Recently on Vridar, Neil posted about the untimely passing of Hermann Detering. A person commented with a link to his own blog, in which he called Detering a crank, and described Vridar as a blog that is “run by a fraternity who hope that Jesus never existed.” While I am a huge fan of unintended irony, we had to block the fellow for being a boor.
In his post, he defended the use of paleography (or as citizens of the Commonwealth spell it, palaeography) as a means for dating ancient documents. Detering, he insisted, didn’t know what he was talking about.
We can’t deny that when all else fails, paleography is sometimes the only way to guess at a date range for a given manuscript or fragment thereof. Unfortunately, it is the worst of all methods available to us. Here are some reasons why: Continue reading “Some Stray Thoughts on Paleography”
What does it mean to say that a written work from ancient times is “well attested”? If you browse Christian apologetic web sites, you’ll read that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is superior to anything else from antiquity. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) site, for example, tells us that our “New Testament documents are better preserved and more numerous than any other ancient writings.”
This argument, of course, is not new. F. F. Bruce often argued that we hold the NT to an unreasonably higher standard than any other ancient document or set of documents. He lamented that people tend to dwell on the mistakes and discrepancies in the manuscripts. Back in 1963 he wrote:
In view of the inevitable accumulation of such errors over the many centuries, it may be thought that the original texts of the New Testament documents have been corrupted beyond restoration. Some writers, indeed, insist on the likelihood of this to such a degree that one sometimes suspects they would be glad if it were true. But they are mistaken. There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament. (F. F. Bruce, 1963, p. 178, emphasis mine)
As you can see, apologetic victimhood is nothing new.
Ever so much greater
In a more recent work he said that the NT gets unfair treatment. He complained:
The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. (F. F. Bruce, 1981, p. 10, emphasis mine)
In my previous post I addressed the question of the famous P52 manuscript. But the article by Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse is more generally a critique of “theological palaeography” and I highlight here some of their other more points about the principles involved with the dating of manuscripts.
circumstantial evidence — i.e. their archaeological or historical context
or when they belong to a dated archive
or when they are written on the back or front of documentary text (this can give a terminus post — if written on the back; or an ante quem — if a dated document is written on their verso/back)
Other manuscripts (the majority) are thus dated by comparing their handwriting to datable scripts. This gives a relative, not absolute, date for most.
2. New Testament Texts and their Dates
New Testament manuscripts are more problematic than other literary texts since they are nearly always written as part of a codex. This means that the script is the same on both sides of each page and neither side can be used to establish a terminus ante or post quem.
Gradually, however, an uneasy consensus has been reached among papyrologists, and the result of this is found in the dates put forward by Nestle-Aland.
NESTLE–ALAND, 1994 = K. ALAND, Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Hand-schriften des Neuen Testaments. Zweite, neugearbeitete und ergänzte Auflage, bearbeitet von K. ALAND, in Verbindung mit M. WELTE, B. KÖSTER und K. JUNACK (Arbeiten zur Neutestamentlichen Textforschung 1), Berlin – New York, 1994;
Does confessional bias enter this scholarly debate? Markus thinks so:
While ideological disagreements, based on denominations, confessions, even religious backgrounds are mostly remnants of the past and rarely present in Patristic studies, we learn from this debate that whether one is evangelical or critical of evangelicals has even a bearing on the dating of papyri, something, the innocent scholar should think is a matter for impartial scholars to decide. And yet, because we are not dealing with bare evidence, but with witnesses of ‘canonical’ texts, ‘pure’ scholarship operates on a stage that is set by vested interests. How can one avoid to be located in any of the preset sceneries?
Markus includes a reminder about the same problem in relation to P52, the piece of manuscript containing words from the Gospel of John, that many “firmly date” to the first half of the second century
In his article on the misuse of papyrology in New Testament studies, B. Nongbri summarises what he calls ‘nothing surprising to papyrologists: palaeography is not the most effective method for dating texts, particularly those written in a literary hand … Any serious consideration of the window 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.