Principles, Practices, and Pitfalls
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.
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.”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 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.
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