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The Dating of New Testament Papyri

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2011

Don Barker
Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, Sydney 2109, Australia. email:


The narrow dating of some of the early New Testament papyri and the methodological approach that is used must be brought into question in the light of the acknowledged difficulties with palaeographical dating and especially the use of assigned dated literary papyri. The thesis of this paper is that the way forward in dating New Testament papyri, or for that matter any undated literary papyri, is first to locate the manuscript in its graphic stream and using, on the whole, dated documentary papyri belonging to the same stream, come to an approximate understanding of where in the history of the stream the manuscript lies. The following New Testament Papyri will be so treated: P52, P67+ and P46.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 Parsons, P. J., ‘Guglielmo Cavallo, Ricerche sulla maiuscola biblica’, Gnomon 42.4 (1970)Google Scholar 378.

2 See Pickering, S. R., ‘The Dating of the Chester Beatty–Michigan Codex of the Pauline Epistles (P46)’, Ancient History in a Modern University, vol. 2 (ed. Hillard, T. W. et al. ; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998)Google Scholar 226.

3 Cribiore, R., Writing, Teachers and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar has helped in our understanding of how school children were trained to write; however the questions in regard to the detailed training of scribes still remain. See also Haines-Eitzen, K., Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (Oxford: Oxford University, 2000) 5375Google Scholar, who devotes a chapter to the training of Christian scribes and who notes the multifunctional ability of scribes. Haines-Eitzen mentions the passage from Eusebius (HE 6.23) who recounts in part that Ambrose placed at the disposal of Origen, κόραις ἐπὶ τὸ καλλιγραϕεῖν ἠσκηέναις. The quote is tantalising as it leaves us asking, ‘what did Eusebius mean by καλλιγραϕεῖν and why only girls?’

4 The term ‘graphic stream’ is used by Cavallo, G., ‘Greek and Latin Writing in the Papyri’, The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (ed. Bagnall, R. S.; Oxford/New York: Oxford University, 2009)Google Scholar 114. Cavallo uses the term to describe the various scripts that have some sort of characteristic uniformity in style over a period of time. A particular graphic stream is identified by certain elements that characterise a script. The so-called ‘biblical majuscule’ stream is identified by the contrast between thin horizontal strokes and fatter vertical strokes. The ‘severe’ graphic stream is characterised by a contrast in size between broad letters and narrow letters. The ‘decorated round cursive’ is a graphic stream characterised by rounded letters and vertical strokes finished with a serif or a roundel. The way that individual letters are formed within these graphic streams is secondary to the overall style of the script. So for example, whether an alpha is formed with an arched vertical stroke or is written in a single sequence with a loop is not as important in dating, as is the graphic stream in which the letter occurs.

5 See Pickering, ‘The Dating of the Chester Beatty–Michigan Codex’, 221.

6 See, for example, Turner, E. G., Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (ed. Parsons, P. J.; London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 2nd rev. and enl. ed. 1987)Google Scholar 29.

7 For example, in seeking to date manuscripts with a ‘Biblical Uncial’ script there are only three manuscripts that can be roughly dated; see the discussion below.

8 An image of P. Ryl. 457 may be found at the Rylands Papyri Collection website: enriqueta, (2010).

9 Nongbri, B., ‘The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in Dating of the Fourth Gospel’, Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005) 2348CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Nongbri, however, does not give what he considers to be a reasonable date range for P52.

10 Cavallo, G., ‘Γράμματα ’Αλεξανδρῖνα’, Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 24 (1975) 2354Google Scholar.

11 Images of the Oxyrhynchus papyri can be found on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri website: (2010). An image of P.Amh. 78 can be found in The Amherst Papyri, vol. 2 (London: Oxford University, 1901) plate XVIIGoogle Scholar. For P.Mich. 5336, see Nongbri, ‘The Use and Abuse’, 41.

13 C. H. Roberts, ‘An Early Papyrus of the First Gospel’, HTR 46 (1953) 233.

14 Roberts, C. H. and Skeat, T. C., The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University, 1987) 40–1Google Scholar.

15 Aland, K., ‘Neuetestamentliche Papyri II’, NTS 12 (1966) 193–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Skeat, T. C., ‘The Oldest Manuscript of the Four Gospels?’, NTS 43 (1997) 134CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Scott Charlesworth, whilst agreeing that all the fragments are from the same scribe, argues against a single quire codex and for separate codices because of the fibre directions, Charlesworth, S. D., ‘T. C. Skeat, P64+ P67and P4, and the Problem of Fibre Orientation in Codicological Reconstruction’, NTS 53 (2007) 582604CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Thiede, C., ‘Papyrus Magdalen Greek 17 (Gregory-Aland P64): A Reappraisal’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 105 (1995) 1320Google Scholar. For a concise and helpful critique of Thiede's dating, see Bagnall, R., Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University, 2009) 2336Google Scholar.

18 Because of this paucity, Parsons warns against overconfidence in constructing an evolutionary development for the Biblical Uncial script, Parsons, ‘Guglielmo’, 380.

19 For images of the following manuscripts, see Roberts, C. H., Greek Literary Hands, 350 BC–AD 400 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1955)Google Scholar 16, 22 and 12 respectively.

20 See Roberts, Greek Literary Hands, 12.

21 Roberts, Greek Literary Hands, 22.

22 Roberts, Greek Literary Hands, 16.

23 Cavallo, ‘Γράμματα’, 13–44.

24 For a full critique by Parsons of Cavallo's dating methodology of the Biblical Uncial style, see Parsons, ‘Guglielmo’, 375–80.

25 Comfort, P., The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2001) 52–3Google Scholar. Comfort also argues for an early date of P67+ based on the small number of nomina sacra. The problem of dating P67+ on this basis is that it can lead to circularity of argument whereas the treatment of words as nomina sacra may be far more complex. There is also the possibility that the scribe of P67+ strictly adhered to the format, in the Vorlage, of words treated as nomina sacra.

27 Kim, Y. K., ‘Palaeographical Dating of P46 to the Latter First Century’, Biblica 69 (1988) 248–57Google Scholar.

28 B. Griffin, ‘The Paleographical Dating of P-46’, (2010).

29 Royse, J. R., Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (Leiden: Brill, 2008) 249–50Google Scholar.

30 Pickering, ‘The Dating of the Chester Beatty–Michigan Codex’, 221.

31 Comfort, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek, 206.

32 Cavallo, ‘Γράμματα’, 23–54.

33 An image of P.Oxy. 1622 may be found at (2010).

34 Griffin, ‘The Paleographical Dating of P-46’.

35 For Bagnall's argument concerning the probability of finding almost no surviving Christian manuscripts in the chora of Egypt dated to the late first or second century, see Bagnall, R. S., Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University, 2009) 224Google Scholar. Bagnall argues from probability that we should expect that the percentage of Christian papyri among extant second-century papyri correlates with the likely percentage of Christians in the population of Egypt at that time. Bagnall, in the absence of hard data, adopts Rodney Stark's estimation of the number of Christians in the early centuries. Bagnall on this basis proposes that Christians comprised as much as 1 percent of the Egyptian population only by ‘the late 220s’. From this he reasons that Christian manuscripts from the second century should comprise no more than one percent of the total extant, or about one or two manuscripts.

36 For Hurtado's complete argument, see L. Hurtado, Review of Bagnall, Roger S., Early Christian Books in Egypt, Review of Biblical Literature (2010)Google Scholar, (2010).

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