February 18, 2012
A First Century Manuscript of the New Testament!
I am the nerdy New Testament kind of guy who day dreams about new ancient manuscripts being discovered. What might be out there, hidden in some cave or ancient library, that help us understand better the Bible? When you consider how much weight these little scraps of papyrus or leather are given Biblical studies, every one of them is precious and fascinating.
If you had asked me yesterday what was the oldest copy of the New Testament I would have told you that it is actually a fragment of the gospel of John called P52 (“P” of course stands for papyrus). This fragment is dated from the first half of the second century. So roughly 100 years after the death of Jesus. We have nothing older than this, I would have said. But recently Daniel Wallace, a NT scholar from Dallas Theological Seminary, has let out that seven new papyri have been discovered and that one of them appears to be from the first century. This is big news indeed! It sets the mind spinning with questions and possibilities:
- Where was is found and can we locate the region of its writing?
- Will it give any hints about the “long ending” of Mark (chapter 16:9-20 is generally taken to be a latter addition)?
- What part of Mark?!
- What sorts of evidence will it provide? Wallace has opined that it will not lead to any revisions. This is because no papyrus discovery has ever led to a revision of the Biblical text. This is not because people refuse to adopt the changes, rather because the papyri have matched what we already have. This means that textual criticism is working.
- And how closely can it be dated in the first century?
Unfortunately this is about all we know. For the rest of the story we will have to wait about a year, it appears, until Brill publishes a book on the topic. But I wonder if this sort of news can really wait a year? I think someone might wrestle it out of them before that. I certainly hope so!
In the meantime, the rumors are flying and I’ll sign off with some clarifications from Wallace himself about his announcement:
Lots of misinformation here, folks. First, this fragment is certainly not the autograph of Mark. Second, I spoke only of the paleographer, not the discoverer. I am neither. Third, it’s a fragment, not the whole of Mark. Fourth, there are not now 18 MSS from the first century; there is at most one. 18 MSS that are either definitely or possibly from the second century is what I said. Rumors certainly do fly, even on an evangelical website! Im just the messenger, and I mentioned it at the debate because I just learned about it. (Evangelical Textual Criticism)
It’s also interesting that the announcement was made during a debate with Bart Ehrman in which Bart claimed that the earliest manuscripts of the NT were from the second century. Au contraire, Daniel Wallace was able to answer. It seems that we now have a first century fragment. Bart was apparently unimpressed by this news. (Credo House)