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A Challenge to the Dating of P75

June 22, 2016

In the latest issue of Journal of Biblical Literature, Brent Nongbri has a lengthy article directly challenging the now-commonly accepted date of NT papyrus P75 (P.Bodmer XIV-XV):  “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” JBL 135.2 (2016): 405-37.

Since its publication in the early 1960s, P75 has often been taken as likely dated approximately 175-225 CE, with some scholars preferring a date somewhat later into the 3rd century.  But Nongbri proposes that a 4th-century date is just as plausible, perhaps even more so.

The first and main part of his article involves a close comparison of the handwriting of P75 with various other manuscripts, focusing particularly on those that can be dated more securely.  These include several dated in the late 3rd century or early 4th century CE.

In the second stage of his argument, Nongbri focuses on the shape of the codex page of P75, drawing upon Eric Turner’s now-classic proposal to date codices by their dimensions/shape:  Eric G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977; reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2010).  Nongbri observes that P75 seems to fit in Turner’s “Group 8,” codices with a page-height roughly twice their page-width, and notes a similar shape to some of the codices securely dated to the 4th century (in particular, codices in the Nag Hammadi cache).

At several points, Nongri grants that he has not shown (and does not contend) that P75 must therefore also date to the 4th century, only that a 4th-century date is as plausible (or more so) than the early 3rd century date more commonly accepted.

The wider import of the issue is considerable.  The early 3rd century dating of P75, combined with its remarkably close textual affinity with Codex Vaticanus, led in the late 20th century to the view that (contrary to earlier views) the Vaticanus-type text was not the product of a 4th century recension but instead could be traced back at least a century earlier, and probably further back into the 2nd century CE.  In Nongbri’s argument, however, if both Codex Vaticanus and P75 can be assigned to the 4th-century CE, “then textual critics of the New Testament may need once again to entertain the idea that the ‘B Text’ [i.e., Vaticanus-type] is indeed the result of some sort of recensional activity in the fourth century,” and so we might need to “rethink one of the twentieth century’s most significant conclusions in New Testament textual criticism” (437).

In an earlier article, using basically the same kinds of evidence, Nongri also challenged the dating of NT papyrus P66:  “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, proposing that it too may as/more likely be dated in the early 4th century CE.  One gets the impression of a programme!

But we should all welcome such a well-prepared challenge to established views, and it will now be appropriate (even necessary) for other scholars to consider Nongbri’s challenge fairly and fully.  At present, his seems to be a somewhat novel stance on P75 and P66, as other experts have dated these items no later than sometime in the 3rd century:  e.g., Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88.4 (2012): 443-74 (who place P75 ca. 200-250 CE).  I intend to give the matter further thought, and I hope others with a strong interest in early manuscripts will do so too.

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  1. C. E. Hill permalink

    An early date for P75 just rules out a fourth-century recension, it wouldn’t rule out a recension altogether. The real problem for the idea of a highly edited recension, as I understand it, has little to do with dating of the manuscript. It is that most experts who have examined the text of B and/or P75 (including Westcott and Hort, Fee, Birdsall, Wasserman, Haines-Eitzen, and others) have opined that it doesn’t look like an edited or evolved text. That is, it contains relatively few harmonizations, conflations, paraphrases, “corrections” of grammar, vocabulary, style, etc. and therefore looks very “primitive” in comparison with other texts. If it is the result of a “recension,” the recension was done by using excellent, early texts.

    • Yes, Charles, and we’d also have to consider where such a well-resourced editorial activity would have taken place and why. Cf., e.g., Bruce Metzger’s observations about Origen’s attitude toward NT textual variants: “Explicit References in the Works of Origen to Variant Readings in New Testament Manuscripts,” in Biblical and Patristic Studies in Memory of Robert Pierce Casey, ed. J. N. Birdsall and R. W. Thomson (Freiburg/Basel: Herder, 1963), 78-95. “On the whole his treatment of variant readings is most unsatisfatory from the standpoint of modern textual criticism. He combines a remarkable indifference to what are now regarded as important aspects of textual criticism with a quite uncritical method of dealing with them” (94-95).

  2. I had read the article and wondered if someone might offer some response. I was delighted to see this brief discussion and hope to see more continue.

  3. Allen Black permalink

    The siglum “≠” means “is not equal to.”

  4. Allen Black permalink

    Concerning “One gets the impression of a programme,” cf. also Nongbri’s “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” HTR 98 (2005): 23-48, in which one of the conclusions is “What I have done is to show that any serious consideration of the window of possible dates for P52 must include dates in the later second and early third centuries.”

  5. (That symbol means “not equal.”)

  6. One point that seemed assumed more than argued for in the essay was that a later date of P75 reopens the question of a B-text recension. But these seem unrelated to me. An early date for P75 may rule out a 4th century recession for B’s text, but a later date for P75 does not in itself provide positive evidence of a B-text recension. It reopens the question only insofar as the issue was settled on grounds of P75’s date alone. But can’t the non-recension of B can be defended on other grounds?

    • Yes, there are other factors and evidence to consider. But it’s fair to say that the early dating of P75 made it the crucial evidence for the view that the Vaticanus-type text was very early.

      • Sure. But later ≠ recensional.

      • I’m dense: what does your little siglum mean??

      • Just because the B-text is later than thought doesn’t mean it’s therefore the result of a recension.

      • Indeed. Further, there is the question of what is meant by “recension”. That term typically suggests some organized and single-effort work. But it’s not otherwise clear that any such thing ever took place.

  7. Timothy Joseph permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Certainly, we need to consider all legitimate arguments for dating of manuscripts, both earlier and later than those typically proposed. Yet, as you alluded to in your post, in this case, Nongbri appears to be on a mission. This alone does not discount his results, but few, if any scholars, have latched onto the results of his methods, on either P66 or P75. I also do not believe we can so easily dismiss the previous dating of these manuscripts, even by those who had their understanding of the textual history of the NT overturned like K. Åland.


    • Nongbri’s methods are standard: using comparators to date palaeography, and Turner’s codex typology as well (although the latter is less widely used). On the other hand, Nongbri doesn’t explore the wider historical issues about how a supposed “recension” would take place and where, and also how both P75 and Codex Vaticanus would exhibit this recension so tightly, when otherwise they are very different kinds of manuscripts.

      • Thank you Dr. H for this most interesting information. In my understanding a recension undoubtedly lead to some alteration of the original autograph whichever manuscript might render it due to the compilation of variations. You mention “Nongbri doesn’t explore the wider historical issues about how a supposed “recension” would take place and where, and also how both P75 and Codex Vaticanus would exhibit this recension so tightly”
        My question is that if indeed a recension did take place in the early fourth century, do we have any evidence or indications through other manuscripts as to which alterations could be present in P75 and/or B? Does that bring us nearer to establishing the original?.To my opinion these are still the oldest and most reliable rendering of the original, or am I mistaken?

      • It isn’t actually clear that any such recension took place. Vaticanus exhibits what is generally regarded as a high-quality text, i.e., with readings judged more authentic. How and why it contains such a text is the question. There are three options: (1) it simply preserves a good, and carefully transmitted type of text; (2) it is the product of a recension, which would then have to have been a very scholarly one to produce such a high-quality text; (3) it is the product of a longer process in which certain superior readings were preferred and coalesced into the Vaticanus/P75 type text.
        I don’t immediately know of other evidence for #2.

  8. Thanks for the analysis, Larry. I didn’t see the essay but may take a look now.

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