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On Dating Early Christian Manuscripts

December 27, 2011

The latest issue of The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists (vol. 48, 2011) arrived a few days ago, containing several articles relevant to the study of early Christianity.  Over on the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (, I’ve posted on the large article that includes a descriptive checklist of 186 “amulets and formularies” that have “Christian elements” from ancient Egypt.  Here, I want to draw attention to another article, this one on the scholarly efforts to date early Christian manuscripts.

Brent Nongbri’s article, “Grenfell and Hunt on the Dates of Early Christian Codices” (pp. 149-62), reviews scholarly discussion of the datings of early manuscripts assigned by the two great figures associated with the phenomenal papyri discoveries in Oxyrhynchus in the closing years of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries.  Nongbri’s study alleges (with some apparent justification) that C.H. Roberts wrongly accused Grenfell and Hunt of dating Christian codices late because they didn’t allow for the codex to have been appropriated by Christians as early as it now seems happened.  But Nongbri also illustrates how complex the process is in dating “undated” manuscripts (i.e., solely on the basis of circumstantial factors and the handwriting).  Any of us interested in the careful use of early Christian manuscripts will read Nongbri’s article with great interest.

My only criticism has to do with one small section of the article, in which Nongbri complains that “Among some biblical scholars, Roberts’ claims have been taken to great lengths,” then citing works by Philip W. Comfort and David P. Barrett, and by Carsten Thiede.  But Thiede wasn’t a “biblical scholar” (he was a zealous amateur, impressively successful commercially), and Comfort and Barrett are seen among any biblical scholars acquainted at all with the data as somewhat extreme in their early dating of manuscripts.  I would have felt less aggrieved had Nongbri avoided the impression that these writers are representative in any way of “biblical scholars” in their views.  (I have the same complaint against the way the matter is handled by Roger Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt [Princeton University Press, 2009], who goes even farther, treating Thiede’s eccentric views as if they were representative of “biblical scholars”.

But, this complaint aside, Nongbri’s article is well worth the reading, and his cautionary advice about dating early manuscripts is well taken.

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