How Was a Now Treasured Ancient Greek New Testament Manuscript of John’s Gospel Rescued From the Garbage Heap?

BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

If you have seen the local city garbage heap, which smells badly beyond comprehension. You likely could never consider the idea of sorting through it looking for anything of value. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of man-hours it might take to happen up that one item that could be a priceless treasure.

Philip W. Comfort writes,

In 1898, a treasure beyond all comprehension in a garbage heap, it was and is of tremendous value. What was discovered and why is it so very important to Christians today? “Beginning in 1898 Grenfell and Hunt discovered thousands of papyrus fragments in the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. This site yielded volumes of papyrus fragments containing all sorts of written material (literature, business and legal contracts, letters, etc.), together with biblical manuscripts. Nearly half of the 115 New Testament papyri have come from Oxyrhynchus. The Oxyrhynchus papyri were discovered between 1898 and 1907 by Grenfell and Hunt and then by the Italian exploration society from 1910 to 1913 and 1927 to 1934.

800px-Excavations_at_Oxyrhynchus_1_ca_1903_A

Of the fifty Oxyrhynchus papyri, about half were published between 1898 and the 1930s. These include P1, P5, P9–10, P13, P15–18, P20–24, P27–30, P35–36, P39, P48. In addition to the twenty-five New Testament papyri they published in the early part of this century, they have given us another twenty-five in the second part of the century—(as numbered by Aland): P51, P65, P69, P70, P71, P77, P78, P90, P100 through P116; these last seventeen have come out in the late 1990s. The following are some of the most significant Oxyrhynchus papyri: P1 (Matt. 1), P5 (John 1, 16), P13 (Heb. 2–5, 10–12), P22 (John 15–16), P77 (Matt. 23), P90 (John 18), P104 (Matt. 21), P115 (Rev. 3–12).”[1]

Grenfell (left) and Hunt (right) in about 1896
Grenfell (left) and Hunt (right) in about 1896

AN AMAZING UNFORESEEN DISCOVERY

At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, Bernard P. Grenfell, a scientist and Egyptologist, and Arthur S. Hunt, an English papyrologist, scholars at the University of Oxford, visited Egypt. Close to the Nile valley, among the garbage heaps, they would make a discovery of many papyrus fragments. In 1920, Grenfell and Hunt were cataloging the collection, when Grenfell obtained some additional fragments that had been dug up in Egypt. The John Rylands Library in Manchester, England had him acquire these on behalf. Sadly, though, Grenfell died in 1926, and hunt passed away in 1934 before they were able to finish the catalog.

It would be Colin H. Roberts (1909 – 1990), another a classical scholar and papyrologist at Oxford University, who would complete the cataloging of the papyri. One day in 1934 while he was sorting through the fragments, he took note of a papyrus scrap measuring 3.5 by 2.4 inches (8.99 x 6 cm). To his astonishment, the Greek handwriting had words that he was familiar with. On the recto side (preferred writing side) were words from John 18:31-33. The verso side contained parts of verses 37 and 38. Roberts understood right away that he had stumbled upon a valuable treasure.

Recto: Latin for “directly” or “rightly,” but a technical term for papyri and codices. For papyri, it is the side of the page with the fiber strips running horizontally, preferred for writing. For codices, the meaning “rightly” applies because the term refers to the right-hand page when the codex (book) is open. – Dr. Don Wilkins

Verso: from Latin for “turn,” the opposite (left) page to the right (recto, q.v.) page in an open codex. For papyri, the back side of the page, where the fiber strips run vertically. Usually, this side is left blank because it is hard to write across the vertical strips. – Dr. Don Wilkins

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS
JRL19060215 P52
Rylands Greek P 457, The St John Fragment, On display in the Rylands Gallery at John Rylands Library in Manchester, England
Text John 18:31–33, 18:37–38
Date 110–150 (Recent papyrologists try to redate to 200 C.E.)
Script Greek
Found Egypt
Now at John Rylands University Library
Cite C. H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library (Manchester University Press, 1935)
Size 8.9 cm x 6 cm
Type Seems to be Alexandrian
Category I

DETERMINING ITS AGE

Roberts initial inspection of the papyrus scrap led him to believe that P52 was very old. But just how old was it? In order to determine its age, he compared the handwriting of P52 with other literary documents and documentary manuscripts. He saw that he was dealing with a practiced scribe, a literate scribe, who had experience in preparing documents and in copying literature as well. This discipline is called paleography (the study of ancient writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts), and specifically, Robert’s was a papyrologist. Papyrology is the study of ancient literature, correspondence, legal archives, etc., as preserved in manuscripts written on papyrus, the most common form of writing material in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. According to E. G. Turner in the book Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, paleography “is the science that studies ancient writing.” There are multiple ways of dating manuscripts, such as “archaeological evidence, codicology [study of codexes], comparative palaeography, and the evolution of the nomina sacra [the abbreviation of sacred names].”[2]

Here, with P52, it must be done with comparative paleography alone because there is no archaeology associated with it. “The primary means of dating a New Testament manuscript, as an undated literary text, is by doing a comparative analysis with the handwriting of other dated documentary texts. The second method is to do a comparative analysis with literary manuscripts having a date based on the association with a documentary text on the recto or verso.”[3] Roberts compared P52 with both literary texts and documentary text. Over a period of time, fifty years or so, handwriting style changes. For example, we have the Roman Uncial, the Biblical Uncial, the Decorated Rounded Uncial, and the Severe (Slanted) style. These different handwriting styles can give us the age of our manuscript that is being dated if it is compared with other reliably dated literary documents and dated documentary manuscripts. By applying comparative paleography, Roberts was able to set the date for P52 to 100-150 C.E. Becinf cautious he photographed P52 and copies to three other papyrologists and asked that they too date the manuscript. What did they conclude?

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

After studying the writing style of the script and the strokes, all three of the papyrologists agreed that P52 had been written in 100-150 C.E., a mere few decades after the apostle John’s had written the Gospel of John. What have many textual scholars, paleographers, and papyrologists since P52 was published in 1935 concluded?

Paleographers and Textual Scholars Date P52 Early

  • 100-150 C. H. Roberts
  • 100-150 Sir Frederic G. Kenyon
  • 100-150 W. Schubart
  • 100-150 Sir Harold I. Bell
  • 100-150 Adolf Deissmann
  • 100-150 E. G. Turner (cautiously)
  • 100-150 Ulrich Wilken
  • 100-150 W. H. P. Hatch
  • 100-125: Philip W. Comfort
  • 100-150 Bruce M. Metzger
  • 125-175 Kurt and Barbara Aland
  • 125-175 Pasquale Orsini
  • 125-175 Willy Clarysse
  • 170 C.E. Andreas Schmidt
  • 100-200 Daniel B. Wallace

Paleography, though, is not an absolute method of dating manuscripts, as it is both an art and a science. Therefore, a few other recent scholars have concluded that the text could have been written anytime during the second century, while a couple of others believe it was copied after 200 C.E.

Other More Recent Textual Scholars Date P52

  • 175-225 Brent Nongbri
  • 81–292 Don Barker
  • 200-300 Michael Gronewald

Still, this tiny scrap of papyrus, P52, was and is, one of the oldest existing manuscript fragments of the Greek New Testament that have ever been discovered. More on the redating in a moment.

The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS

WHAT THE P52 FRAGMENT TELLS US

Why is this tiny fragment of such great value to Christians? There are two very good reasons. First, the formatting of the P52 fragments helps us to better understand how the early Scriptures view the Scriptures. They highly valued the Scriptures.

In most of the first century, written texts were predominant on scrolls. Toward, the latter part of the first century, we had texts on both the scroll and the codex (book form). A scroll is a roll of papyrus, parchment, or other material, used for a written document. The scroll was generally divided up into pages, even though it was continuous, by gluing separate sheets at the edges. Usually, the reader or lector, as well as the writer unrolled, the scroll one page at a time, leaving it rolled up on both sides of the current page that was showing. The scroll is unrolled from side to side, with the text being written or read, from lines of text, from the top to the bottom of the pages. If it were Hebrew for example, it would be written from right to left, and one would open that scroll by rolling to the right. On the other hand, if it were Greek it would be written from left to right, or even an alternating direction with other languages. In almost all cases, only one side of a scroll was used for writing.

Christian Codex

However, the tiny fragment, now known as P52, that Roberts had discovered has handwriting on both sides. Therefore, this made it almost certain right away that he had a codex, not a scroll. A codex is a collection of ancient manuscript texts, especially of the Biblical Scriptures, in book form. It is made up of sheets of papyrus or parchment inscribed with handwritten material, which is created by folding a single sheet of standard-sized pages, giving the scribe two leaves or four pages.

Were there and advantages of the codex over the scroll? When we consider the thought of unrolling and using a scroll as opposed to the codex, we can likely think of many advantages of one over the other. The codex has the capacity to contain far more written material; it is much easier to carry and more convenient. Some in the early days of the codex even mentioned these advantages but were slow to move away from the long use of the scroll. Again, the Christians played a major part in the eventual death of the scroll. Their evangelism would have been far more cumbersome without the codex.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

In comparison to the scroll, the codex was also far more affordable, because both sides of the pages could be written on, getting more value for one’s money. Moreover, instead of having one book with each scroll, one could have the whole of the old or New Testament. The fact that one could find Bible passages far easier and faster added to the codex’s success. This was true for Christians, but also for lawyers and the like. When we think of the early Christians, we are reminded that they evangelized to the point of going from 120 disciples in the upper room, to more than one million Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire at the beginning of the second century C.E. In addition, early Christians were evangelists, who used pre-evangelism, i.e. apologetics. They could have what we now call proof texts, easily located, to make their arguments to pagans and Jews alike. Then, the fact that the codex book had a wooden cover, making it more durable than the scroll, added to its advantages. Codices were useful, sensible, and likely effective for personal reading. The Christians of the third century C.E. actually had parchment pocket Gospels.

It should be added too that the codex made it much easier and more affordable for both churches and individuals to make their own copies of the Scriptures. Initially, the NT books were copied individually. However, by the beginning of the second century, the Gospels were joined together copied in one book. Soon, thereafter, this was true of Paul’s letters as well. Both being copied over and over again. Thus, the codex no doubt contributed largely to the rapid growth of Christianity from 120 disciples in the upper room in 33 C.E. to over one million Christians by 150 C.E.

The second reason why the Rylands P52 fragment is very valuable to Christians today is that it reveals to us, along with many other early papyri, just how reliably the original text of the NT was transmitted. Even though the fragment contains just John 18:31-33 [recto], 37-38 [verso], its contents agree almost exactly with what we have in our critical Greek New Testaments today, that is the Nesle-Aland 28th edition of the Greek New Testament and the 5th edition of the United Bible Society. The Rylands P52 fragment thus shows us that the Bible can be restored despite having been copied and recopied over 1,400 years.

Of course, the Rylands fragment of John’s Gospel is but one piece of manuscript evidence among the 5,898 fragments and manuscripts that establish the reliable transmission of the Greek NT text. Christians do not ground their faith in the archaeological finds of the last 150 years. However, archaeology has given us much to reinforce that faith. We believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Nonetheless, how reassuring it is when P52 helps us better appreciate that we can restore and have restored the Greek NT text to its original wording.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

THE P52 PROJECT: Is P52 Really the Earliest Greek New Testament Manuscript?

What are the churchgoers, the Bible college students, and seminary students to do when one Bible scholar says one thing and another Bible scholar says something quite different, or worse still, as is the case with P52, several Bible scholars are saying different dates for the time when the Greek New Testament fragment P52 was written? P = Papyrus (a plant in Egypt), the material that was used to make sheets of papyrus paper that were written on by scribes to make copies of Bible books. 52 = the number assigned to that discovered manuscript. What makes it even more unnerving is when one is not an expert in the field of study, only having basic knowledge. How can they possibly know who is correct? Worse still, the Christian is put in the embarrassing position on social media of telling an atheist that P52 is dated to 100-150 C.E., and then the atheist responds to the Christian with, ‘no your evidence from 1935 is outdated, as recent research points to a date of 200 C.E. or later.’ What is the Christian to do? What will be accomplished here in THE P52 PROJECT can be used at other times when the Christian is faced with two scholars or more offering conflicting conclusions. We are going to use the common sense that God gave us and weigh the evidence from both sides. We are going to treat THE P52 PROJECT like a criminal trial with P52 being on trial.

What the churchgoer, serious Bible students, and seminary students, and hopefully all Christians will learn in this short publication concerning P52 will help them in their approach when Bible scholars are offering conflicting information on other issues as well. The tiny Greek New Testament manuscript, P52, is an extremely useful, indispensable artifact of early Christianity. Andrews has made every effort to make this subject easier to understand. THE P52 PROJECT is too important to leave it in the hands of textual scholars, paleographers, and papyrologists.

[1] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 57.
[2] IBID, 104.
[3] IBID, 106.

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