difficult to paleographically date literary manuscripts with precision.” Bold mine.
Response: So, we would disagree with Hixon because we have several securely dated documentary manuscripts that are close matches to P52. P. Egerton 2 was redated but was done so on very weak evidence and has been dealt with extensively already.
Hixon: “Some scholars who are neither trained papyrologists nor paleographers have proposed unusually early or narrow dates for P52, and these dates should not be accepted. Karl Jaroš (AD 80–125), Philip Comfort (AD 110–125), and Carsten Peter Thiede (AD 80–130) are each controversial for their early dates, which have failed to gain scholarly acceptance.” (Hixon, 105). Bold mine.
Response: Fallacy Argument from Authority. It is a fallacious ad hominem attack argument that Comfort, for example, lacks authority; thus, his (Comfort’s) views and evidence do not need to be considered. Moreover, setting aside the ad hominem attack, below is a repeat of Comfort’s credentials.
Dr. Philip Wesley Comfort (1950–) is a noted professor, author, and editor. He is a professor of Greek and New Testament at Trinity Episcopal Seminary, visiting professor at Wheaton College, and senior editor of Bible reference at Tyndale House Publishers for 25-years. Comfort completed his second doctorate under the noted textual critic Jacobus H. Petzer at the University of South Africa. Comfort has been working in the field of textual criticism, paleography, and papyrology for over thirty years and has written over fifteen books on New Testament Textual Studies, many on paleography and papyrology, the first being some thirty years ago in 1990. Comfort has examined almost all of the 5,000 Oxyrhynchus papyri collection. He has also studied all of the early New Testament papyri, 25 of them in person with the actual document. When not in person, he has used high-definition images, such as The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, as well as hundreds of manuscripts from other collections. Comfort has spent most of his life researching and studying ancient papyri, deciphering what is on the papyrus, and then publishing his findings. This is the case with many past world-renowned papyrologists, such as Sir Frederic George Kenyon, Ulrich Wilcken, or E. G. Turner. The only thing Comfort has not done is work at caring for and preserving rare papyrus originals as Kenyon did at the British Museum. Clearly, Comfort is well qualified to date Greek New Testament manuscripts, specifically, the early Greek New Testament papyri manuscripts. It is his conclusions that have drawn such ire.
P52 is to be dated to the beginning of the second century (c. 100-125 C.E.)
Paleographer Philip W. Comfort writes,
Many scholars (Frederic G. Kenyon, H. I. Bell, Adolf Deissmann, and W. H. P. Hatch) have confirmed the dating of P52. Deissmann was convinced that it was written at least during the reign of Hadrian (A.D. 117–138) and perhaps even during the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98–117). Deissmann wrote an article on this, “Ein Evangelienblatt aus den Tagen Hadrians,” which was translated in the British Weekly.
This dating is derived from comparing P52 to manuscripts such as P. Fayum 110 (A.D. 94), the Egerton Gospel (A.D. 130–150), P. Oslo 22 (A.D. 127), P. London 2078 (reign of Domitian, A.D. 81–96), and P. Berolinenses 6845 (ca. A.D. 100). Though each of these manuscripts bears significant resemblance to P52, P. Berolinenses 6845 is the closest parallel, in Roberts’s opinion. Another manuscript shares many similarities with P52, P. Oxy. 2533. The editors of P. Oxy. 2533 said that its handwriting could be paralleled with first-century documents, but since it had the appearance of being second century, they assigned it a second-century date. Thus, both P. Oxy. 2533 and P52 can safely be dated to A.D. 100–125. However, its comparability to manuscripts of an even earlier period (especially P. Berol. 6845), pushes the date closer to A.D. 100, plus or minus a few years. This is extremely remarkable, especially if we accept the consensus dating for the composition of the Fourth Gospel: A.D. 80–85. This would mean that P52 may be only twenty years removed from the original.
This author would disagree with the dating of the Gospel of John to 80-85 C.E. I would place the date at about 98 C.E.
Stanley E. Porter concludes,
The conclusion of this study and the result of its investigation is that we are essentially back where we began in 1935 with the first publication of P.Egerton 2 and P.Ryl. III 457 (P52)— two manuscripts that have figured largely in recent discussion of the reconstruction of early Christianity. Roberts concluded that P.Ryl. III 45 (P52) should be dated to the first half of the second century, a conclusion with which Turner was generally in agreement even if expressing caution. Bell and Skeat concluded that P.Egerton 2 should be dated to the mid-second century, a cautious date on their part. Even if we recognize the two clusters of dates and evidence that Bagnall has suggested (as opposed to the four noted above), the evidence seems to indicate that we are back at the beginning. And this fact remains the same even if we take into account a larger number of comparable manuscripts, weigh letter typology, and find a suitable trajectory of manuscript features. In other words, the result is to bring the two manuscripts together, somewhere in the middle second century, perhaps tending toward the early part of it, as a workable and serviceable date of transcription. With that in place, we can then begin to place other manuscripts and frame the development of early Christianity in the second century.
World-Renowned Paleographers and Textual Scholars Date P52 Early
- 100-150 C. H. Roberts
- 100-150 Sir Frederic G. Kenyon
- 100-150 W. Schubart
- 100-150 Sir Harold I. Bell
- 100-150 Adolf Deissmann
- 100-150 E. G. Turner (cautiously)
- 100-150 Ulrich Wilken
- 100-150 W. H. P. Hatch
- 100-125: Philip W. Comfort
- 100-150 Bruce M. Metzger
- 125-175 Kurt and Barbara Aland
- 125-175 Pasquale Orsini
- 125-175 Willy Clarysse
- 170 C.E. Andreas Schmidt
- 100-150 Daniel B. Wallace
Other More Recent Textual Scholars Date P52
- 100-225 Brent Nongbri
- 81–292 Don Barker
- 200-300 Michael Gronewald
Daniel B. Wallace writes in the foreword of MYTHS AND MISTAKES In New Testament Textual Criticism that “The new generation of evangelical scholars is far more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than previous generations.” (Page xii). This is certainly the case. However, this trend has been a long time coming. In the 1800s into the early 1900s, Higher Criticism (biblical Criticism) ruled the day, wherein liberal to moderate Bible scholars dissected the Word of God until it became the word of man and a garbled word at that. A few positions of these scholars (not Wallace, mentioned above) would be that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. Further, Job was not a real historical person, the prophet Isaiah of the eight-century B.C.E. and Daniel the prophet of the sixth-century B.C.E. did not write the books that bear their name. They would also believe that Jesus did not say everything recorded that he said in his famous Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus did not say that the Pharisees were snakes and vipers in Matthew 23. It was Matthew who said these things because he hated the Jews.
Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, we go from literal Bible translations (what God said by way of his human authors) and entered into the era of interpretive translations (i.e., dynamic or formal equivalent), wherein the translators give the reader what they think the authors meant by their words. The last few decades, textual scholars have refocused their objectives and goals from attempting to ascertain the original words of the original text to getting back to the earliest text possible. More recently, there has been a concerted effort to reset the dates of our earliest manuscripts to later dates.
Philip W. Comfort is one of few who has actually examined and published major works in which he has examined the entire range of early New Testament manuscripts. He is constantly under attack by the new wave of textual scholars that favor ambiguity and uncertainty and seek to redate our early papyrus manuscripts to later dates. If they can undermine the credibility of this one man who is standing in their way; then, they will control the narrative.
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 ‘Palaeography,’ Oxford English Dictionary.
 Dr. Bruce M. Metzger wrote, “Since the style of a person’s handwriting may remain more or less constant throughout life, it is unrealistic to seek to fix upon a date narrower than a fifty-year spread.” (B. Metzger 1981, 50)
John F. Oates, Alan E. Samuel, and Bradford C. Welles, Yale Papyri in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (New Haven, American Society of Papyrologists, 1967), 1:4.
 Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 366–367.
 A. Schmidt, “Zwei Anmerkungen zu P. Ryl. III 457,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung 35(1989:11–12)
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 23-48.
 Porter, Stanley E. (2013) “Recent efforts to Reconstruct Early Christianity on the Basis of its Payrological Evidence” in Christian Origins and Graeco-Roman Culture, Eds Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Leiden, Brill, pp 71–84.
 Handwriting styles are different from one time period in comparison to another, and by matching a Greek Christian NT manuscript’s style to a secular manuscript that contains a date, or a known style of a certain period, one can reasonably date an undated NT Greek manuscript.
 See Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. A corrected, enlarged ed. of The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2001), S. 24.
Paleographers have been able to distinguish four major kinds of handwriting, each of which reveals something about the training (or lack thereof) of the copyist who produced it. The four types are as follows:
1.) Common: The work of a semiliterate writer who is untrained in making documents. This handwriting usually displays an inelegant cursive.
2.) Documentary: The work of a literate writer who has had experience in preparing documents. This has also been called “chancery handwriting” (prominent in the period A.D. 200–225). It was used by official scribes in public administration.
3.) Reformed documentary: The work of a literate writer who had experience in preparing documents and in copying works of literature. Often, this hand attempts to imitate the work of a professional but does not fully achieve the professional look.
4.) Professional: The work of a professional scribe. These writings display the craftsmanship of what is commonly called a “book hand” or “literary hand,” and leave telltale marks of professionalism such as stichoi markings (the tallying of the number of lines, according to which a professional scribe would be paid), as are found in P46.
Various handwriting styles are more pronounced in one time period over another and thereby help in dating manuscripts.
 Vincent Scheil, “Fragments de l’Évangile selon saint Luc, recueillis en Égypte,” Revue Biblique 1 (1892): 113.
 Merell, “Nouveaux fragments du papyrus IV,” 7.
 Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 52.
 Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 53.
 IBID, 53.
 IBID, 53.
 The sources of to the Greek New Testament can be broken up into the categories: (1) papyrus (1st – 6th century C.E.), (2) vellum (4th – 14th century), and (3) paper.
 RECENT EFFORTS TO RECONSTRUCT EARLY CHRISTIANITY ON THE BASIS OF ITS PAPYROLOGICAL EVIDENCE: Downloaded from Brill.com 11/20/2019 by email@example.com via Edward Andrews
 Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (ed. P.J. Parsons; 2nd ed.; London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1987), 19–20. Cf. Bell and Skeat, Fragments, 1.
 Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 108–109.
 Nongbri, Brent. God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (Kindle Locations 929-935). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 For a fuller discussion see THE P52 PROJECT: Is P52 Really the Earliest Greek New Testament Manuscript? By Edward D, Andres (ISBN-13: 978-1949586107) ISBN-13: 978-1949586107
 Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts: Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, 2 Volume Set The (English and Greek Edition) (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2019), 337-8.
 RECENT EFFORTS TO RECONSTRUCT EARLY CHRISTIANITY ON THE BASIS OF ITS PAPYROLOGICAL EVIDENCE: Downloaded from Brill.com 11/20/2019 by firstname.lastname@example.org via Edward Andrews