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The Dating of NT Manuscripts: An Important Recent Analysis

March 8, 2013

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). 

Highly recommended!

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  1. will donahoo permalink

    is it known what material the KJV translators used for the new testament. it seems they had little confidence in the Greek

    • Will: I direct you to my article on the “The KJV and biblical scholarship”, the pre-publication version of the essay available on this blog site on the tab “Selected published essays”. Scroll down to “KJV and Biblical Scholarship”. They did respect the Greek of the NT very much, but they had access only to a Greek edition based on late manuscripts. also, knowledge of Koine Greek has progressed considerably since 1611.

      • will donahoo permalink

        what I said about they had little confidence in the Greek. would be better stated they had little confidence in their ability to translate the old Greek and that the Latin was much clearer to them.

      • Will: I’m not aware that they felt less-than-competent to read the Greek, but they did consult earlier translations such as the Vulgate, and more recent ones, drawing particularly on Tyndale’s NT (which it has been calculated accounts for a large percentage of the phrasing in the KJV). Good translation projects do this still, taking account of how other translators have rendered texts.

  2. G. Y. Tambiyi, Nigeria permalink

    Thanks Prof. for the posts and updates over the years. I find them inspiring and fascinating as I am delving into the TC. Continue the good work sir.

  3. Sir , what is your position on P46 and P64 , are they from 1st century ? .

    Which is better in dating the manuscripts …. Radiocarbon dating , Palaegraphic / cdiocological evidence , art-historical evidence . All these are considered for dating but which caries the most weight .

    • Ali: One uses dating methods appropriate to the items to be dated. Carbon dating is accurate only to a century or two for items of the approximate date of early Christian papyri, no more exacting than palaeographical dating. The early MSS don’t have “art” so that won’t work.

  4. Juan Hernández Jr. permalink

    Thanks for the post Larry. Mike Holmes has complained more than once in his office about this trend towards earlier dates.

  5. Thank you for the notice, Prof. Hurtado. Speaking of dating and palaeography, there is, as of today, a new online palaeographical resource for Greek documentary papyri produced by the wonderful folks at the University of Heidelberg. I have written a brief description here:

    As C.H. Roberts and many others have observed, Christian papyri share many features with documents, and so this database of images will also be very useful for scholars working with NT and early Christian manuscripts.

  6. Quite a useful article, thanks Larry. Not sure that I’m familiar with any NT scholars citing the dates proposed by Comfort & Barrett and/or Jaroš with approval. The limitations, as reviewers have picked up, are pretty obvious.

  7. Jonathan Burke permalink

    Larry, your article is very useful, thanks. Neil Godfrey’s article on the same subject is highly misleading, giving the opposite impression.

    • Jonathan: I actually don’t read blog-sites with any frequency, and so I don’t know what Godfrey wrote. But if you check out the article in question I trust you’ll find my summary accurate.

    • I think Neil Godfrey found your summary accurate as well, as he quotes you and thanks you for your excellent article.

      • What I wrote can be assessed at “New” date for . . . P52. I subsequently attempted a more informative post with More on dating NT manuscripts. . . .. I leave it to others to assess the accuracy of my account vis a vis the Orsini and Clarysse article. (Jonathan Burke seems to follow my posts with a predisposition to find fault with anything I write on principle.)

      • Neil: Your two postings are generally accurate, although you too seem to have the impression that “theologians” and biblical scholars as groups tend to be guilty of pushing early datings, and it’s up to others to correct things. In fact, as I indicated in my posting, that’s not the case. The critiques of Comfort, Thiede, et al., came first from other NT scholars.
        Also, on P52, in an article published in 2003 I pointed to the more recent evidence suggesting a late 2nd century date, a point made more thoroughly subsequently in Nongbri’s article. Most of us are just trying to follow the vidence, Neil. No conspiratorial agenda.

  8. Great post! Can’t wait to read the article

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