IMPORTANT NOTE: First, this is a little technical for the churchgoer not familiar with New Testament Textual Studies. Nevertheless, I have gone to great lengths to simplify it without lessening what needs to be said. Second, it is a lengthy article but worth every bit of your time and then some. Third, it will be a bit general for the first half. Then, there will be a section on dating P52, which will be followed by a more detailed. a lengthy section on dating P52 that deals with those trying to redate P52 to decades or even 150 years or more later than its initial, well-established date pf 100-150 C.E. This latter section on dating P52 will not be interrupted with book advertisements because it is too important, and you need to focus.
Higher Criticism (or “the historical-critical method”: Now known as biblical criticism and literary criticism. Some of the areas are source criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, tradition-historical criticism, and many others. These scholars 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 is looking to the external evidence (manuscripts) and internal evidence (author’s style, words he used, grammar and syntax, and other principles), so as 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, know the will of God. Now, having laid that groundwork, we can move onto 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? P52 is often cited by conservative evangelical Christians 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 Hixson (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a junior research associate in New Testament Text and Language at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and author of Scribal Habits in Sixth-Century Greek Purple Codices.
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 was 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 redate 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 …
- Today we have New Testament textual scholars seeking to be as skeptical, ambiguous, and uncertain as possible over seeking a position, qualifying anything that may be ambiguous or uncertain.
Now, turning to Hixon’s words above, “P52 does not and cannot offer definitive proof that John’s Gospel is a first-century composition by an eyewitness.”
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, as opposed to 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)?
Such Bible scholars as Robert L. Thomas, Norman L. Geisler, Gleason L. Archer, F. David Farnell, and the late Gleason L. Archer Jr. among many others have fought for decades to educate readers about the dangers of higher criticism.
Tischendorf was a world-leading biblical scholar who rejected higher criticism, which led to his noteworthy success in defending the authenticity of the Bible text. Tischendorf was educated in Greek at the University of Leipzig. During his university studies, he was troubled by higher criticism of the Bible, as taught by famous German theologians, who sought to prove that the Greek New Testament was not authentic.
NT Textual scholar Harold Greenlee writes, “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.” Greenlee, J. Harold. The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (p. 2). Baker Publishing Group.
Higher critics have taught that much of the Bible was composed of legend and myth that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, 8th century Isaiah did not write Isaiah, there were three authors of Isaiah, 6th century Daniel did not write Daniel, it was penned in the 2nd century BCE. Higher critics have taught that Jesus did not say all that he said in his Sermon on the Mount and that Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees in Matthew 23, as this was Matthew because he hated the Jews. These are just highlights, for there are thousands of tweaks that have undermined the word of God as being inspired and fully inerrant. Higher critics have dissected the Word of God until it has become the word of man, and a very jumbled word at that. Higher criticism is still taught in almost all of the seminaries, and it is quite common to hear so-called Evangelical Bible scholars publicly deny that large sections of the Bible as fully inerrant, authentic, and true. Biblical higher criticism is speculative and tentative in the extreme. This fits with the textual scholar, Daniel B. Wallace’s recent words in MYTHS AND MISTAKES In New Testament Textual Criticism, where he said: “The new generation of evangelical scholars is far more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than previous generations.” (Page xii)
Craig Evans says Jesus did not say the I AM STATEMENTS IN JOHN’S GOSPEL:
(1) I am the Bread of Life (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51)
(2) I am the Light of the World (John 8:12)
(3) I am the Door of the Sheep (John 10:7, 9)
(4) I am the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14)
(5) I am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25)
(6) I am the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6)
(7) I am the True Vine (John 15:1, 5)
After two centuries, higher critics with their higher criticism have ousted the Bible from its earlier status as the fully inerrant, inspired Word of God? Higher criticism has opened the flood gates to pseudo-scholarly works, which has resulted in undermining Christians’ confidence in the Bible. There is utterly no solid evidence for the claims made by higher critics. If any supporter of higher criticism says, “just because some have gone too far, or some have abused the method, this does not negate the benefits of using it,” listen to that foreboding feeling in the back of your mind. Or, the higher critic might argue, “you can take the good parts of higher criticism and leave the parts that undermine the Bible.” This is like saying, “you can remove the 75% poison from the water before drinking it, trust me.” There is a way to remove the bad parts for sure, fully abandon what is known as the subjective historical-critical method of interpretation and return to the old objective historical-grammatical method of interpretation.
End of Excursion
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 a Gospel clear down in Egypt about 110-150 C.E. It would have taken time for it to work its way there, 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, and 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. 273)
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 that they have used for comparison has a couple of similar characters, but the overall of the manuscript it not even close to being 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. Not one papyrologist isn’t aware of the immense difficulty in finding suitable comparative manuscripts. Of course, there will 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, if 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, and so we use all measures to get at the best date range possible, including paleography. I mean, Hixon, Nongbri, and company use paleography in their attempt at undermining 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 clear and unrealistic expectations. Why? All the New Testament papyri are literary documents and have no archaeological and circumstantial factors, except for possibly P4,64,67 and P10. Second, all New Testament manuscripts are literary documents, 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 to say that Comfort, for example, lacks authority, and thus his arguments 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 to the middle of the second century (c. 110-150 C.E.), no later than 175 C.E.
Muenster’s Manuscript Depository Table
|Origin Year Early||125|
|Origin Year Late||175|
|Origin Year Description||II (M)|
|Content Overview||J 18,31-33.37-38|
|Leaves Description||1 frag|
|Columns Max (if varies)|
|Lines Max (if varies)||18|
|Lines Description||7 (18)|
|Height Max (if varies)|
|Width Max (if varies)|
|Institute||John Rylands University Library of Manchester|
|Shelf Number||Gr. P. 457|
|Alternative Date||2-3 Cent. Nongbri|
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 A.D. 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 to any other century? If we were to pull any book from our bookshelf and turn a few pages in it, we would normally find the date of publication on the copyright page. If we bought a used book that was missing the copyright page, we would have no idea of when it had been 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, and this is crucial in our ability to be able to date the undated literary manuscripts.
It is by means of the art and science of paleography that 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. As an example, when looking at our modern languages today, we can see that within every generation or two there are subtle changes. This holds true of ancient languages as well. Through painstaking comparison of hundreds of small features within an ancient manuscript, a paleographer can provide us with a date that is usually correct to plus or minus 25 to 50 years. 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. It is these that have formed a library of letters with the styles that go into making each letter during different time periods.
However, it is best when dating these ancient manuscripts to compare like manuscripts: a literary (professional or semi-professional scribe) document with a literary document and a documentary with a documentary. The documentary hand is by a copyist who is not a professional or semi-professional but rather a literate copyist who has experience making documents, such as tax receipts, business and personal letters, and business contracts.
 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.
|The Rylands Papyrus 52 at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England|
|Text||John 18:31–33, 18:37–38|
|Date||110-125 C. E.
C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”
|Now at||John Rylands University Library|
|Cite||C. H. Roberts, “An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library” (Manchester University Press, 1935)|
|Size||8.9 cm x 6 cm|
|Type||Seems to be Alexandrian|
At left and above 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, as of the time of this writing, 10 codices are dated within the second century C.E., with another 56 codices that are dated to the third century. These are undoubtedly some of the most valuable manuscripts in establishing the original text of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
This author would date the writing of the Gospel of John to A.D. 98. Therefore, P52 would have to date to about 110-150 A.D., latest 175 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 to support his position of a later date for P52.
 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.
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)
 Porter, Stanley E. (2013) “Recent Efforts to Reconstruct Early Christianity on the Basis of Its_Papyrological Evidence” in Christian Origins and Graeco-Roman Culture, Eds Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Leiden, Brill, pp 71–84.
Stanley Porter has also challenged Nongbri’s contention that there are legitimate comparisons that 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 letterforms 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).
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.
 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.
This author would disagree with the dating of the authoring of the Gospel of John to 80-85 C.E. I would place the dated 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
- 100-200 Daniel B. Wallace
Other More Recent Textual Scholars Date P52
- 100-225 Brent Nongbri
- 81–292 Don Barker
- 200-300 Michael Gronewald
In New Testament textual studies, there are but two ways to make a name for oneself as a textual scholar. (1) The person would have to make a discovery that overwhelms the scholarly world in the extreme. (2) The person has to take a view or a position on something and then go out and find evidence that changes that view or position. Brent Nongbri seems to be trying (2) in his efforts to have his place within the history of New Testament Textual Studies. In 2120, scholars can look back at who changed the dates of the early papyri.
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 would be that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, 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, 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 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, and he is constantly under attack by the new wave of textual scholars that favor ambiguity and uncertainty and are seeking 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.
One thing I loved/love about the late Norman L. Geisler (as an apologist, not a textual scholar) was/is that he did not worry about what man thought, his first concern was always what God thought about him. John MacArthur (as a theologian and an apologist, not a textual scholar) comes from the same mindset. This author believes that New Testament textual criticism, formerly constructive, has joined higher criticism (biblical criticism), as well as interpretive translation movement, and now has become destructive.
Using Comparative Paleography to Date P52
Philip Comfort writes, “The primary means of dating a New Testament manuscript, as an undated literary text [e.g., P52], is by doing a comparative analysis with the handwriting of other dated documentary texts. The second method is to do a comparative analysis with literary manuscripts having a date based on the association with a documentary text on the recto or verso.” Comfort goes on to explain, “As paleographers seek to assign a date to a manuscript, they employ comparative morphology, which is a comparative study of letter forms. Paleographers in the past (such as Kenyon) used to look for a match of certain individual letter forms. This practice called the “test-letter” theory is no longer fully endorsed. Rather, paleographers look at the letters in relation to the entire piece of writing; in other words, it is the overall likeness that constitutes a morphological match. Of course, this doesn’t exclude matching letters, but the match must be more than just in a few letters.” We have chosen 14 different letters that are the most visible in P52 (alpha, delta, epsilon, eta, iota, kappa, lambda, nu, omicron, pi, sigma, tau, upsilon, and omega). Guglielmo Cavallo, in chapter 5: Greek and Latin Writing in the Papyri, “Palaeographical evidence can emerge from the comparison of dated or datable documentary writing and undated literary hands. In the absence of any other criterion for dating, only a palaeographical assessment remains.” He goes on to say, “The skilled hands found in literary papyri of the second and third centuries [C.E.] display a great variety of graphic solutions.” He adds, “At this time, the most notable phenomenon in writing found in the domain of skilled and calligraphic hands is the development of normative scripts (i.e., handwritings that follow precise rules and are repetitively stable in their technique and manner of execution, with the result that they have great staying power).”
Style of Writing
The writing styles under consideration for the papyri between 75 – 225 C.E. had many general characteristics. The styles include the Roman Uncial, the Biblical Uncial or Biblical Majuscule, the Decorated Rounded Uncial, and the Severe Style. A style of writing began (came into being, starting point), emerged (apparent), fully developed (all characteristics in play), became prominent (common, well-known), and then faded (gradually disappear). Therefore, it was common for one style to begin and emerge while another was still in play or fading. In fact, the emergence and development of the new style are likely what caused the current style to begin to fade. The time period for the full process from a style beginning (coming into being) to fading (diminishing gradually) can be quite long, but it can also vary.
- The appearance of one character being separate or several characters being separate from the others and then the next letter or letters linked by ligatures. What seems to be ligatures in P52 are simply letters touching or bumping into one another.
- There was a roundness and smoothness in the forms of the letters.
- There was a darkening of the characters by going over them again.
- There are decorative serifs in several letters. A serif is a slight projection finishing off a stroke of a letter in certain typefaces.
- The Biblical Uncial has little or no decoration and intentionally alternates between thick and thin strokes of the pen unlike its predecessor, the Roman Uncial.
- An undecorated script began (came into being, starting point) and emerged (apparent) in the late first century, and was fully developed (all characteristics in play) at the beginning of and into the middle of the second century and became prominent (common, well-known) toward the end of the second century C.E. Here we find the character squarer, with a heavy look. The letters are uniform size (except iota, rho, phi, psi, omega), stand upright, and thick and thin strokes are certainly notable.
- There were times when convenience rather than beauty was the primary consideration.
- There was a contrast between thin horizontal strokes and heavier (thicker) vertical ones. (See gamma, pi, tau), with slanted strokes coming in between
- Then, there are the slanted strokes in between (alpha, delta, lambda).
- The Rho and upsilon extend below the baseline.
- The hastas of phi (Φ) and psi (Ψ) extend both up and down.
- All the letters except gamma, rho, phi, psi extend the same level vertically.
- In time, there were no ligatures (connecting letters).
- There was no embellishment at the end of strokes, such as serifs and blobs.
In the following pages, we will use comparative paleography, looking at the various documentary and literary manuscripts dating from about 75–225 C.E. that have been used in the dating and redating of P52. There is no other method for dating an undated literary document as Nongbri and others well know. All parties know that dating a literary by comparing it to other literary texts involves some subjectivity. It is both an art and a science. THE SCIENCE: The one doing the comparing must use the common sense that God gave him or her, being reasonable and rational, avoiding unrealistic expectations, which are unhelpful expectations. We have now heaped doubt on the Christian community when we set aside reasonable, rational, acceptable expectations with unrealistic, unreasonable, irrational expectations. THE SCIENCE: Of course, there are some basic rules and principles in the comparison process. The primary principle would be to look at many different letters in the documents being compared instead of just a few. A second principle would be to identify general similarities instead of some letter form fingerprint that would be an exact match if laid over each other. Another thing to be mindful of is that these different styles of writing did not just show up on the scene and then disappear without a trace. However, there was a time when a style was fully developed (all characteristics in play), became prominent (common, well-known).
Dating would be somewhat easier if the P52 scribe were a professional scribe bookhand instead of a practiced scribe because we would have higher expectations for him. He does seem to try to be consistent, or he is consistent to a degree in the way he writes. He has no intention; it seems to be perfect. But he seems to be trying to do a good job. Some of his letters are more consistent than others. Some you cannot really judge because the one that looks like a ligature but really is just two or three letters touching, while the others are clearly a stand-alone or at least not being bumped into. He was employing great care in his writing, attention to detail, a kind of unofficial style.
Roberts’ observed that “the scribe [of P52] writes in a heavy, rounded and rather elaborate hand, often uses several strokes to form a single letter (cf. the eta and particularly the sigma in Recto, 1. 3) with a rather clumsy effect and is fond of adding a small flourish or hook to the end of his strokes (cf. the omega, the iota and the upsilon); among particular letters the epsilon with its cross stroke a little above the centre, the delta, the upsilon and the mu may be noted. Some of these features can be paralleled from dated documents,” as well as literary documents. Roberts adds, “The writer of P. Ryl. Gk. 457 [P52] (as far as one can judge from the scanty evidence) used neither stops nor breathings; his orthography, apart from a couple of itacisms, is good, and his writing, if not that of a practiced scribe, is painstaking and regular. In this respect, the verdict of the editors of P. Egerton 2 upon the writer of that text is applicable to ours: P. Ryl. Gk. 457 also has a somewhat ‘informal air’ about it and with no claims to fine writing is yet a careful piece of work.” Did Roberts’ position on P52 change over time? It has been argued that he was young and inexperienced in 1935, a mere 26-years old.
At 68 years old and at the close of an illustrious career in the field of textual studies, paleography, papyrology, he had authored five books, which included, Two Biblical Papyri in the John Rylands Library (1936), The Antinoopolis Papyri (1950), Birth of the Codex (1954), Oxford Palaeographical Handbooks (1955), and Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (1977). In the latter, Roberts surveyed fourteen papyri. He believed them to be of Christian origin. Twelve of these were codices, and the other two were scrolls. In 1977, these were all the manuscripts that were commonly viewed as dating to the second century C.E., including P52. Only three of the fourteen he viewed as possessing a handwriting style known as a professional bookhand, that is a professional who was very capable of producing literary works. The other eleven, which included P52, Roberts stated that their scribes were,
…not trained in calligraphy and so not accustomed to writing books, though they were familiar with them; they employ what is basically a documentary hand but at the same time they are aware that it is a book and not a document on which they are engaged. They are not personal or private hands; and in most a degree of regularity and of clarity is aimed at and achieved. Such hands may be described as “reformed documentary.” (One advantage for the paleographer in such hands is that with their close links to the documents they are somewhat less difficult to date than purely calligraphic hands).
NOTE: This documentary hand that Roberts speaks of sounds more like the reformed documentary hand. As defined today, the reformed documentary hand is a step above the documentary hand as far as the skill of copying a document is concerned. 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). Official scribes used it 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.
It should be noted that the codex of P52 was done on a good quality papyrus. It had wide margins, it had letters that were clear and generally upright, possessed short lines, decorative script hooks and finials (a decorative feature at the foot of the letter), as well as its bilinear writing (letters being kept with an imaginary upper and lower line, except the alpha, upsilon, iota, and the rho). All of this gives an overall appearance of a copyist who not being of the professional bookhand caliber, he is also not far removed. His letterforms are not as fine as P64 or P77, he is closer to the reformed documentary hand. The scribe that penned P52 knew that he was not working on some legal document but rather a literary work. P52, like many of the other early Greek New Testament papyri, were written in this reformed documentary hand. (P1, P30, P32, P35, P38, P45, P52, P69, P87, P90, P100, P102, P108, P109, P110) When Roberts authors his next book, he is now 74 years old, and it is now 1983, so he is long removed from 1935, and there is absolutely no indication he ever changed his position on the dating of P52 up until the time of his death in 1990.
In The Birth of the Codex, Roberts and Skeat wrote:
The Christian manuscripts of the second century, although not reaching a high standard of calligraphy, generally exhibit a competent style of writing which has been called “reformed documentary” and which is likely to be the work of experienced scribes, whether Christian or not.… And it is therefore a reasonable assumption that the scribes of the Christian texts received pay for their work.
Handwriting comparison is not like DNA comparison and fingerprint comparison. With DNA and fingerprints, we will get an exact, absolute match. Handwriting analysis (comparing) is general in its very nature. We are looking for a general pattern, not that every single letter and style or form must match explicitly in every detail with each other.
The idea that “paleography is not the most effective method” or ‘using a undated manuscript to date an undated manuscript is circularity of argument’ “for dating texts” seems to suggest that a better method is available to us for P52 or all other undated literary manuscripts. That is not the situation, as even Nongbri admits. As I mentioned before, he uses paleography in an effort to undermine P52.
On P. 6845, Nongbri agrees but disagrees. He writes, “P.Berol. 6845, to which the original editor assigned a date (on paléographie evidence) in the early second century. There are some definite similarities between letters in the two manuscripts, particularly upsilon and mu, but the pi and alpha of P52 are quite distinct from those of P.Berol. 6845. The epsilon of P.Berol. 6845, with its middle bar consistently approaching and frequently meeting the upper bar, is also different from that of P52. The rho of P.Berol. 6845 does not stretch below the other letters, as does the rho of P52. Overall, the hand is not dissimilar from P52, but, as we shall see, the similarities seen here persist in documents of the third century C.E.” (bold mine)
It seems, when someone uses the phrase “not dissimilar” they are trying to downplay the similarity by using the adverb “not” to give the opposite impression mentally of what is true, i.e., there is a definite similarity. Nongbri openly says that there are “some definite similarities.” He then gives upsilon and mu as those similarities. He then says, “the pi and alpha of P52 are quite distinct,” to which I would disagree about the pi, as you can see in the image above. Moreover, between P52 and P.Berol. 6845, there is definite similarity also between kappa, lambda, nu, upsilon, and omega, as can be seen from the above image.
Clearly, there is much similarity between P52 and P. Egerton 2. Since there has been a redating of P. Egerton 2 to about 200 C.E., a redating that should not be, we will suggest that you read CHAPTER 1 P. Egerton 2.
On P.Fayûm 110 we find Nongbri still agreeing and disagreeing. He writes, “While Roberts notes that the similarities are not as close, he does provide some parallels from dated documentary papyri. Roberts especially emphasizes the importance of P.Fayûm 110 because it ‘shows, as does our text, the simultaneous use of two forms of alpha.’ In figure 5,1 have enlarged the ends of lines 7-9, which display this characteristic. The alpha of βαθος in line 8 is looped; the alpha of ελαι- at the end of line 7 is not looped, but neither is it arched like the non-looping alpha of P52. The alpha of P.Fayûm 110 looks more like the alpha of μαρτυ[ρησω] in line 2 on the verso of P52. The delta is also similar to that of P52.”
It seems as though we will have to repeat the development of the manuscript font style and characteristics here as well. A style of writing began (came into being, starting point), emerged (apparent), fully developed (all characteristics in play), became prominent (common, well-known), and then faded (gradually disappear). Therefore, it was common for one style to begin and emerge while another was still in play or fading. In fact, the emergence and development of the new style are likely what caused the current style to begin to fade. The time period for the full process from a style beginning (coming into being) to fading (diminishing gradually) can be quite long, but it can also vary.
The manuscripts that are used to support the early dating of P52 to about 100–150 C.E. have multiple matching letters, not a single matching letter. The phrase that we need to keep in mind is, generally speaking, not absolute certainty. The match of letterforms, generally speaking, is what we look for. Do the forms of the letters look similar in style in P52 itself (alpha, delta, epsilon, eta, iota, kappa, lambda, nu, omicron, pi, sigma, tau, upsilon, and omega)? Largely, when in all the places I see sigma, tau, upsilon, etc., are they similar in form? If the answer is yes, which it is for P52; then, we move on to the documents that have been presented by Roberts and other paleographers and papyrologists since. Is there a general match, not some fingerprint-DNA match? And, once again, the answer is yes. The scribal tendencies of these matching letterforms in P52 and these other dated and undated documents also appear in the center of the fully developed (all characteristics in play) and became prominent (common, well-known) timeline. It seems Nongbri is attempting to find a couple of letterforms at later dates (maybe the fading, diminishing part of the timeline) that have similar features to letters in P52 so as to date P52 to a wider and later date range, i.e., 100-225 C.E.
Nongbri admits, “I have not radically revised Roberts’s work. I have not provided any third-century documentary papyri that are absolute “dead ringers” for the handwriting of P52, and even if I had done so, that would not force us to date P52 at some exact point in the third century.” What is Nongbri’s worry, then? He states it plainly, “The real problem is thus in the way scholars of the New Testament have used and abused papyrological evidence.” What does that mean? For Nongbri and other paleographers and papyrologists, it is troublesome when textual scholars and Christian apologists take the dating of 100-150 C.E. and say that P52 dates more specifically to 100 C.E. or 110 C.E. or even 100-125 C..E. For Nongbri and company that is using and abusing papyrological evidence. But I turn the table on Nongbri and company, in that I find a lot of the newer textual scholars, paleographers, and papyrologists who use and abuse the later dating by referring to 200 C.E. My second point would be, how can a New Testament scholar abuse the evidence of 100-150 C.E. when the date range is 100–150 C.E. if they select and date therein? The papyrologist is telling us any date in between those two ranges is possible. Yes, the New Testament scholar should share the whole range and then if he chooses to highlight an earlier focus, qualify it like, ‘so it could date as early as ______.’ Also, Nongbri and others see fifty years as too small of a time period for a writing style. They feel that a century or even two centuries is a more suitable range for a writing style.
Nongbri writes, “He [Roberts] next notes similarities with P.Lond. inv. 2078 (=SB 5.7987), a letter written under the reign of Domitian (81-96 C.E.).36 SB 5.7987, reproduced in figure 6, is, in my opinion, the least convincing of Roberts’s parallels. Its upsilon is distinctly different, the alpha has neither arches nor loops and the delta is not at all similar. Only the mu closely resembles that of P52 (and occasionally the rho, as in καισαρος in the middle of the penultimate line).”
Again, I would simply reply that unless we are matching up two very professional scribes, like the one who worked on Codex Vaticanus, we are not to expect some fingerprint-DNA match. Thus, generally speaking, the letters will be similar. Moreover, not every document will be as closely matched like the other. If you are comparing ten manuscripts, one of them has to be the closest or best-matched document, and one of them will have to be the least close matched of the ten, but this does not negate its support. Nongbri says that is “the least convincing of Roberts’s parallels.” Well, one of them has to be.
Roberts then refers to “P.Oslo 2.22, here figure 7, a petition to a strategus written in 127 C.E. He sees resemblances in the eta, mu, and iota. In figure 8,1 have enlarged the beginning of line 3, which reads – μης θεαδελφειας and shows all three of those letters. The overall appearance is not terribly close to that of P52, but the letters that Roberts identifies are similar. Some letters, however, are very different, such as the sigma, which curves sharply downward in P.Oslo. 2.22.”
Nongbri says, “the overall appearance is not terribly close to that of P52, but the letters that Roberts identifies are similar.” Again, we are not looking for an absolute perfect match. Are there several letters that do match? Yes. Nongbri goes on to point out differences once again “Some letters, however, are very different, such as the sigma, which curves sharply downward in P.Oslo. 2.22.” Yes, well, this is expected because the scribe of P52 is not a professional scribe; he is a practiced scribe, a reformed documentary hand, which is a literate writer with experience in making copies of literature. There are times when the forms of the letters in P52 does not even match the forms of the letters in P52.
On this Nongbri writes, “The next papyrus Roberts mentions is now known as B.G.U. 1.22 (fig. 9), a document dated to 114 C.E. Roberts does not point out any specific characteristics of this papyrus, and I am uncertain what similarities he sees here. The alpha is different, lacking both the arch and loop of P52’s two types of alpha. The vertical stroke of the tau of B.G.U. 1.22 often leans to the right. The upsilon is perhaps similar, but on the whole, this document is not an overly impressive parallel.”
Nongbri simply gives you an image of B.G.U. 1.22 alone, while I have given you letters in the above image B.G.U. 1.22 on top of P52. We can see some slight similarities with the alpha, eta, and Tau when we do it this way. But I believe that we have a more significant similarity with the epsilon, the kappa, Nu, and Pi. And an even more likeness with the Upsilon and Omega. Again, we are not comparing two professional scribes here, so the subtle difference is to be expected. It might not be overly impressive, but it isn’t unimpressive or mediocre either. We are not expecting some fingerprint-DNA match. Thus, generally speaking, the letters are similar, some more so than others. Again, not every document will be as closely matched as the other.
Nongbri writes of P.Mich. 5336, “Several individual letters resemble those of P52, and the overall impression is similar. The vertical spacing of the lines is more compressed, but the spacing between letters is comparable, as is the rough bilinearity.” I would note that having a dated manuscript of 152 C.E. only helps Roberts’ date range of 100–150 C.E.
The problem with Nongbri’s newfound manuscripts used for comparison is that they are all documentary texts being compared with the literary text of P52. Nongbri himself appears to admit their shortcomings when he writes, “Turner (Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World, 19-20) notes that the ideal situation would be to compare literary hands to other dated literary hands. Unfortunately, examples of literary papyri with firm dates are in short supply, especially relative to the number of dated documentary papyri (see further the discussion in Roberts, Greek Literary Hands, xii-xv).” (Bold mine) All early Greek New Testament manuscripts, specifically the early papyri since that is our subject matter here, are literary documents, which means that they do not contain dates. Documentary texts, that is, manuscripts with documentary information, provide dates, often explicitly so. Or, at a minimum, they have something written within that document that can lead to a dating period. These documentary texts are therefore not as valuable as the literary documents when the comparison is with another literary document, which Nongbri seems to admit on the one hand and then complain about comparing literary with literary. I would also remind the reader that be it comparing literary text with documentary texts or literary with literary texts, this is paleographically dating the manuscripts. If we recall, Nongbri wrote, “Paleography is not the most effective method for dating texts, particularly those written in a literary hand.49 Roberts himself noted this point in his edition of P52.” Yet, Nongbri, in this very paper, is using paleography to redate or length the date period of the P52.
“A more cursive document that bears some resemblance to P52 is P.Oxy. 51.3614. P.Oxy. 51.3614 shows more ligatures than P52, but the vertical and horizontal spacing is similar. Several individual letters also show affinities.”
Nongbri writes, “The hand of P.Oxy. 52.3694 is obviously less well formed and less regular than that of P52, but it is to be expected that a document would be written more quickly and less deliberately than a literary text.”
What Nongbri said of P.Oxy. 52.3694, he said, also applies to P.Oxy. 41.2968, that is, both are “obviously less well-formed and less regular than that of P52, but it is to be expected that a document would be written more quickly and less deliberately than a literary text.” Nongbri says that the upsilon is “very similar to those of P52, as is the mu.” Agreed on the upsilon. He says that the rho is “also very close.” I would disagree here.
Image 38 Upsilon-Mu-Rho from P.Oxy. 41.2968 and P52
While the upsilon here is similar, there is no ligature with P.Oxy. 41.2968 that we see with P52. Moreover, the upsilon P.Oxy. 41.2968. is also thicker. Yes, there are some similarities between the mu and rho, but there are also dissimilarities. While these letters have some similarities, overall, all the letterforms in P.Oxy. 41.2968 is quite different from P52. Moreover, the spacing between letters is different. The spacing between lines is different. Of P52, Nongbri writes, “The space between each line is about equal to the height of a line. There is an impression of a rough bilinearity.” (bold mine) There is no effort on the part of the scribe of P.Oxy. 41.2968 to keep his text within an imagined upper and lower line, that is, a bilinear form.
What we are discovering with Nongbri’s comparable manuscripts is those that have the closest comparable, that is, those that are most similar actually support a date of 94 to 150, which aligns with Roberts’ range, and those manuscripts further removed to a later date range are far less similar to P52. Nongbri admits as much, “I have not radically revised Roberts’s work. I have not provided any third-century documentary papyri that are absolute ‘dead ringers’ for the handwriting of P52.”
The editors of P. Oxyrhynchus 2533 said that the handwriting was similar to first-century documents but that it has the appearance of a second-century document. Clearly the handwriting of this small portion of P. Oxyrhynchus 2533 is very much like P52.
The likeness between P52 and P. Murabba‘at 113 is obvious, especially with the epsilon, iota, alpha, and the delta.
The paleographers and papyrologists of the last 20-30 years have a favorite saying, “follow the evidence,” “you have to follow the evidence.” Your response should always be “yes, follow the evidence, with one caveat, follow the weightiest evidence.” You see dear reader they, the paleographers and papyrologists, are the arbiters of the evidence, so in some cases, it is simply manufactured weak evidence, or they are trying to overcome a mountain of old evidence with a new bucket of dirt.
Let us remember who is in the date range of 100-150 for P52: C. H. Roberts, Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, W. Schubart, Sir Harold I. Bell, Adolf Deissmann, E. G. Turner (cautiously), Ulrich Wilken, W. H. P. Hatch, Philip W. Comfort, and Bruce M. Metzger. Many manuscripts have been offered over the decades to support this long-held date range, and the greatest opponent, Brent Nongbri, openly admits, “I have not radically revised Roberts’s work. I have not provided any third-century documentary papyri that are absolute ‘dead ringers’ for the handwriting of P52.”
While I am not a reader of minds and hearts, we will leave that up to God Himself. Using my 32 years of work and some basic deduction, I would say Nongbri’s article’s title, and his beginning statement gives us his motivation for challenging such a long-standing date. The article title is “The Use and Abuse of P52.” He then writes, “I can highlight the uncertainty involved in paleographic dating and encourage caution when using P52 to assess the date (and thus the social setting) of the Fourth Gospel.” (pp. 26-27). He then concludes the article with, “The real problem is thus in the way scholars of the New Testament have used and abused papyrological evidence.” (Nongbri, p. 46)
His entire motivation is derived from his belief that New Testament scholars have used and abused the dating range of 100–150 for P52. This is because for a long time before the discovery of P52, the Gospel of John was argued by liberal and moderate Bible scholars to have been written in about 170 C.E. This argument came to a screeching halt the moment P52 was dated between 100–150 C.E. The Gospel of John was now dated to the first half of the second century C.E., which is only a few decades after the original was written in about 98 C.E. In addition, it had made its way down in Fayum or Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. This meant that liberal to moderate Bible scholarship had no leg to stand on in their effort to dislodge John as the author of the Gospel. Many New Testament scholars would say that P52 was copied about 110 or about 125 C.E., a mere quarter of a century or so after John’s death. Nongbri thinks two things: (1) it is abuse for the NT scholars to pick an arbitrary early part of the date range when discussing it and that (2) fifty years is too small of a date range.
So, he has set out to bring forward a handful of manuscripts to try and unseat that 100-150 C.E. date range of P52. He also brings forward an ad hominem attack on Roberts’ age and experience. Yet, he knows that Roberts’ upheld his initial dating decade after decade of his illustrious career until he died in 1990. His fear of what NT Bible scholars might do in using and abusing the 50-year date range is nothing in comparison to the textual scholars, paleographers, and papyrologists now falling in line and referring to the longer date range, and largely referring to the end of it, saying P52 should be dated to 200 C.E. earliest or later. You will notice that Nongbri and company are not offended at that use and abuse. Those new manuscripts actually point more to Roberts’ dating of P52 than anything else. Nongbri is living in a world of probabilities based on scant evidence, which he openly admits as opposed to reality. His skeptic nature, pessimism, uncertainty, and ambiguousness result from postmodernism.
Their idea is that we can never be certain of anything regarding the Scriptures. Everyone knows that paleographic dating is conditional and difficult. No one has argued that paleographical dating is the “most effective method.” Thus, it is a red herring fallacy to suggest that someone has argued that paleographical dating is the “most effective method” and then undermine what no one has actually claimed. It is a far cry from “not the most effective” to being ineffectual. Uncertainty does not displace levels of probability. When Nongbri suggests that “paleography is not the most effective method for dating texts,” he seems to suggest that there is a better method readily available to us with P52, a literary undated document. Not only does Nongbri know this is not the case, but he also admits it himself, and then he turns to use paleography to undermine the 100–150 C.E. dating of P52. He well knows almost all New Testament manuscripts, which are literary undated documents, are dated strictly on paleographical bases.
Recently Brent Nongbri has argued that the dating of P75 to 175-225 C.E. is not reasonable. Instead, he argues that the similarity of the text of P75 to that of Codex Vaticanus is better explained in that, according to him, they were both produced in the fourth century C.E. P75 contains Luke 3:18–24:53 as well as John 1–15. Here we are with the Gospel of John again. Nongbri has also redated P66, a near-complete codex of the Gospel of John, from 150 C.E. to “early or middle fourth century” (300-350 C.E.). I am starting to see a pattern here when it comes to the Gospel of John. Nongbri’s skepticism is unwarranted.
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Attribution: This article incorporates some text from the public domain: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 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.
 Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 106.
 F. G. Kenyon, The Paleography of Greek Papyri, 73.
 Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 107.
 Roger S. Bagnall, The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 102.
 Roger S. Bagnall, The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 123.
 Roger S. Bagnall, The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 123, 127.
 Colin H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library, (Manchester, England, Manchester University Press, 1935), 13.
 Almost regularly, a plain iota is replaced by the epsilon-iota diphthong (commonly if imprecisely known as itacism), e.g. ΔΑΥΕΙΔ instead οf ΔΑΥΙΔ, ΠΕΙΛΑΤΟΣ instead of ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ, ΦΑΡΕΙΣΑΙΟΙ instead of ΦΑΡΙΣΑΙΟΙ, etc. – Jongkind, Dirk (2007). Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus, Gorgias Press LLC, p. 74 ff, 93–94.
 Colin H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library, (Manchester, England, Manchester University Press, 1935), 17.
 Colin H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt, London: OUP for the British Academy, 1979 (based on the 1977 series of Schweich Lectures), 12-14.
 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.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 28.
 Colin H. Roberts; T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex, (London, Oxford University Press, 1983), 46.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 33.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 35-36.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 35-36.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 36.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 38.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 38.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 31-32, ftn. 25.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 43.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 44.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 44.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 28.
 Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 46.
 Nongbri, “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament.”
 Brent Nongbri. “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P.Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014), 1–35.