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