Early New Testament Papyri Now Given Later Dates


Two very early and important manuscripts of the New Testament, p66 and p75 have effectively with growing consensus by authoritative scholars, been given later date ranges extending into the 4th century CE. This is a problem.

Brief Introduction

Early New Testament documents were written on papyrus (pl. papyri), which in and of itself is a very fragile material. Summarily, it means they are difficult to preserve and quick to be destroyed (by accident). Due to so few documents existing, we cannot know much to be certain about the early New Testaments in circulation (we cannot speak of a New Testament until Marcion in the 2nd century).

Two important manuscripts, p66 and p75 have traditionally been given very early dates, somewhere around the 2nd century CE. To put this into perspective, we generally have had only roughly 7 or so manuscripts from this time period that are distinctively New Testament texts, so that 2 of them (which is 28.5%) have been given later dates by almost up to two hundreds years more is nothing to scoff at. These later datings will reshape how we view the early New Testament, its invention, development, transmission and general history.

The Problem

The early New Testament documents are dated palaeographically, that is by the way in which they were written (their textual-graphical features). This means that there is almost no early New Testament document that can be said to have been written in a specific year. I have seen some uninformed Christian apologists claiming that specific New Testament papyri date to the year 125 CE, such as p52, or that p66 and p75 are from the year 200 CE. This is incorrect from an elementary standpoint. Palaeographic datings refer to a date range not a date year (even if colophonic). This means whenever someone speaks about early New Testament papyri and they only provide a date year instead of a range, they are being misleading (if one re-reads my first paragraph I allude to a date range and not date year by saying “around the 2nd century CE”). Generally a date range can begin with a few decades and extend into a few centuries (as is common with most New Testament papyri).

Due to these previously very early datings of around the 2nd century CE, many Christian apologists were quick to point out that much of what survives from the most reliable manuscripts is in the form of the 4th century Uncials (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), with p75 said to be an ancestor text to Codex Vaticanus. This allowed them to claim that there was extant (still surviving) proof that the New Testament, contrary to competing claims, was transmitted faithfully. In this, they boasted that if there were minimal changes between two texts that were related to each other, this meant that the New Testament had been reliably copied over the centuries and thus it could be argued that if there are 200 years between p75 and Codex Vaticanus, then the 200 years between Christ Jesus and p75 should allow Christians to argue that the New Testament has effectively been preserved. Foregoing an overly long analysis as to why this reasoning is both poor and apologetic, it should be noted that p75 and Codex Vaticanus are now no longer seen as having a Father-Son relationship (as in Vaticanus was copied from p75 or a manuscript similar to it in terms of age and reliability) but that they are now sibling texts (that they both descend from a common ancestor text).

This changes things.

Summary Conclusions

This means that they cannot be used to argue for 400 years of reliable transmission, this means that they cannot be used to demonstrate that they were copied from each other. It effectively allows us to dismiss much of what has been argued in the past due to the very existence of these papyri. What one will notice however is the overwhelming silence on behalf of Christian apologists about the severity of the issue that stands before them, what they once boasted with glee (much like with the sham that was First Century Mark) is now being quietly swept under the rugs.

These redatings are not new, Dr. Brent Nongbri has for several years now already published research claiming as much and the Evangelical world has been silent. Their common response was that this was one man with one dating (which itself is a ridiculous argument) but now that Dr. Orsini (who is a top scholar of the field) is saying the same (though their arguments for why differ), we are looking at an effective consensus building and being accepted by some of the best minds in the field. There does not seem to be anything but silence and subsequent acceptance of the once “invincible” early New Testament documents now being resigned to later date ranges, thus placing even more questions on the reliability of the New Testament’s documents itself.

It should also be noted that the Coherence Based Genealogical Method that is being used today to develop the next edition of the New Testament heavily relies on these early papyri being dated accurately, so that a genealogical/ family tree can be drawn up to make sense of how the texts were transmitted. I will not get into how the CBGM works here, but that these dates are changing with consensus should worry some of our Evangelical friends.

and God knows best.

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