The Dating of NT Manuscripts: An Important Recent Analysis
One of my current PhD students brought to my attention a recent article that all concerned with the study of NT manuscripts should read:
Pasquale Orsini & Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88 (2012): 443-74.
The authors are both professional/trained palaeographers, and Clarysse is the founder of the extremely valuable Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB), which provides data on all published/edited manuscripts from the ancient world, and can be accessed online here.
The object of the recent article is a critique of the tendencies of a few scholars in NT studies to push for early datings of NT manuscripts, sometimes improbably early datings. Carsten Thiede was the most notorious. But the main figures given critique in the article are Philip Comfort (most recently, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism, 2005) and K. Jaroš (Das Neue Testament nach den ältesten griechischen Handschriften, 2006). These scholars/works Orsini & Clarysse refer to as the key examples of “theological palaeography”. The apparent suggestion is that these works reflect some misguided apologetic concern: the earlier manuscripts can be dated, the more useful for engaging questions of the accuracy of textual transmission. It is certainly logical that the earlier the manuscripts the more useful for this question. But the valid point made by Orsini & Clarysse is that it is all the more vital that the dating of manuscripts be done on a sound basis.
So a major portion of the article is helpfully given over to laying out the method and categories that should be used in dating undated manuscripts (and, as the authors note, literary manuscripts are as a rule undated, and so require some sound method for estimating the matter). Following through their discussion should certainly make readers aware of how much is involved, and will show that Greek palaeography is a discipline in its own right. (I’ve picked up some sense of things over the years, enough to follow the analysis of palaeographers, and even to make some tentative judgement myself, but I freely admit that I’m not an authoritative palaeographer. My own emphasis has been that scholars interested in Christian Origins need to take account of the data and work of papyrologists and palaeographers, because they are relevant for wider historical questions beyond those usually considered by these scholars.)
The tendency of some scholars to push for early dating of NT manuscripts was criticized earlier in a small book by Roger Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2009), although Bagnall’s own approach to dating manuscripts is a rather dubious proposal. (See, e.g., my review of the book here.) Moreover, Bagnall gives the misleading impression that “biblical scholars” as a body tend to push for inappropriately early dates of NT manuscripts, whereas the only offender he cites is Thiede (who wasn’t really a NT scholar, but a journalist and auto-didact).
Orsini and Clarysse are a bit more careful in directing their complaints at the specific figures mentioned. But one could take the misleading impression from their article that it’s a case of palaeographers (as a body) having to correct NT scholars (as a body). In fact (as a perusal of their own footnotes confirms), there have been effective critiques of the early dating of manuscripts by Thiede, Comfort et al, lodged by NT scholars, and the improbably early datings are not registered in such more reliable indexes as the list of manuscripts in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece.
Still, it is very valuable to have Orsini & Clarysse weigh in on the matter. Moreover, in addition to setting out the proper approach to dating literary manuscripts, they also provide a table giving their dating of all NT manuscripts that they place before ca. 500 CE, also giving a comparison of the datings proffered by Comfort & Barrett, Jaroš, and in the Nestle-Aland list. As Orsini & Clarysse note, their own judgement most often supports the datings given in the Nestle-Aland list, with a few interesting exceptions. In a few cases, they propose a later dating (e.g., P15+P16, P 25, P35, P48, P77, P80, P102, 0188, 0220), but in a few other cases theirs is a slightly or significantly earlier dating (e.g., P64+P67+P4, P30, 0171, 0308).