Papyrus 52 (P52) and the Nomina Sacra

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

Christopher M. Tuckett

New Testament Studies, pp. 544 – 548. Printed in the United Kingdom © 2001 Cambridge University Press

Figure 9 P52 Verso and Recto Side

The oldest manuscript of the New Testament known today is P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century (110-150 C.E.).[1] It was discovered in 1934. It measures 21/2 by 31/2 inches, and contains only a few verses of the fourth gospel, John 18:31-33 (recto), 37, and 38 (verso). The recto is the front of the manuscript, while the verso is the back of the manuscript. Bernard P. Grenfell acquired it around 1920, yet it went unnoticed until 1934, when paleographer C. E. Roberts to notice of the facts that it contained the Gospel of John. Robert had evaluated the fragment, dating it to the beginning of the second century C.E. While other paleographers disagreed, other renowned scholars reached the same conclusion, such as Sir Frederic Kenyon, W. Schubart, Sir Harold I. Bell, Adolf Deissmann, Ulrich Wilcken, and W. H. P. Hatch.

P52 is very important for three reasons (1) It establishes that the Gospel of John was written in the first century.[2] (2) It is of the Alexandrian family, so it establishes that this family of manuscripts is the earliest, not the corrupt Byzantine text. (3) If it contains the nomina sacra, this would lean very heavily toward the belief that the original manuscripts contained the nomina sacra as well. In addition, it would suggest that the authors of the New Testament would have not used the Tetragrammaton, when quoting the Old Testament. It is point three that interest us.

Tuckett begins his article by giving his readers some background information on P52, just as I have done in the above. He then jumps into another important feature about P52, aside from its early date, which makes it special, namely, our point number (3) in the above the presence or lack of the Nomina Sacra. He also makes the point that there is no nomina sacra in what we have that is extant (existing); it is the lacunae[3] where the debate lies about the presence of the nomina sacra.

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

Tuckett’s Position

We have an image of the recto side of John 18:31-33, lines 1-7. While some readers do not know biblical Greek, they can see the brackets, which show them what is missing from the fragment, based on that so-called educated guess. Tuckett goes on to make the following argument(s), to support his position that there were no nomina sacra in P52. One aspect that we are concerned with is page justification. The scribe would right to keep the lines justified on both sides. Letters would be kept at the same width and height, with each line having close to the same number of letters. Scribes would break words apart, moving the second half to the line beneath, to keep the lines at a consistently regular length.  For example, the verso side has six lines of 30, 30, 28, 31, 28, and 29. Notice that the lines are not more than three characters off. Now, our recto side, in the image above has 35, 31, 31, 34, 28, and 31. You will note here that line

Recto Side: John 18:31-33 – Roberts

5 is seven characters off from line one, and the justification is not consistently regular.

If we look at Image 7, you will notice the Greek name for Jesus is highlighted in the nomen sacrum form. We will also notice that line 5 is not as justified as it should be. We can also note that line six begins with a three-letter word, which would fit better in line 5, making them more consistent. Thus, the argument is,

“If, however, one reads the full name [Gr., Iesou, Jesus] in line 2 and [Gr., Iesoun, Jesus] in line 5, the figures become rather more uniform: the number of letters in each full line is now 35, 33, 31, 34, 31, 31, giving a range of 4 letters between the greatest and smallest, which is very similar to, if not identical with, the verso.” (Tuckett 2001, 548) In addition, Tuckett goes on to point that, if the scribe, who is demonstrating line consistency as to justification, had used the nomen sacrum of just two lets as you see in line five, he would have placed the first word (Gr., kai), of line six at the end of five, making the lines more consistent.

While this writer agrees with Tuckett, if we had to lodge a complaint with his article, it is that he did not address the consistency of the letters to the extent needed to satisfy his critics. While he does talk about the scribe of P52, being consistent in his desire to be consistent and justify the lines of the manuscripts, he did not address other features. Tuckett should have gone on to address whether the scribe was consistent in the size of his letters and the spaces that he used. Paleographers use four hands in describing the skills of copyists:

  • The Common Hand is the work of one, who only limited understanding and skills, as he lacks the skills in making documents, let alone literature.
  • The Documentary Hand is the work of one, who has the basic understanding and skills in preparing documents.
  • The Reformed Documentary Hand is the work of a scribe who has experience in preparing documents and copying literature, and can do the work of a professional, if he sets his mind to it.
  • The Professional Hand is the work of a professional scribe, who would be very meticulous at his work, with everything being consistent and exact.

The scribe of P52 demonstrates a Reformed Documentary Hand; therefore, he had extensive experience in preparing documents and copying literature, as well as the skills to do professional work if he slowed down, and set his mind to it. His critics would have been more satisfied if Tuckett had gone into the physical features. In the end, after looking at the evidence of both Tuckett and paleographer Larry Hurtado, it is this writer’s position that the Nomina Sacra got its start between 100 and 175 C.E., growing more popular and expanding throughout the Roman Empire as the second century drew to a close.

[1] The symbol “P” stands for “Papyrus.”

[2] Professor Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792 – 1860) argued that the apostle John did not write the Gospel of John in the last days of the first-century, but rather about 160 C.E. The fragment was found in Egypt, far from Ephesus, the home congregation of John. The fact that it is dated to about 110-125 C.E., and it had circulated clear down into Egypt, establishes that it was written in the first-century.

[3] A lacuna is a gap or place where text is missing in a manuscript or fragment of a manuscript.

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