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The Limits and Difficulties of Palaeographical Dating of Literary Manuscripts

January 16, 2018

This afternoon (16 January) our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins hosted a very informative presentation by Dr. Brent Nongbri on how we go about attempting to date undated literary manuscripts, especially Greek papyri.  The thrust of his presentation was that palaeographical dating of Greek papyri cannot yield a sound date much more precise than roughly a century.  So, e.g., we might say that a given manuscript is probably third century CE.

He reflects the sort of cautious approach that was classically characterized by the great Eric Turner.  And Nongbri has now published several articles in which he shows the ramifications of this cautious approach with reference to several widely-cited NT papyri.  There is his critical analysis of some incautious datings of the Rylands John fragment (P52):   “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 98, no. 1 (2005): 23-48; and a similarly critical analysis of the dating of P.Bodmer II (P66):  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; and most recently a critical appraisal of the date for P.Bodmer XIV-XV (P75):  Brent Nongbri, “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135, no. 2 (2016): 405-37.

We all want the earliest evidence that we can get, an understandable desire for historical work on Christian origins and tracing the textual history of the NT.  Nongbri hasn’t so much proven that the commonly assigned dates of these papyri are wrong, as he has rightly underscored that any date assigned can only be approximate and the result of scholarly judgement.  And competent palaeographers can (and do) differ on dates.

(In an earlier posting, I responded to his article on P66 here.  And I gave a brief notice of his article on P75 here.)


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  1. Peter Malik permalink

    Pardon the shameless plug, Larry, but Lorne Zelyck and I recently wrote on the palaeographical dating of the Egerton Gospel, which might be of interest in this vein. See links and intro at

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Was this open to the public? I wish I had know about this.

    • The presentation was open to all but I think the notices went out only among students and staff in New College. Perhaps I should have posted advance notice on this blog site. I shall aim to do better in the future!

  3. Timothy, the quotes I give above, from the P75 paper, contradict your analysis. It is clear that Brent Nongbri is expanding the range from the normal 50 year range, maybe 100, to at least a 200 year range, maybe even 300 (175-475) or more. And Brent is generally not changing the terminus post quem to any significant degree, simply pointing that:

    a) the date ranges are far too restrictive, the terminus ante quem should be later
    b there are strong arguments in favor of a later date (e.g. 300s for P75)

    This is a fundamental paradigm shift. It is based on a number of ideas, including the fact that scripts vary a lot, and can be reused, and last a long time. Even more so on scriptural types of books, where there can be a deliberate intent to retain the old style.

    And for tight dating to be realistic, there must be specific external markings (e.g. a grocery list attached from Joe’s chariot house, a reference to the recent big Italian volcano). With the papyri, there are only occasionally solid external factors.

    And similar problems exist in commonly accepted dating of the “Great Uncials”.

    Steven Avery
    Dutchess County, NY

    • Steven: As I’ve noted briefly in my response to Nongbri’s article on P66, there are factors that suggest to me that the papyrus is better placed in the 3rd century than later, e.g., the use of the staurogram. We don’t (at least not yet) have a “paradigm shift”! We have a presentation of reasons to take more cautiously the widely touted dates of some early papyri. A paradigm shift takes place when arguments succeed in persuading the main body of scholars in a subject to change their view.

  4. blog review
    “Greek papyri cannot yield a sound date much more precise than roughly a century. So, e.g., we might say that a given manuscript is probably third century CE.”


    Frequently in his excellent papers Brent Nongbri is allowing a much wider range than one century. An example would be P75.

    “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament” (2016)”

    Nongbri is not disallowing the possibility of a terminus post quem of c. 175 AD, consistent with the (ca. 175-225) date given here and there. Unlikely, but possible.

    He is actually allowing a terminus ante quem in the 400s, possibly later, with the 300s being very consistent with the evidences. This 300s being emphasized because Nongbri seems to accept Vaticanus as fourth century (he does not mention the acceptance of a later date for Vaticanus before the textual criticism push to an earlier date in the late 1800s.)

    “fits comfortably in a fourth-century context”

    So you have late 2nd century to late 4th century, with hints of 5th or 6th being possible, when he discusses Bodmer papyri. Nongbri does not state a specific terminus ante quem, but does say:

    “Thus, most of the Bodmer codices are assigned to the third to the fifth centuries with a clustering in the fourth century.”

    “In whatever way we interpret these examples ot marginal writing, the implication seems to be that the codex was in use during the fourth century and possibly in the fifth century.”

    “Determining the date when these books were deposited in antiquity depends on the items that one believes were included in the find…. In Robinson’s expanded corpus, the latest material has been assigned to the seventh century, pushing the deposition date even later.65 Thus, even if p75 was produced in the fourth century, it still would have had plenty of time to be used, damaged, and repaired before its final deposition with the other Bodmer codices at a period no earlier than the late fifth or early sixth century.”

    “Further, the other “Bodmer papyri” with which it was apparently discovered are for the most part products of the fourth and fifth centuries.”

    “The important point is that the type of writing that characterizes p75 persisted well beyond the 175-225 CE window usually proposed for p75. In fact, Turner has observed that the features of the “formal mixed” style span the period from the middle of the second century down into the
    fifth century.”

    However way you cut it, you have a lot wider range than the one century referenced in the blog post. And it has always been my understanding that Brent Nongbri often emphasizes that the range of dating, especially because of an early terminus post quem, was far too narrow. Scripts can be copied and used for a long time. Although they never would be predicted, before they appear. (The elasticity is not time-symmetrical.)

    Did Brent Nongbri soften his approach a bit in deference to the positions of Centre for the Study of Christian Origins 🙂 ? That would be surprising!

    Steven Avery
    Dutchess County, NY

    • The presentation was concerned more with showing how palaeographical dating is done, and the limits to precision. But in questions he stated that his emphasis was more on arguing for an expanded range of dates rather than plumping for late ones.

  5. Duncan permalink

    Just last week I read a copy of “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV XV P75 in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament” kindly sent to me by Brent. It makes me wonder, what is the current state of carbon dating technologies?

    I have read older articles like:-



    “RADIOCARBON DATING OF HISTORICAL PARCHMENTS” Fiona Brock – [RADIOCARBON, Vol 55, Nr 2–3, 2013, p 353–363]

    Has any method been shown to be reasonably reliable yet?

    • Carbon-14 dating is reasonably reliable, but not any more precise than palaeographical dating of manuscripts. That is, carbon-14 dating typically gives a span of about a century or so and with a given percentage of probability. So, we can compare carbon-14 dates with palaeographical dates to see if there is significant correlation. And where palaeographic dates vary considerably, carbon-14 dating might help us to see one as more likely than others. That’s about as much as we can get, however.

  6. Sue Kmetko permalink

    An interesting and helpful comment. Thanks for the links

  7. I’ve read some of Nongbri’s eye-opening works. I’d noted a while ago that Philip Comfort’s otherwise excellent (IMO) New Testament Text and Translation Commentary is generally much too generous on the dating of manuscripts.

    • Craig,
      I have also read Nongbri, but have not found his work eye-opening. He has demonstrated a tendency to argue for the latest date possible. This is not new information Nongbri has mostly just extended the range of dating from a 50 year window to a 100 and then argued for the latest end of the 100 year range. Comfort has done the opposite, argued for the earliest part of the range. As is typically in publishing, the people who take the extreme positions end up eliminating the reasonable middle.
      Obviously, I was not at this presentation, but if Nongbri just argued for a 100 year span without necessarily advocating for the latest date that would be a positive development.


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