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Carbon-14 and Palaeographical Dating of Papyri

April 1, 2014

I returned yesterday from an invitational conference in Oklahoma City on dating papyri (sponsored by the Green Scholars Initiative, hereafter GSI).   Out of respect for the presenters of papers, I won’t pre-empt publication by giving details.  But I can say that I found the presentations on Carbon-dating especially informative and also of some significant import.

Essentially the GSI has access to the Green Collection of manuscripts & Bibles, and several papyri were chosen for rigorous Carbon-dating.  The papyri in question had been dated first palaeographically, and then very small snippets were submitted to three respected laboratories in the USA for independent dating by Carbon-14 processes.

Many major libraries (e.g., the British Library) have a policy that does not permit any destruction of an item in any measure.  So, since Carbon-dating requires that a tiny piece of an item be cut off and burned, hardly ever are we going to have Carbon-dating of items in these major collections.  This is what makes the Green Collection policy so useful, not only for their own items, but also for the fields of papyrology and palaeography more widely.

To summarize results of the tests reported on in Oklahoma City, the results from the three labs were basically/broadly in agreement, which gives some assurance about the reliability of the process.  But also, these results were broadly in agreement with the prior/independent palaeographical dating of these items.  And this (as I see it) is the really larger import.  It means (contrary to the reported comment by a distinguished papyrologist, who is not himself a palaeographer, that palaeographical dating is “bullshit”), that palaeographical dating (using today’s standards and practices) by competent palaeographers can be treated as broadly reliable.

And that means that collections that don’t allow Carbon-dating can take some further basis for confidence in the practice of palaeographical dating of their items as well.

Now, you must understand that Carbon-dating can, at best, offer a date-span of X plus/minus 50 years or so, e.g., X dated ca. 150-250 CE.  That’s no more narrow than responsible palaeographers would date an item.  But, as I say, the Green Collection’s tests do give us a second basis for some confidence in palaeographical dating practice.

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  1. Wendell GIdeon permalink

    Inasmuch as P46 has an estimated date of birth of circa 150 to 250 A.D. (based on paleographical dating), can anyone come up with a wild guess as to how many copies of copies of copies (so on and so forth) might have been made from the “original” Second Epistle to the Corinthians, an epistle which scholars tell us was composed (most likely by Paul dictating) in the 50’s A.D.? Dr. Ehrman tells us how inadvertent errors were made in such a copying process not to mention changes being made by scribes who had a bias or agenda. I also wonder if experts have estimated the number of errors that might exist between the original of II Corinthians and what we find in P46? But let me correct myself here: Second Corinthians is in fact Third Corinthians because First Corinthians itself is not the first epistle Paul wrote to that church based on I Cor. 5:9 which tells us he had in fact written before. It certainly seems strange to me that fragments of the Corinthian Epistles showed up in Egypt but nary a one has been in found in Archaia itself unless I am misinformed which could be the case.

    • If you’re seriously interested in P46, then THE starting place remains Günther Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition Upon the Corpus Paulinum, The Schweich Lectures, 1946 (London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1953). Zuntz proposes (with some considerable cogency) an early Christian interest in forming a Pauline corpus, and that they were influenced by scribal and text-critical methods developed in Alexandria (among “pagan” scholars of “pagan” literary texts). This involved a concern for accurate copies, etc.
      Also, research shows that ancient papyrus manuscripts often served for a century or more, even in active usage. So, in reality, the number of copy-generations between an “original” copy of a NT writing and an extant copy from ca. 200 CE might well be very few. So Bart’s mantra of “copies of copies of copies” may exaggerate things a bit (which can happen when one is trying to score points rather than do sober scholarship; the dangers of “debating” such things).
      And it’s not surprising that we have no manuscripts of the Corinthian letters (or other Pauline texts) extant found in Greece. It’s actually surprising (and delightful, really) to have any manuscript (even fragmentary ones) from ca. 200CE at all! For most literary texts from antiquity we have nothing so close to the time of composition. And the reason that we have such early manuscripts is that they were deposited in locations in middle Egypt, where atmospheric and ground-water conditions allowed them to survive. This is similar to the conditions in the Judean desert, which allowed manuscripts there to have survived. You have to acquaint yourself with the larger picture of ancient manuscripts to appreciate what we have.

  2. Gregg Schwendner permalink

    Re: the attitude toward paleographical dating of documentary papyrologists. Some time ago now, a documentary codex was published from the Vienna collection; without internal or external evidence for its date, the edd. were thrown back on palaeography, which they gave as early fourth century. A little later, more of the codex was found including its first pages, with a regnal year showing it to be fifth century in date. Palaeography is usually given short shrift in documentary editions (often nothing is said about it at all). In certain circles, this disparity has led to an unhealthy skepticism on the subject,

    Documentary hands, given a large enough sample, can be dated generation to generation (in 20-25 year increments), and in particular cases, one can see similarities and differences between fathers and sons. See, for example, Jennifer Cromwell’s work on Coptic documents Similar results have been obtained from Greek texts from Karanis.

    • I’ve worked only (in limited number) with Greek literary hands. Documentary hands (or at least some of those I’ve looked at) are just a scrawl, indecipherable by me. So, I admire anyone who can even read the hand, let alone date it!

  3. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, I am sorry to offend your sensibilities with my bluntness. As unreliable as it is, Wikipedia gives some information about Jewish populations in the first century here:

    According to Theodor Mommsen, in the first century C.E. there were no less than 1,000,000 Jews in Egypt, in a total of 8,000,000 inhabitants; of these 200,000 lived in Alexandria, whose total population was 500,000. Adolf Harnack (Ausbreitung des Christentums, Leipzig, 1902) reckons that there were 1,000,000 Jews in Syria at the time of Nero in 60’s AD, and 700,000 in Judea, and he allows for an additional 1,500,000 in other places, thus estimating that there were in the first century 4,200,000 Jews in the world.

    Now certainly, the Jews of Egypt must have been the largest Jewish population. Yet, for example, we do not have any evidence of Paul’s Epistle to the Alexandrians (or for that matter Paul’s Epistle to the Damascenes).

    • Geoff: So? Paul describes his arc of activity in Romans as “from Jerusalem round as far as Illyricum.” Egypt wasn’t on his own radar. The number of Jews there is irrelevant. Paul felt called to a GENTILE mission. We do have his letters to several of the churches in the arc of his ministry. In any case, this is completely off the topic of the posting, Geoff, and once again you’re abusing the privilege of my allowing comments to try to wing off into some hobbyhorse of your own. Drop it.

  4. Graham Claytor permalink

    I’m interesting in your reluctance to discuss the individual papers, seeing as we’re in an age of live-tweeting conferences. Scholars generally like their work to be advertised. Did the organizers or certain presenters warn against sharing information or something?

    • It was a condition of the conference that we respect the intellectual property rights of all presenters.

      • Larry, I am as puzzled as Graham on this: what does “respect the intellectual property rights” imply? Everyone of us is usually happy when colleagues report what you said in seminars…

      • Roberta,
        I meant that, as the papers of the conference are to be edited for publication, I didn’t want to report any details without prior consent of the author.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Did anyone at the conference acknowledge the obvious point that radiocarbon dating estimates when the papyrus plant died, rather than when text was applied to the papyrus?

    • Yes. That was made very clear. Carbon-dating works on the writing material, not the writing. But there are spectrometry tests for ink as well, and these don’t involve destruction of any part of the writing.

  6. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, don’t you think it strange that there are no NT manuscripts from around 50 CE? It must be most frustrating for you.

    • No, Geoff, it’s not strange at all. First of all, by common scholarly judgement, our earliest Christian texts known (letters of Paul) weren’t written till ca. 50 and thereafter. But also, the only places from which we have anything as early as lst cent CE are middle Egypt and the Judean desert, places dry and consistent temperature, such that organic material (e.g., skin, papyrus) happens (wondrously) to have survived. Why don’t you try some serious reading in such matters, if you’re really interested in learning something??

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Well, Larry, you don’t even have one microscopic scrap of manuscript from around 50 CE to show. And this was after Paul was supposedly sending letters all around the Mediterranean area, apparently excluding Egypt. Given that Egypt was geographically next to Israel, and had long been a refuge for Jews, this does seem very strange. And what about the early versions of Mark? Surely, one of those manuscripts (if they ever existed) would have survived in Judea.

      • Geoff, Get your facts straight before you make statements that will only make you look foolish. As I said earlier, there is no evidence that Paul was writing epistles to his churches much earlier than ca. 50 CE. And there is no evidence of “early versions of Mark” from earlier than 50 CE either. Really, where do you get these ideas? Again, read some solid historical studies by competent scholars. Then, THEN, Geoff, you can ask questions that make sense. (I don’t like to be so frank, but, gee-whiz, guy, you really seem not to take to a subtle approach!)

  7. Graham Claytor permalink

    Is there a link to the conference program anywhere?

    • Not to my knowledge. They do plan a conference volume (to be published by Brill).

  8. That’s very exciting news (and good news for palaeography). Did the GSI give any publication details?

    • There’s a volume to be published from the conf presentations (Brill). But I don’t know the schedule.

  9. We send samples for carbon-dating in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, clearly taking account of the general size and status of the papyri in question. Laboratories now need a very tiny piece for the dating and in some cases these are already detached from the papyrus. I agree with the fact that often C 14 analysis confirm previous palaeographical dating. As for the Green Collection, while they are certainly doing a great work I have major, serious concerns especially on past acquisitions as I recently explained on my blog (
    Roberta Mazza

    • Good to know the Rylands policy. I have no personal knowledge of the Green Collection policies other than those shared at the conference (which concerned mainly their curating and testing policies). Dirk Obbink is more closely involved as advisor on papyri things.

  10. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Thanks for the continual update on important matters. The confirmation by carbon dating of previously established dates, at least broadly, should indeed give us confidence that other palaeographical dating, when using valid comparisons, is accurate within a similar range. Peer review of dating has been rigorous, in my opinion, and must continue to be so. Of course the fallen side of me wants the exceptionally early dates to be accepted, but our faith is predicated on Him who is Truth, thus accuracy is essential. Still such a call for accuracy does not require us to abandon early dates just because some skeptic challenges them. Kudos to the GSI and the Green Collection for their efforts!

    • Tim: Christian faith has no foundation in palaeography . . . one way or the other! The dating of manuscripts is to be purely a scholarly judgement based on grounds that any palaeographer can engage. And it’s dangerous to attempt apologetics, or to attempt anti-faith polemics, on the basis of manuscript dates. Neither one is a legitimate scholarly service. And as for Christian faith, there is nothing to fear from good scholarship and the “truth” that it can achieve.

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