Papyrus 52: Do We Actually Know How Old It Is?

Over the past several days, the Textual Criticism Group has hosted a lively debate concerning the contents and date of P52 (P. Ryl. 457), generally regarded as the earliest manuscript witness to the text of the New Testament.  Following one member’s suggestion that P52 may belong to the Diatesseron or an otherwise-unknown gospel harmony rather than the Gospel of John (specifically, portions of 18:31–33, 37–38), a number of respondents argued that this could not be the case, as the most commonly cited dates for the fragment precede those of the Diatesseron by several decades.  The exchange inspired me to revisit a provocative article written by Brent Nongbri (“The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel” in Harvard Theological Review 98.1 [2005], 23-48; abstract available here), a brilliant guy who also holds the dubious distinction of serving as my first Greek teacher.  Brent is not one to mince words; his opening sentence reads, “The thesis of this paper is simple: we as critical readers of the New Testament often use John Rylands Greek Papyrus 3.457, also known as P52, in inappropriate ways, and we should stop doing so” (p. 23).  In his view, the scholars who adopt an early date for this bit of papyrus as a cornerstone for their assessments of the composition of the Gospel of John as a whole have overlooked or obscured the monumental difficulties which plague the dating of ancient scribal hands.  As numerous papyrologists have shown, paleography alone is not particularly conclusive in the consideration of such hands; Eric Turner, for example, does not eliminate the possibility of an early second-century origin for P52 but notes striking similarities between the formation and slope of its letters and those of a petition dated 184 CE.  Brent himself suggests additional paleographic parallels, some of which belong to the third century.

In sum, “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” (p. 46; italics original).  While the image of this tiny exemplar as the sole bastion standing in the way of the permanent relegation of John to the second century may be a slight overstatement of the case, the point is well taken.

Given my unfamiliarity with the text of the Diatesseron, I cannot reasonably judge whether it could be the actual literary source of the manuscript which has acquired a certain celebrity status in the world of biblical studies (buy your own handsomely framed facsimile here!).  Nevertheless, it is always worthwhile to take a moment to consider just how problematic and tentative the dating of ancient literary artifacts can be, and how these matters may be lastingly impacted by the estimations of a single editor or specialist, for better or worse.

Papyrus 52 (recto)

Papyrus 52 (recto)

Papyrus 52 (verso)

Papyrus 52 (verso)


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August 2009
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