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Chester Beatty Papyri: New Digital Photographs

September 18, 2013

I’m delighted at last to be able to pass on notice of a wonderful project completed across several weeks of summer 2013, which I’m pleased to have had a small part in:  High-quality digital photographs of the marvellous body of ancient papyri housed in the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin).  Earlier this year, I approached the CBL about this, and the Director, Dr. Fionnuala Croke, readily agreed to take the project forward.  On my recommendation, the CBL agreed to engage Dr. Daniel Wallace and his expert team to do the work, and just today he has sent me the press-release announcing the completion of the project.  This involved weeks of work in the CBL by Wallace and his team and then weeks more editing and preparing the photographs for publication (online).  You can read Wallace’s press-release CBL_press release.

As noted in the press-release, the biblical papyri (of special interest to me and all biblical scholars) are among the earliest extant, and include spectacularly early portions of both OT and NT writings.  Most years, I take a group of our Edinburgh PhD students over for a day-trip to examine CBL biblical papyri first-hand, always an exciting experience for the students.  I recall one a few years ago exclaiming, “Wow! I’m holding a page of P45!” (P45, dated ca. 250 CE is the earliest extant four-gospel manuscript, and includes Acts as well.)

I add my own deep thanks to Dr. Croke (and her CBL staff) for so readily agreeing to my suggestion, and to Dr. Wallace and his crew for their swift readiness to take on this important project and bringing it off so quickly and with such professional expertise.  All interested in biblical studies (and papyrology) will eagerly await the publication of these images on the web site of his Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts here.

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  1. Larry
    I watched a programme Science Brittania in which professor Brian Cox was waving the flag for British science. He interviewed Dr Philip Campbell the editor in chief of the journal Nature on the subject of peer review. Campbell said that the peer review process “was full of little holes”, “bad papers can slip through”, it is “not perfect”, and there are “degrees of bias” on the part of the reviewers.

    • OK, Geoff. Key question: Did Cox or his colleagues call for the abolition of peer-review and replacement with “soapbox publication”? Or, as I suspect, did they instead simply hope for refinements to help avoid the “little holes”? As Winston Churchill said of democracy, “The worst political system, except for all the alternatives,” so it can be said of peer-review. It ain’t perfect . . . newsflash, Geoff, nothing is. But if you mean to justify lobbing private views, untested by competent experts, onto the general public, well, in my view that’s just quackery.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink


        Where did you get the idea I was endulging in “quackery”, “lobbing private views” onto the general public with “soapbox publication”?

        The concept of peer review as applied to science simply cannot be applied to the dating of manuscripts some two thousand years old by merely human observation, unless there is concrete internal evidence, such as a named person or event. And as Cox wrote: the Royal Society’s motto is: Take nobody’s word for it.

        Campbell admitted something quite significant: “Actually, we retract very few of our papers”. It seems as though the same disease has travelled into your area with papers being accepted willy nilly from anyone with the right qualifications who quote other scholars to build a pack of cards. I remember very well, a lecturer in Cox’s actual department at Manchester, who didn’t receive his Ph.D because his thesis was later proved false. Today its all about money and prestige.

        So rather than having a load of different opinions about the age of a manuscript, I would prefer a repeatable scientific method, such as a radio carbon dating.

      • Geoff, Yet again you simply demonstrate your lack of understanding of things, combined with over-confident assertions of your ill-informed views. A “quack” was someone who didn’t have proper medical qualifications who sold purported medicine that hadn’t been tested and approved properly. I consider those who don’t have adequate training in a field to understand it and who nevertheless assert views as if they have some basis as equivalent to quacks.
        In my field, the acceptance rate into top-rate journals is ca. 10-20%. So simply getting into such a journal is a feat, such are the demands. And if you think it’s simply a matter of “willy nilly from anyone with the qualifications who quote other scholars to build a pack of cards,” then you’re simply ignorant of the process. Sorry to be so candid, but your ill-informed and offensive assertions leave little choice.
        There is neither money nor prestige in scholarship, and the reason people do their various subjects typically is because of their love for the subject. There are a few (e.g., Dawkins, Ehrman) who turn to popular and somewhat sensationalized writing and do admirably well financially. But very few are either able or inclined to do so. The overwhelming number of scholars simply trudge along working at their subject, submitting their results for others to check, and participating in turn in assessing the work of others.
        As for the dating of ancient (undated) manuscripts, carbon dating gives no more precise dating than good palaeographical analysis (i.e., within a century), and that is the scientific method. Your opinion to the contrary is your right and, frankly, irrelevant.

  2. I am willing to bet that New Testament scholars do much better work in finding and classifying the manuscripts of New Testament books than Shakesperean scholars do in finding and classifying the various editions and folios of Shakespeare’s plays.

    • I wouldn’t know myself. Shakespeare scholars have far fewer MSS to deal with, and so they may be able to do quite a good job of it.

  3. « The photographs reveal some text that has not been seen before. » says the Press Release… I’m so excited !… O God ! hope I die before I get old… but not before the end of this year…

  4. Larry,

    A radiographical method of dating would give a statistical spread. I can think of at least one manuscript from Qumran that should have been dated radiologically, 4QMMT.

    The judgement by people of the date using “comparator” manuscripts, even with “dated” ones, is not truly “scientific”, and must be open to questioning, and justification, rather than taking their word.

    For whatever reason, I have to wonder if CBL have stated the lowest estimated dates. It is hardly fair to give a date without a spread. All dating is subject to error (spread).

    If the manuscripts were merely purchased in Egypt, this tells us little about their provenance.


    • Geoff,
      The dating wasn’t assigned by CBL but by those papyrologists and palaeographers who have attempted to date the manuscripts. It’s not arbitrary. And “ca. 200” = an approx. date, a “spread” implicit. Sorry if you didn’t understand that.
      And before you make your rather sweeping claim that palaeographical dating “is not truly ‘scientific’,” I have to ask what training and expertise in palaeography you bring to the task. From your questions, I take it that you know very little yourself in the discipline. “Scientific” = making judgments based on data/observation and open to critical engagement by other qualified scholars, following a clear/agreed method for the relevant type of data and principles of judgment accepted in the field.
      You can’t simply rubbish a whole discipline just because you don’t understand it.

      • Larry

        I would like to see tolerances of paleographic dates being given as +/- a certain quantity, not as stated in any of the CBL dates. And as you have said, the tolerances, and thus the date ranges, given by different scholars on the same manuscripts can vary widely. My intention was not to rubbish a whole discipline but I would like to see paleographic dates expressed more carefully, giving the maximum date range out of a number of scholars working independently. I am highly suspicious of a date of c AD 200 for the CBL pauline letters.

      • Geoff: Palaeographical experts DO give approximate dates and indicate date ranges. Books for general readers and museums sometimes do shortcuts, giving a particular date, but we don’t take our findings from those.
        In the case of the Chester Beatty Pauline codex, numerous scholars have perused it and agree that it likely should be dated “ca. 200” (as, e.g., in the standard-edition Greek NT, the “Nestle-Aland”). That means sometime approximately 175-225 CE or so.
        I’m curious about your reluctance to accept this. Got some kind of agenda that it spoils? In any case, I reiterate my query from earlier: Have you the established expertise that gives you some basis for estimating dates of MSS? If not, what’s your problem?

      • Larry

        My problem is: how late did Paul produce his version of the letters attributed to him?


      • Geoff: If your problem is a lack of information, the dating of Paul’s mission and his letters (as part of that mission) are well-studied, with ample resources conveying results. Do you need references to publications?
        E.g., Paul’s “conversion” is typically dated within 1-3 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. His Gentile-mission activity (per his account in Galatians 1-2) likely began sometime in the 40s. Wide scholarly judgement is that his extant letters (those whose authorship is now almost universally accepted) date variously from as early as the late 40s through the late 50s.
        Other letters that purport to be written by him but are widely thought to be pseudonymous (e.g., Ephesians, Pastoral letters) are commonly thought to have been written posthumously, sometime in/after the 60s.
        If, however, your problem is that you don’t like these results . . . well, there’s not much I can do about that.

      • Larry

        I accept that parts of some of Paul’s letters originate in the 40’s to 60’s CE. But I do not believe these parts were written by Paul. Similarly, I accept that parts of Mark’s gospel and Acts had their origins in these early times.

      • Thanks for giving your view, Geoff, although I cannot see that you have any basis for your curious notion about Paul’s letters. But this isn’t the place for you to present and defend them. That must be done in refereed journals and books, so that scholars can evaluate them.

  5. And what is the provenance of Paul’s letters held by CBL?

  6. Larry,

    What is the error of the dating method(s) used on the CBL manuscripts – Paul’s letters which CBL date c. AD 200?

    • All literary papyri are dated palaeographically, i.e., by comparison of the copyist’s “hand” with other dated papyri. The only ancient texts that come dated are “documentary” texts (e.g., letters, official notices, etc.). Palaeographical dating is a demanding science, requiring wide familiarity with many (among the best palaeographers, hundreds) of ancient manuscripts. It can’t, in the nature of the data, be pin-pointed dating. Most palaeographers would propose a dating +/- ca. 25-50 years. And there are cases where experts disagree, sometimes by a century or occasionally even more.
      As for P46 (the Chester Beatty Pauline codex), a date in the early 3rd century is now widely accepted.

      • Why isn’t a standard radiographical method used? Paleographical dating is very subjective.

      • A radiographical method wouldn’t yield any narrower dating. For items of the approx. age of the CBL papyri you’ll get a likely century, not much more.
        Moreover, you have to “destroy” a portion of the item, and it’s difficult to consider doing this.
        Palaeographical dating isn’t “subjective”, in the sense that it’s simply blind guesswork. It’s a scientific judgment by people with extensive familiarity with the data, and using many “comparator” manuscripts, including dated ones.

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