Dating the Oldest New Testament Christian Manuscripts

Principles, Practices, and Pitfalls

Arabic Colophon

SOME BIBLICAL MANUSCRIPTS include short notes to the reader from the scribe who copied the manuscript. These so-called colophons may include a date, but dates only become common in Greek biblical manuscripts in the ninth century. This page with a colophon comes from an illuminated Arabic manuscript of the four Gospels (Walters MS. W.592, fol. 261b); it states the manuscript was copied by Ilyās Bāsim Khūrī Bazzī Rāhib in the year “7192 after Adam” (A.D. 1684).Photo: Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

The New Testament that we read today in many different translations is not based on one single manuscript of the original Greek text. Why? There simply is no such thing as a complete text of the New Testament that we could date to the apostolic times, or even two or three centuries after the last of the apostles. Extant manuscripts containing the entire Christian Bible are the work of medieval monks. The modern scholarly editions of the original Greek text draw on readings from many different ancient manuscripts. As a result, the New Testament presented in any of our Bibles does not correspond to a single, authoritative ancient manuscript.
The oldest surviving examples of the New Testament come to us, instead, as fragments and scraps of papyrus excavated (mostly) in Egypt. How old are the oldest of these biblical fragments, and why does it matter whether they were written in the first or the fourth century? “Sometimes it’s a big deal,” states Brent Nongbri of the Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society in Oslo. Expert on early Christian manuscripts, Professor Nongbri offers insights into the critical issues of dating ancient biblical manuscripts in his article “How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts?” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Documentary Text

WHEN A LEAF OR A ROLL with dated documentary text is reused to copy an otherwise undated literary text, the document’s date serves as the earliest possible date of the literary composition. This page of P.Oxy. 12.1444 concerns payments of grain from A.D. 248–249. The back side was later used to record some orations. How much later these orations are, we cannot know for sure. Photo: Courtesy of the Ghent University Library; CC-BY-SA 4.0

Although the New Testament as we know it is essentially a “collage” of various surviving manuscripts, it relies heavily on one particular, parchment manuscript—the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, or the Vatican Codex. In the mid-20th century, explains Nongbri, “most New Testament textual critics believed that the text of the New Testament preserved in the Codex Vaticanus was the result of an editorial revision that took place in the fourth century. Then in 1961, a papyrus codex containing the Gospels of Luke and John in Greek (P.Bodmer XIV–XV or P75 to specialists) was published. It is often called the most important New Testament papyrus so far discovered because it was dated, on the basis of its handwriting, to about A.D. 175–225, and its text agrees very closely with that of Codex Vaticanus.”

Palaeography Chart

AS HANDWRITING CHANGES from one generation to the next, palaeography, or the study of ancient forms of writing, can help in assigning dates to otherwise undated manuscripts. Just how precise a means of dating palaeography proves to be is a source of some discord. From E. M. Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography, New York: Burt Franklin, [1965], p. 147

This discovery led many to argue that the text of the Vatican Codex must, too, have originated as early as the late second century and was then transmitted carefully (without corruption) until it was written down in the Vatican Codex, in the fourth century. This sounds logical, but there is one substantial flaw in such an argument—it is based on nothing but the supposed date of the Bodmer papyrus that has been established (or, shall we say, “guessed”) by comparing the handwriting with other extant manuscripts. Palaeography, which is what the comparative study of handwriting is called, is just one of the possible ways to date ancient manuscripts, including the earliest examples of the Christian Bible.
To be sure, unlike the documents of everyday writing (contracts, wills, edicts, receipts, etc.), the earliest copies of Christian literature (including the Bible) are almost never dated explicitly, and scholars must rely on technical analyses and circumstantial evidence to establish probable dates. The resulting “informed guesses” can differ by centuries.

Fragmentary Parchment

THIS FRAGMENTED PARCHMENT was found in an undisturbed context at Dura-Europos, in present-day Syria. It contains Greek gospel text which does not correspond to any one canonical gospel. Rather, it mixes elements of all four. Because we know that Dura-Europos was sacked in A.D. 256, the manuscript must date to that year or earlier. Photo: Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

To explore the uses, abuses, and caveats of the dating techniques, read “How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts?” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Codex Tchacos

MODERN TESTING TECHNOLOGIES include radiocarbon analysis. When Codex Tchacos (pictured here is p. 33, which contains the beginning of the Gospel of Judas) was first publicized, in 2016, it was claimed to date to around A.D. 280, plus or minus 60 years, based on radiocarbon analysis. What we didn’t know back then was that the analysis included samples from the cover, whose material (used as stuffing) logically predates the writings. The codex more likely comes from the fourth century. Photo: Wolfgang Rieger, public domain


Subscribers: Read the full article “How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts?” by Brent Nongbri, in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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