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Newly-Identified Early New Testament Fragments?

February 7, 2012

Over the last couple of days have appeared numerous postings on reports that fragments of several early NT manuscripts have been identified (e.g., http://sheffieldbiblicalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/first-century-fragment-of-mark/).  A statement by  Dan Wallace in a recent debate with Bart Ehrman seems to be the source of these reports.  In the debate, Wallace says that he referred to a fragment identified as part of a first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark (http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/02/wallace-vs-erhman-round-three/). 

The fragment in question seems to be part of a collection of papyri that are part of the Green Collection (http://explorepassages.com/collection).  The key figure listed as the guiding expert for the Greek Collection is Scott Carroll.  One of the recent postings lists putative early fragments of several NT writings (including copies of some Pauline letters allegedly dated to the second century CE).  According to Wallace, a formal scholarly publication of these items is in the works, scheduled to appear next year sometime.

It is entirely understandable, and yet also in some ways unfortunate, that polemicists for and against the Bible (such as the protagonists in the Wallace/Ehrman debate) have made the identification and secure dating of NT manuscripts such a controversial matter.  It would be a wonderful further boon to textual scholarship to have additional early manuscripts of NT writings, even legible fragments.  Among other matters, depending on the amount of text actually preserved, all portions of early manuscripts are vital for tracing the textual history of the writings they attest.  With regard to NT writings, we are already in an enviable and unparalleled situation, with substantial early papyri copies of a number of them (e.g., the Chester Beatty papyri, and the Bodmer papyri).  But here are some notes to bear in mind as we await further news of the putative new finds.

  • The identification and palaeographical dating of manuscripts requires huge expertise specific to the period and texts in question.  Let’s wait and see whose judgement lies behind the claims.
  • Palaeographical dating can ever only be approximate, perhaps as narrow as 50 yrs plus or minus.  Expert palaeographers often disagree over a given item by as much as a century or more.  It’s never wise to rest much upon one judgement, and confidence will be enhanced only when various experts have been given full access to the items.
  • It is particularly difficult to make a palaeographical dating of a fragment, the smaller it is the more difficult.  For such dating requires as many characters of the alphabet as possible and as many instances of them in the copy as possible to form a good judgement about the “hand”.
  • Although it rachets up potential sales of a publication to make large claims and posit sensational inferences about items, it doesn’t help the sober scholarly work involved.  It also doesn’t actually accrue any credit or greater credibility for the items or those involved in handling them.

With many others, I await further news, and even more so I await more forthcoming scholarly work on these mooted items.  Additional early New Testament fragments?  As someone said when asked what he thought of the French Revolution:  “Too soon to tell.”

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8 Comments
  1. John Moles permalink

    Thanks.

    Hengel does/did use the first argument you cite but others as well (e.g. the very rarity and distinctiveness of the traditional titles). As for the Ignatius (and others) argument, Hengel retorts that Christian writers could still do this in the period when the titles were undoubtedly known. The arguments on both sides seem to me finely balanced, unless of course one thinks one can find internal ‘self-inscriptions’ within the Gospels (as, for example, Bauckham thinks in the Fourth Gospel, with complicated numerological arguments which I can’t possibly assess). I just think the general assumption of anonymity is a little glib, especially considering the huge proportion of internally anonymous texts in the ancient world, even in relevant related genres like historiography and biography, only a tiny proportion of which were actually anonymous, naming normally being conveyed by existing reader knowledge or by the titulus (whether on papyrus or codex).

    • I agree that we need to look at the features of the Gospels in connection with literary practices of their era, and your familiarity with the latter is welcome.

  2. John Moles permalink

    A related question (at least I think it’s related), what do you think of the Hengel (Bauckham- endorsed) view that ‘according to Mark’ (or whoever) was always on the titulus, or, if not on the titulus, was always understood, so that the Gospels were never actually (as opposed to formally) anonymous?

    • It’s been a few years since I read Hengel’s treatment of the matter, but my recollection is that he proposed that titles were needed once more than one was circulating, i.e., to identify/distinguish them. Now, of course, per most scholarly judgements, that happened rather soon (Matt & Luke widely thought to have been written within ca. 10-15 yrs max of Mark). I think it plausible that (1) labels were needed, and that (2) at some early point the Gospels would have been associated with reputable figures. It’s interesting, however, that very early figures such as Ignatius (of Antioch) don’t cite the Gospels by title/name.

  3. S Walch permalink

    That’s very interesting, especially as Mark was supposedly writing down the memories of Peter. I would’ve expected that the Roman Church, at the very least, would’ve made more copies of Mark to be distributed among the early church.

    I also find it interesting that the oldest MS with Mark in it (well, for the moment at least) isn’t a ‘proto-Alexandrian’ (or whatever categorical name they’re now assigning to them) text-type in Mark, but that of a much freer (old ‘caesarean’) text-type.

    So I guess it really is a miracle that anything from Mark has survived, making the discovery of a (supposed) 1st Century CE copy of Mark quite possibly the most significant manuscript discovery since the DSS.

    Another burning question I’d like to have an answer to quickly: do these MS use the Nomina Sacra? Because one really has to wonder how far the tradition of NS actually stretched from, and just how quickly it spread.

    • One quick note: If I may be forgiven for saying so myself, my 1981 volume, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark, showed that neither Codex W nor P45 is “old Caesarean”.

  4. S Walch permalink

    Highly anticipating more information on these manuscripts. ‘The more the merrier’ is my motto when it comes to early Greek NT Papyri :)

    I just wish there’d be something published about them sooner than “sometime next year”, especially regarding the fragment from Mark. I only know of one pre-fourth century manuscript to contain anything from Mark (Papyrus 45), so [if we] we actually have something from the 1st Century CE (wouldn’t that also make this recently discovered fragment the oldest known GNT manuscript?) is a huge deal.

    Is there any particular reason one could think of as to why we have very few early MS witnesses to Mark, Prof. Hurtado? Was it possibly not distributed/read as much as the other Gospels were, or could it just be that the manuscripts just haven’t survived the passage of time quite as well as the others seem to have done?

    • To judge from the earliest fragements (which take us back perhaps to the late 2nd century CE), the Gospels initially circulated as individual writings in separate MSS. Matt and John are the most frequently attested, both in extant MSS and in citations in church writers of the 2nd/3rd centuries. So, most of us think that Mark wasn’t as frequently copied and read (indeed, it wasn’t included as a regular Gospel in the modern lectionary cycle used by RCs, Anglicans and Lutherans) till ca. 1969. So that makes it all the more interesting that Mark survived among the “charmed circle” of Gospels that were affirmed as canonical, popping up in P45 (dated ca. 250 CE) along with the other traditional three gospels (and Acts).

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