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The Date of P66 (P. Bodmer II): Nongbri’s New Argument

June 3, 2014

Brent Nongbri has begun to establish himself as a critic of received (or widely assumed) opinions on the dates of several early NT papyri.  His first venture along these lines was his critique of early dates of the famous Rylands fragment of the Gospel of John:  Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 23-48.

In his latest publication, he queries the commonly-accepted date of one of the most substantial and important NT papyri:  P66 (P. Bodmer II):   Brent Nongbri, “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35.

This papyrus (part of the Bodmer Library collection), which preserves a goodly portion of the Gospel of John, is commonly regarded as one of our earliest NT manuscripts.  In the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Gracece (28th edition), for example, the date given for it  is “ca. 200.”  Various scholars place it in the early 3rd century CE.  The basis for dating this papyrus (and nearly all manuscripts of literary texts) is palaeography:  the scholarly analysis of the “hand” of the copyist.  Nongbri challenges this dating, contending that palaeography doesn’t permit a date as precise as that assigned to P66.  Instead, he argues, the “hand” exhibited in P66 could allow it to be dated anytime from very late 2nd century to the 4th century CE.

Then, on the basis of other factors (e.g., the size and shape of the pages), he proposes that a date in the 4th century just might even be as good a bet, or even a better one.  He even creatively engages my treatment of the “staurogram” (the device in which the Greek letters tau and rho are combined), which (with some earlier scholars) I’ve proposed functions in early NT manuscripts as a “pictographic” depiction of the crucified Jesus.  On the commonly-accepted dating of P66 (and also P75 and P45, which also have instances of the staurogram) to the early 3rd century, we have visual references to the crucified Jesus some 150-200 years earlier than what has often been cited as the first depictions of Jesus on the cross.  (See, e.g., my discussion of the matter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 135-54.)

Nongbri, however, turns the argument around.  He suggests that, since visual depictions of the crucified Jesus otherwise seem to come from the 4th century and later, the uses of the staurogram in P66 give us a further reason for dating it in the 4th century too.  Nongbri’s several reasons for dating P66 later should all be weighed carefully and by people qualified to do so.  I’ll confine myself here to this one matter about the staurogram.

As I indicated when Nongbri sent me a pre-publication draft of the essay for comment, one problem I see in his argument is this:  By the 4th century, the staurogram had become a free-standing symbol referring to Christ, just as the more well-known Chi-Rho did.  But in P66 and the other papyri dated to the 3rd century, the device is found only as part of abbreviated forms of the Greek words for “cross” and/or “crucify.”  This seems to be how the device was first appropriated by Christians (its “pre-Christian” usage was as a symbol for “three” or “thirty).  Then, it seems, after being so used for a while and becoming sufficiently familiar to Christians, it was used as a free-standing “christogram” symbol.

So, in my opinion, the way the staurogram is used in P66 still seems to me to suggest a 3rd century date.  But, as I say, Nongbri’s full case deserves to be considered.  I was particularly impressed with his reference to the shape of the pages in P66 as aligning more with the “squarish” shape of manuscript pages in the 4th century.  (But those “squarish” pages of 4th century manuscripts tend more to be skin, not papyrus, which may, or may not, count against Nongbri’s argument.)

The accurate dating of early Christian manuscripts, and especially copies of biblical writings, is extremely important.  So, as unsettling as Nongbri’s contentions may be to what has been the received opinion on P66, it is important to give the matter patient and adequate attention.  (And he refers to another article that is forthcoming in which he challenges the received dating of P75 too!)

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  1. Please permit a question related to your research, though not related specifically to this post.

    What book(s) or other resources would you recommend to a lay reader seeking the best history we have – however limited it might be – on the lives of the apostles (including Paul)? Of course, the Acts of the Apostles tells us what ultimately happened to James the son of Zebedee, but our curiosity about the rest is, of course, impossible to satisfy with the New Testament alone. I know of several works about the lives and deaths of the apostles, but I’m particularly interested in sources which you deem reliable, given your long-standing objective historical focus on earliest Christianity.

    • We don’t actually have much at all in the way of primary data about what happened to the “twelve”, other than Judas, James Zebedee (in Acts), and Peter (references, allussions in, e.g., 1 Clement and subsequently). We also have the Josephus report about the death of James “the just” (brother of Jesus). Beyond that, it’s in the realm of legends. So, I don’t know any work that could answer your questions, as there is scant basis for writing one!

  2. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Interestingly, I did not notice any disclaimer in this post mentioning Nongbi’s view of religion, even as a viable term, see his “Before Religion.” Additionally, even a cursory reading of Nongbi’s published articles, IMO, shows his bias toward a late date for all papyrus. I mention this in the context of proposed earlier dates for some papyri by scholars who hold evangelical beliefs and their assumed bias inevitably being linked with their results. Surely, Nongbi’s bias could affect his work as much as evangelical scholars yet, in academic circles it appears only evangelical leanings are to be mentioned as a source of negative influence.

  3. Robert permalink

    What a breath of fresh air! One of my professor in NT text criticism gave me some extra reading in paleography (ie, I am by no means a paleographer) and it always seemed very unrealistic that we could date anything to a 50-year window by paleographic criteria alone.

    • Yes, it’s safer, and more realistic, to aim for a date =/- 50 years. E.g., 150-250 CE.

  4. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    I wonder if Nongbri will draw more substantial conclusions in this publication than he did, IMO, in his previous article. It appeared to me that in that article his real argument was intended to reach a foreordained conclusion., that the Gospel of John is late.

    • I thought Nongbri brought a much-needed corrective to those who, perhaps in their zeal to date GJohn to the 1st c. as an apologetic against those who claim it’s a 2nd c. document, ‘generously’ date P52 to 125 or “early 2nd c.” Nongbri convincingly illustrated that we must not get carried away, but that we should let the entire evidence be put on display, noting that the date should not be less than a 100 year spread. I think he wisely did not make any firm conclusions, leaving it up to the reader to judge by the evidence provided.

      Don’t get me wrong; I strongly believe GJohn is a (late) 1st c. document. But I don’t think we can use the dating of P52 to attempt to make a case for it. Don Barker (“The Dating of the New Testament Papyri” New Test. Stud. 57, pp 571-582. Cambridge UP, 2011; doi: 10.1017/S002868851100129) relied on Nongbri noting the difficulty in more narrowly dating P52, concluding that “the paleographic evidence will not allow it,” surmising that a date of 2nd or 3rd c. could be assigned to it(p 575).

      In any case, assuming Nongbri applies the same rigor to the P66 article as he did on the P52, I’m intrigued.

  5. I have not read Dr. Nongbri’s latest article yet. But I did enjoy his article; “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” so I look forward to reading his article on P66, and the forthcoming article on P75.

    Just a thought on the reference to the square shape of the codex. Turner places P66 in his “Group 9” which does include five or six 2nd-3rd century papyrus codices among several 4th and two or three 5th century manuscripts. So I am not sure why the square shape would require one to date the codex any later than the currently held consensus.
    All the same, I look forward to reading his article on P66, and the forthcoming article on P75.

    (Turner, Eric. “The Typology of the Early Codex,” Wipf and Stock reprint, c1977, pages 21-22)

  6. I read with interest Nongbri’s earlier “Papyrological Pitfalls” article a while back. As a layman, I’m hopeful I’ll be able to have access to this one sooner rather than later. (I’m not familiar with Museum Helveticum, so I’ll have to see where I can acquire a copy, as I read on another site that online versions are available 20 months after print publication.)

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Why is it extremely important? If the papyri dated to the second and third centuries are in general moved up to the fourth century, does that dramatically alter the discussion surrounding the reliability of the text and/or retreavability of (something approaching what might be called) the “original” text?

    • The main importance of having as early manuscripts of NT writings as we can have is so that we can try to trace the earliest transmission stages of these writings. That can then feed into efforts to reconstruct the earliest accessible text of the writings. Nowadays, we talk more about aiming for the “Initial text” (trans. of German, “Ausgangstext”), i.e., the form of the text of a given writing from which subsequent copies derive.

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