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Carbon-14 Dating: A Reminder

October 31, 2018

Some commenters have asked if early papyri of NT writings have been submitted to carbon-14 dating.  I am moved to remind readers of an earlier blog-posting about a set of tests run on papyri here.  Essentially, these tests, run in three different laboratories, all roughly reached similar date conclusions.  Moreover, the most likely dates they arrived at were pretty close to those that had been reached previously by palaeographical method.  So, this should offer some encouragement to the dates arrived at by competent palaeographical experts.

The additional point to make, however, is that carbon-14 dating only speaks to the likely date of the writing material (papyri or parchment), not, actually, the date of the writing on the material.  Recall, as a warning example, the so-called “Jesus’ wife” fragment.  Carbon-14 tests suggested that the papyrus material in question came from the Byzantine period.  But subsequent close analysis of the text confirmed that it was a hoax.  That is, the hoaxer obtained some old papyrus and used it to perpetrate his hoax.  In short, we’ll still need competent palaeographers to analyse the texts, their likely date, authenticity, and other matters.

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  1. Larry, whatever the dating method, what is the date of your earliest Christian manuscript?

    • Geoff: As palaeographical dating (our only real method) can only give approximate dates, e.g., maybe +/- 50-75 years, we can only identify several manuscripts as dated as early as ca. 150-200 (or so). See the list of Christian manuscripts I provide on this blog site under “Essays”. There are several.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Thanks Larry; and are you able to indicate which of your listed Christian manuscripts now have a published Carbon 14 date range (given that the linked post referenced conference papers from several years ago that should have been published in the interim)?

      • The Carbon-14 tests were not conducted on papyri listed in my list. To my knowledge, the tests were not performed on published papyri, but items that were still under study.

      • archivesislam permalink

        So your saying they were dated by c-14 but they were not published? Is there any papyri of the NT that have been c-14 dated and published? Just one…..

      • I’ve answered your question previously. To my knowledge, early NT papyri are dated palaeographically (as the case with all ancient literary texts).

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