These fragments now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, more than 43% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. But the most interesting thing is the first-century fragment.What the signficance of these earlier fragments is will have to await publication, and scholarly study, but one must say that the more early texts we have of the New Testament the better. On the other hand, Larry Hurtado wisely calls for ratcheting down the rhetoric regarding the signficance of new manuscript finds for the study of early Christianity, saying,
It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934.
Not only this, but the first-century fragment is from Mark’s Gospel. Before the discovery of this fragment, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. AD 200–250). This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years.
It is entirely understandable, and yet also in some ways unfortunate, that polemicists for and against the Bible (such as the protagonists in the Wallace/Ehrman debate) have made the identification and secure dating of NT manuscripts such a controversial matter.Hurtado goes on to make these important points:
- The identification and palaeographical dating of manuscripts requires huge expertise specific to the period and texts in question. Let’s wait and see whose judgement lies behind the claims.
- Palaeographical dating can ever only be approximate, perhaps as narrow as 50 yrs plus or minus. Expert palaeographers often disagree over a given item by as much as a century or more. It’s never wise to rest much upon one judgement, and confidence will be enhanced only when various experts have been given full access to the items.
- It is particularly difficult to make a palaeographical dating of a fragment, the smaller it is the more difficult. For such dating requires as many characters of the alphabet as possible and as many instances of them in the copy as possible to form a good judgement about the “hand”.
- Although it rachets up potential sales of a publication to make large claims and posit sensational inferences about items, it doesn’t help the sober scholarly work involved. It also doesn’t actually accrue any credit or greater credibility for the items or those involved in handling them.
John W. Martens
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