“New” Date for that St John’s Fragment, Rylands Library Papyrus P52

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by Neil Godfrey

300px-P52_rectoWith thanks to Larry Hurtado and the PhD student who brought this to his attention, I have accessed a recently published article that, as Dr Hurtado himself says, “all concerned with the study of NT manuscripts should read”:

Pasquale Orsini & Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates:  A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88 (2012): 443-74. 

As Hurtado himself points out, “the authors are both professional/trained palaeographers, and Clarysse is the founder of the extremely valuable Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB), which provides data on all published/edited manuscripts from the ancient world, and can be accessed online here.”

The point of the recent article? Again, Hurtado:

The object of the recent article is a critique of the tendencies of a few scholars in NT studies to push for early datings of NT manuscripts, sometimes highly improbably early datings.

Of course the one manscript that is of most popular and controversial interest is P52, that small scrap of text from the Gospel of John. I won’t repeat all the details here since they are widely known and readily available on Wikipedia. The main point of interest of this fragment is that it is generally dated to around 125 CE, and that since it was found in Egypt, this date accordingly is evidence that the Gospel of John, generally thought to have been composed in Asia Minor, must have been some time earlier than 125 CE. And since the Gospel of John is widely considered the latest of the canonical gospels, this fragment can serve as evidence for the traditional dating of the Gospels — the last decades of the first century.

Larry Hurtado does not appear to be particularly interested in P52 since he makes no mention of it in his post, though he does mention around 15 other manuscripts.

So for the benefit of those who are curious, here are the relevant points and conclusion of Pasquale Orsini & Willy Clarysse.

C.P. Thiede has argued for a first century date for P52. (Papyrologists have generally reacted negatively to Thiede’s general arguments for earlier dating of manuscripts.)

B. Jaroš also has assigned dates for manuscripts much earlier than those proposed by Nestle-Aland, but Orsine and Clarysse point out the fragile foundations of these early dates, being dependent as they are upon comparisons with less than absolutely firm dates of related manuscripts. Orsine and Clarysse object that the dates of Jaroš are assigned sometimes on the basis of comparing single letters apart from the general graphic aspect.

Orsine and Clarysse also criticize Jaroš for referring to Comfort-Barrett’s work on manuscript dating (also arguing for early dates) as if it represented a consensus, “thought this is clearly not the case.”

Here is how Orsine and Clarysse classify the famous P52 fragment (with my own formatting):

Two forms of writing originated in bureaucratic and chancery practices.

The first type (comprising a large number of New Testament manuscripts) was used in the main central and peripheral offices in the second and third centuries . . . .  it is round, unimodular and looped, and the strokes end in apices (in the lower parts) and small hooks (in the upper parts); sometimes curves and flourishes are added at the end of letters.

Typical examples are

  • PSI V 446 (Pap. Flor. XXX, n° 122, pl. CXI; TM 19292),
  • an edict of the praefect Marcus Petronius Mamertinus, written 133-137,
  • and P. Oxy. LVIII 3917 (P. Oxy. LVIII, pl. 2; TM 27301),
  • an early second century letter, sent by the praefect’s office to a strategos.

From this type derives the above-mentioned “Alexandrian stylistic class”, which itself is the origin of the Alexandrian majuscule. The New Testament manuscripts belonging to this type are P32, P46, P52, P66, P85, P87, P90, P104, P116, P118, and 0171.

Back to Jaroš and Comfort-Barrett and their early date for P52:

Jaroš attributes five manuscripts to the late first or early second century AD: P46 (AD 75-100), P52 (AD 80-125), P64+67+4 (AD 75-100), P87 (AD 75-125), P104 (AD 75-125); Comfort–Barrett (with corrections of COMFORT, 2005) attribute only two manuscripts to the early second century AD: P52 (AD 100-125) and P104 (AD 100-150 in the first edition and AD 100-125 in the second edition).

But Orsine and Clarysse object:

The manuscripts P46, P52, P87, P104 belong to a specific type of bureaucratic and chancery script.

P52 can be compared with PSI V 446 (AD 133- 137; TM 19292) and P. Flor. I 1 (AD 153; Pap. Flor. XXX, n° 124, pl. CXIII-CXIV; TM 23525). P52 may be compared with P. Fay. 87 (PARSONS–TURNER, 1987, pl. 48; TM 10930), written in 156 and one of the earliest dated witnesses for some fundamental characteristics of the “Alexandrian stylistic class”.

P104 is very similar, from a graphic point of view, to P52: Comfort–Barrett and Jaroš instead proposed PSI XI 1213 (NORSA, 1929-1946, pl. 9a; LDAB 886) and P. Oxy. LXII 4301 (P. Oxy. LXII, pl. I; LDAB 888) as parallels. These comparisons are inappropriate, however, since both P104 and P52 are written in round majuscule.

In conclusion, Orsine and Clarysse chastise biblical scholars for embracing unsupportably early dates for their manuscripts:

There are no first century New Testament papyri and only very few can be attributed to the second century (P52, P90, P104, probably all the second half of the century) or somewhere between the late second and early third centuries (P30, P64+67+4, 0171, 0212).

Biblical scholars should realise that some of the dates proposed by some of their colleagues are not acceptable to Greek palaeographers and papyrologists.

The article includes a wonderful table of 11 scripts for comparison, as well as cross-references for 91 manuscripts and the dates assigned to them Comfort-Barrett, Jaroš, Nestle-Aland and Orsine and Clarysse.

For P52 we find:

  • Comfort-Barrett: 100-125
  • Jaroš: 80-125
  • Nestle-Aland: 100-150
  • Orsine-Clarysse: 125-175

And in case you missed the point, here is the abstract of the article:

ABSTRACT. — The date of the earliest New Testament papyri is nearly always based on palaeographical criteria. A consensus among papyrologists, palaeographers and New Testament scholars is presented in the edition of NESTLE–ALAND, 1994. In the last twenty years several New Testament scholars (THIEDE, COMFORT–BARRETT, 1999, 2001 and JAROŠ, 2006) have argued for an earlier date of most of these texts. The present article analyzes the date of the earliest New Testament papyri on the basis of comparative palaeography and a clear distinction between different types of literary scripts. There are no first-century New Testament papyri and only very few papyri can be attributed to the (second half of the) second century. It is only in the third and fourth centuries that New Testament manuscripts become more common, but here too the dates proposed by COMFORT–BARRETT, 1999, 2001, and JAROŠ, 2006 are often too early.

One gets the impression that if a later date for P52 is thought to be a “new” date, it is so only for biblical scholars. It looks like few paleographers have ever been persuaded by the hopes of many of their New Testament peers.

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26 thoughts on ““New” Date for that St John’s Fragment, Rylands Library Papyrus P52”

  1. It would be great if New Testament scholarship would finally catch-up to everybody else for once:

    “… The presumed dating of P52 to the first half of the second century has been called “sensational” and seems untenable. One significant argument against the early dating of P52 is that the fragment was part of a codex, or book, rather than a scroll, and there are few examples of such books in existence at such an early date. Moreover, in a fairly recent paleographical study published in the Archiv für Papyrusforschung 35 (1989), German scholar Andreas Schmidt suggested a date for P52 of 170 AD/CE +/- 25 years…”

    – Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ (2007), page 68/69

  2. In my opinion the real explosive conclusion of Orsyne and Clarysse is that the manuscript fragments P46, P52, P87 and P104 have handwriting typical of a bureaucracy or a chancery. We *appear* to have evidence that the state took upon itself to copy and distribute Jesus stories!

    1. That’s a bit strong. It seems more prudent to suggest that a number of clerks and/or bureaucrats converted to Christianity – then it would be the natural for the task of copying a congregations documents falling to them. (Busman’s holiday an’ all.)

  3. I’m away from my home computer which is my repository for documents/articles etc. so I cannot direct you to a specific link for the whole work ‘cited’ below.

    But, if you check out R. Bagnall’s recent book:


    In the blurb it says:

    “.. distinguished papyrologist Roger Bagnall shows that a great deal of this discussion and scholarship has been misdirected, biased, and at odds with the realities of the ancient world …..Bagnall explains why papyrus manuscripts have routinely been dated too early, how the role of Christians in the history of the codex has been misrepresented …..Supporting a more conservative approach to dating surviving papyri”

    In the book itself Bagnall pays close attention to the problems of P52, gives Brent Nongbri’s work [he urges a more open dating of P52 than the optimistic conservatives] a positive rating and makes a couple of strong statements about current Christian scholarship in this field.

  4. I can understand lay hobbyists ardently defending conservative scholars against any suspicion of bias in their work — these are honorable men, dedicated to pristine, objective Truth who would never allow their personal faith to interfere with their unassailable intellectual integrity — as some of them (e.g. Gakusiedon, Jonathan Burke, Tim O’Neill) do. But we even have scholars themselves (e.g. McGrath, Hurtado, and certain names associated with Nazareth digs) encouraging this Pollyannish scenario that would make biblical scholarship unique in the whole field of arts and humanities. A topic such as this, more particularly the response such as this from experts who stand apart from the ideological interests of biblical scholars generally, would surely be enough to silence all those unrealistic claims of of the intellectual uniqueness of scholars of the New Testament. You’d think so, wouldn’t you.

  5. http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/7755_9195.pdf

    Here is Hurtado’s review of Bagnall’s book.

    “In sum, this slender volume essentially comprises a case for dating the spread of Christianity in Egypt in the third century (rather than the second) and for preferring slightly later dating of most if not all of the Christian manuscripts often taken as from the second century.’

    And this is from the review by Allen Kerkeslager.

    “Too many scholars have built careers on applying forms of literary criticism to promote untestable speculation about how early Christian literature preserves remnants of “oral traditions” and “lost sources” generated by imaginary “communities.” It is almost routine to assign these imaginative constructs to dates as early as possible before the actual documents from which they are inferred. As in the case of Thiede, this habit is typically motivated by a wish to find support for a preferred view of the origins of Christianity. This motive is not easily resisted because the intangibility of hypothetical documents invites self-authenticating circularity…”


    More at the site these links come from.

    1. This is not a very useful or interesting reply to the discussion I’m afraid, but I just want people to know that ‘Kerkeslager’ could be literally translated to ‘church hitter’ or ‘church slapper’ (but also ‘church butcher’).
      No idea what the real origins of the name are, but it made me snicker so there you go.

    1. So, based on:

      1. What Foster says re P.Egerton 2 and P52 in his review of Bagnall in the thread above

      2.What Hurtado says in his blog viz:

      ” …. proposing (with a number of us recently) that it [P52] should probably be dated sometime in the later part of the 2nd century”

      and then later:

      “But I do mention there (n. 2 and n. 20) that the date of P52 “may have to be adjusted downward to ca. 200 CE,”

      I reckon we give the ‘new’ date of P52 as – ca 200 at the earliest.


      1. 200 AD! Actually that sounds right. To my untrained eye, the writing of P52 is very much like that of P66. It could even have been done by the same hand.

  6. As I understand it, the criticisms from Orsini and Clarysse are aimed at those recent scholars (Comfort etc) who have been seeking to establish a date for P52 much earlier than the ‘standard; date of 125CE +/- 25; as stated by Roberts in his original publication of this papyrus. If the arguments of these recent scholars is to be rejected (as does seem plausible on a number of grounds) then Roberts judgements still stands; that P52 can with confidence be dated to the first half of the second century. I note that Nogbri (for example) specifically states that nothing in his comprehensive study of comparators contradicts Roberts assessment. I do not seehow a date of 200 CE would become any more likely.

    With reference to the specific point of Orsini and Clarysse, that the hand in P52 corresponds to a chancery hand; I wonder if they have take on board Robert’s observation that the hand of P52 is not that of a professional scribe. In particular, Roberts notes that there are two different styles of letter formation in P52. The predominant letter forms in P52 are greatly over-scaled (this isn’t apparent on photos, you have to look at the papyrus itself); and hence bigger than the writer was used to do in his/her everyday hand. Which is a sign of a non-professional. Furthermore, however, the writer from time to time slips back into their smaller everyday hand – several times with sigma, once with alpha. In some of these instances he/she goes back and inks a big-letterform over the top. But in others – as in the alpha on the fourth line of the recto – they leave the smaller to stand. But ths smaller alpha has none of the characteristics that Orsini and Clarysse identify as establisheing a later date; the comparators that Roberts produces for these are right at the beginning of the second century. If the smaller alpha-form is the writer’s everyday hand; then he/she probably learned to write in the first century – which does not of course preclude P52 being dated to around 150CE (or even later) but ratther rules 200 CE out.

  7. For P52 we find:

    Comfort-Barrett: 100-125
    Jaroš: 80-125
    Nestle-Aland: 100-150
    Orsine-Clarysse: 125-175

    Seems from the table in the article that all the scholars agree on the possibility of one date- 125AD. I guess I don’t see the big problem. Looks like there is some consensus here.

    1. If one’s conscience allows, one can read Brent Nongbri’s HTR article at http://tinyurl.com/mykp6x2

      Nongbri’s conclusion (P52 :

      What emerges from this survey is nothing surprising to papyrologists: paleography is not the most effective method for dating texts, particularly those written in a literary hand. Roberts himself noted this point in his edition of P52. The real problem is thus in the way scholars of the New Testament have used and abused papyrological evidence. I have not radically revised Roberts’s work. I have not provided any third-century documentary papyri that are absolute “dead ringers”for the handwriting of P52, and even if I had done so, that would not force us to date P52 at some exact point in the third century. Paleographic evidence does notwork that way. What I have done is to show that any serious consideration of thewindow of possible dates for P52 must include dates in the later second and early third centuries. Thus, P52 cannot be used as evidence to silence other debates about the existence (or non-existence) of the Gospel of John in the first half of the second century. Only a papyrus containing an explicit date or one found in a clear archaeological stratigraphic context could do the work scholars want P52 to do. As it stands now, the papyrological evidence should take a second place to other forms of evidence in addressing debates about the dating of the Fourth Gospel.

      Naughty New Testament scholars who try every trick their uncritical reading flocks of sheep let them get away with to “prove” how early their Gospel sources supposedly are!

      1. We should suspect monkey business when they trot out fairly specific dates when only a range of dates is valid. I’ve heard more than one scholar say “around 125 AD,” as if there’s a bell curve between 100 CE and 150 CE. It doesn’t work like that, and anyone who intimates that it does is misrepresenting the evidence. He or she is alluding to a level of precision that does not exist.


        Little white lies for Jesus?

        Note well that most NT scholars have no problem at all dating the Codex Sinaiticus to “sometime in the fourth century.”


        They might suggest “the middle of the fourth century,” but even that date is based on paleography, so the best we can hope for is an educated guess within a fairly wide range. Compare the volume of evidence represented by the Codex Sinaiticus to the tiny scrap represented by P52. Note also that we have much more comparable texts by which we can date the former as opposed to the latter.

        The Catholic Encyclopedia states with a “ho-hum” that:

        Such indications have induced experts to place [the Codex Sinaiticus] in the fourth century, along with Codex Vaticanus and some time before Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephræmi Rescriptus; this conclusion is not seriously questioned, though the possibility of an early fifth-century date is conceded.


        I would also argue that the dating of individual books of the New Testament is even less precise, even though you hear things like “Mark was written around 70 CE” — but that’s a rant I’ll save for later.

  8. I think it’s suspicious that Justin Martyr’s first Apology (150AD) doesn’t use John; just like I think it’s suspicious that Josephus doesn’t mention any Christians or Chrestians being persecuted by Nero, when he clearly had the opportunity to do so, after praising Jesus in a suspicious paragraph, straight after saying he studied with all 4 Jewish sects. But what would I know. I’m just a atheist.

  9. If P52 comes from a codex, then what happened to the rest, the copyright page with the date? The Romans decreed that not only were Christians to be executed for what they believed was true but their documents destroyed. And, are we missing the point of the importance of P52? It is not the date but what P52 states that is really significant.

  10. Chris Walker, the passage you allude to in Josephus is NOT the only one in which he mentions Jesus of Nazareth. There is a second passage which, while not cited nearly as often as the one you’re speaking of, is also almost certainly not “interpolated” by later comments by a “christian” author. (Although what “christian” worthy of the name would try to forge subsequent additions to Josephus, I don’t know.) Unfortunately I don’t have my copy of “Thrones of Blood” handy just now, so I can’t cite the specific passage for you. But you can easily find it. Bon apetit.

  11. A problem with paleographic dating is as the Wikipedia article on the matter shows the tolerable range seems to be up for grabs.

    “”for book hands, a period of 50 years is the least acceptable spread of time”[4][5] with it being suggested that “the “rule of thumb” should probably be to avoid dating a hand more precisely than a range of at least seventy or eighty years.”[6] In an 2005 e-mail addendum to his 1996 “The Paleographical Dating of P-46” paper Bruce W. Griffin stated “Until more rigorous methodologies are developed, it is difficult to construct a 95% confidence interval for NT manuscripts without allowing a century for an assigned date.”[7] William M Schniedewind went even further in the abstract to his 2005 paper “Problems of Paleographic Dating of Inscriptions” and stated that “The so-called science of paleography often relies on circular reasoning because there is insufficient data to draw precise conclusion about dating. Scholars also tend to oversimplify diachronic development, assuming models of simplicity rather than complexity”.[8]”

    In short, Paleographical Dating just doesn’t have the precision needed to claim anything but a 50 year range with range in the 70 to 100 year range being more realistic.

    I would like to mention Geoffrey S. Smith’s 2014 Guilt by Association: Heresy Catalogues in Early Christianity by Oxford University Press on page 73 clearly states regarding P52’s date “the most recent studies have exercised more caution, preferring instead to assign the fragment a date sometime between the second and early third centuries. For a recent discussion of the controversial dating of P52 and an example of a more cautious assessment of the paleographic evidence, see Brent Nongbri, “The Use and and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.; HTR 98(2005):23-48)”

    So trying to pretend Pasquale Orsini & Willy Clarysse are the latest word P52 does doesn’t work. It is clear that the field of Paleographical Dating has some serious problems if it can’t figure out if a 50, 70, or 100 year range for a work is reasonable.

  12. It would be helpful if this article had included Brent Nongbri’ study of 2005 (“The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 23-48.) which stated “the ‘rule of thumb’ should probably be to avoid dating a hand more precisely than a range of at least seventy or eighty years” and also stated “What I have done is to show that any serious consideration of the window of possible dates for P52 must include dates in the later second and early third centuries.”

    Bruce W. Griffin’s 2005 e-mail addendum to his 1996 “The Paleographical Dating of P-46” paper stated “Until more rigorous methodologies are developed, it is difficult to construct a 95% confidence interval for NT manuscripts without allowing a century for an assigned date.”

    It is telling that all of the dates listed are well below that “century for an assigned date” and none even get to the “range of at least seventy or eighty years”.

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