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Larry Hurtado, Christopher M. Tuckett, and Ward D. Andrews
The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century (110-125 C.E.). It was discovered in 1934. The latest calculations have all known Greek manuscripts at about 5,898, written from as early as 110 C.E., to as late as the end of the fifteenth-century. It is by means of the art and science of paleography that we can arrive at an approximate date for when a manuscript was written. Paleographers could be viewed as manuscript detectives; through their knowledge of the writing of ancient texts, its form and its style, we get a reasonably close idea of when a manuscript was copied. For example, when looking at our modern languages today, we can see that within every generation or two there are subtle changes. That holds true of ancient languages as well. Through painstaking comparison of hundreds of small features within an ancient manuscript, a paleographer can provide us with a date that is within 25 to 50 years on either side of his recommended date. Certain periods can be distinguished by such features as the amount of punctuation within a manuscript, abbreviations, and the amount of spacing between words. There are certain documents such as receipts, letters, leases, and petitions that do contain dates. It is these that have formed a library of letters with the styles that go into making each letter during different time periods.
Above is P52, the fragment of John’s Gospel. If you were to look closely at the actual copy, you would see that this copyist added a little hook or embellishment to his manuscript. For example, a loop or curly line, while also omitting certain marks, incorporating a special type of cross-stroke and rounded stroke of particular letters, which places this fragment into the early part of the second century C.E.
While some textual scholars may not agree, 14 codices are now placed within late second century C.E., with another 31 codices that are dated to the third century. These are surely some of the most valuable manuscripts in establishing the original text of the Christian Greek Scriptures. As you have likely noted, each papyrus manuscript is designated with a capital or Gothic P and a superscript numeral by which they are known internationally. (Andrews, The Text of the New Testament: A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Textual Criticism 2012, 62-63) P52 is very important for three reasons (1) It establishes that the Gospel of John was written in the first century. (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.
Nomina Sacra: There are various contractions and abbreviations that are found in our earliest manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The type that is most important to this discussion is what has become known as the sacred names, or nomina sacra, such as Jesus, Lord, Christ, God, and Jerusalem. These sacred names are abbreviated by keeping the first letter or two and the last letter or two. Another important feature is the horizontal line placed over these letters to help the reader know that they are dealing with a contraction.
Why, how, and when did this distinctive form of writing these fifteen names develop? Was it isolated to a certain area of the Roman Empire? Which of these sacred names came first and which followed thereafter? There are multiple reasons given by the textual scholars in an attempt to answer the above questions (Andrews, The Text of the New Testament: A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Textual Criticism 2012, 54) We are interested because it helps us to determine whether the authors used the divine name. Paleographer, Christopher Tuckett, believes that the name of Jesus in our P52 fragment was written out in full, not in a contracted or abbreviated form. The article that we are considering by Larry Hurtado, The Nomina Sacra, Method and Probability, “is the importance of taking account of all scribal features of manuscripts in attempting to establish probabilities for lacunae. Careful attention to method and to all the scribal features of P52 suggests that the use of an abbreviated form of the name ‘Jesus’ is more probable than not, and that P52 is not an early exception to the rule that all N[ew] T[estament] Manuscripts use nomina sacra.” (L. Hurtado, P52 and the Nomina Sacra 2003, 1) It should be noted that the argument is not about an abbreviated or contracted nomina sacra in the text portion of P52 that is extant, but the portion of the lines of P52 that are missing, which have references to Jesus in the recto side, line 2 (8:32) and line 5 (8:35).
Hurtado offers an introduction of why he is penning such an article, namely that he wants to investigate or revisit the position of Christopher Tuckett (nomina sacra is not found in P52). In this, he uses another article by Charles Hill, who disagrees with Tuckett’s findings, as well as making his own position known. Hurtado then launches into a brief description of P52. In essence, Hurtado’s position has been that the practice of substituting sacred names, with abbreviated or contracted forms of that name, began very early and quickly in the copying of Christian manuscripts, becoming universal throughout the Roman Empire (originating late first century C.E.). It seems that Hurtado is defending his position, because if P52 does not contain nomina sacra, this removes some major evidence from his side of the argument. It further seems that Hurtado is not approaching Tuckett’s position as objective as he could. Before ever delving into Tuckett’s finding, he makes this subjective comment,
To turn now to the precise question before us, I should make two preliminary things clear at the outset. First, there is in fact not nearly as much at stake in the question as Tuckett suggests. He proposes that the absence of nomina sacra forms in P52 could indicate that the scribal practice either did not emerge as early, or did not become as widespread, as some (such as yours truly) have contended. But, even if P52 did not contain nomina sacra forms, the basic conclusion represented in scholarly discussions of the data remains secure: Whatever its derivation (whether from Jewish scribal precedents or originating in Christian circles), the scribal practice emerged very early and quickly became amazingly pervasive in Christian usage; and, together with the equally clear preference for the codex, the nomina sacra comprise what I have elsewhere referred to as the earliest evidence of an emergent material and visual culture in ancient Christianity. (L. Hurtado, P52 and the Nomina Sacra 2003, 4)
Hurtado goes on to make his case for the nomina sacra being very early, with quick growth, becoming a universal practice by 100 C.E. He writes,
So far as I know, among the 300 or so indisputably Christian manuscripts from before 300 CE, those that demonstrably did not have any nomina sacra forms can be counted on the fingers of our two hands. So, I repeat that the early emergence and impressively wide adoption of the scribal convention remains assured, whatever may be the case with P52. (L. Hurtado, P52 and the Nomina Sacra 2003, 5)
All of the 300 manuscripts that fall before 300 C.E., are P4/64/67 P32 P46 P52 P66+ P75+ P77/103 P101 P87 P90 P98 (bad shape, differences) P104 P109 (too small) P118 (too small) P137 0189 P. Oxyrhynchus 405, which date to [100-150/175 C.E.] Then, we have P1 P5 P13 P20 P23 P27 P30 P35 P39 P40 P45 P47 P49/65 P71 P72 P82 P85 P95 P100 P106 P108 P111 P110 P113 P115 P121 (too small) P125 P126 (too small) P133 P136 0220 0232 P. Oxyrhynchus 406 P29 (Metzger Western & Aland Free; too small to be certain) P38 P48 P69 0171 0212 (mixed) P107 (Independent), which date to [175-250 C.E.] We also have some that straddle. P8 P9 P12 P15 P16 P17 P18 P19 P24 P28 P50 P51 P53 P70 P78 P80 P86 P88 P89 (too small) P91 P92 P114 P119 P120 P129 (too small) P131 P132 too small) P134 0162 0207 0231 P. Antinoopolis 54 P37 (Free, mostly Western), which date to [250-300 C.E.]
Hurtado does go on to state that the portion of the recto side of P52 is missing; therefore, the best and textual scholar can do is an educated guess, “so the better our familiarity with all the relevant data the better our guess.” (p. 6) This is also known more specifically as conjectural emendation. While this sounds less than certain, it is not as dire as the terms “guess” and “conjectural” may make it seem. While we do not have the space to ramble on about the extensive knowledge of textual scholars and paleographers, it is so vast that they are very much familiar with the practices of what copyists would do in any given era. Thus, we could say that the educated guess is just that, educated.
Here again, 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. 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 5 is seven characters off from line one, and the justification is not consistently regular.
If we look at the image to the left, 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.
The Case of Hurtado Against Tuckett
It seems that Hurtado’s attempt at discrediting Tuckett’s position is really nothing of the sort. In short, one of the greatest paleographers of the 20th century was Colin H. Roberts, who also discovered and dated P52 in 1930. One of the reasons for dating P52 so early was the fact that Robert’s believe it did not contain the nomina sacra, which was at that time, believed to be a later convention. However, the position of paleographers began to change over time that the practice of use of the nomina sacra started in the apostolic times of the first century. Thus, Tuckett was in wonderment as to why Robert’s did an about face on P52 just five years later in 1935. Hurtado seems to suggest that Robert’s transition was in keeping up with other viewpoints. He really offers no reasons for Robert’s change of mind.
Further, the only way to discredit Tuckett is to undermine his argument about line length. Hurtado offers three points in his efforts to discredit:
(1) insufficiently-considered variations in spelling of certain words that would noticeably reduce the differences in estimated numbers of characters, (2) more seriously, an inadequate analysis of the scribal features of P52, and (3) a methodological peculiarity in handling the unavoidably inferential task imposed when dealing with lacunose manuscripts. (L. Hurtado, P52 and the Nomina Sacra 2003, 6)
Both arguments (1) and (2) are based on a lack of evidence because P52 is such a small scrap of papyrus. Really, this does nothing because that argument travels both ways, and one can only work with what they have, making the best sound judgments, based on a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Hurtado goes on to make the argument that Tuckett’s count of letters, showing such a disparity, may not be the case because there are other abbreviations that do not have just two letters, but three. Then, there is a Greek word within our line five (ephonesen) that could have had a nun (Gr. letter v, Eng. “n”), on the end of it, adding yet one more letter to make up the ground. This seems to be special pleading because the numen sacrum that Tuckett is suggesting would have been, there are the forms that scholars suggest that were used initially, with the other forms coming later. Thus, Hurtado cannot have it both ways, suggesting how the nomina sacra got its early start, what forms were initially like, and what ones developed later, and then suggest differently covering his bases here.
However, Hurtado does close out with his point (3) in the above, touching on methodology. He suggests that Tuckett does not have a case with his argument of the scribe trying to be consistent in his justification, because the scribe is not consistent in his spacing, his letter sizes, and so on. We will let Hurtdao’s summary be our summary as well.
In sum of these observations, the scribe of P52 was not sufficiently regular in his formation or spacing of letters to lead us to expect a close similarity in the numbers of letters in the lines of the text. It is, therefore, very dubious indeed to make claims about whether P52 contained an abbreviated form of Ιησούς based solely on whether it would produce lines from one to three letters fewer than estimates of the next shortest lines (lines 3 and 6). (L. Hurtado, P52 and the Nomina Sacra 2003, 13)
Edward D. Andrews, THE P52 PROJECT: Is P52 Really the Earliest Greek New Testament Manuscript?. Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2020.
Edward D. Andrews, FROM SPOKEN WORDS TO SACRED TEXTS: Introduction-Intermediate New Testament Textual Studies. Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2020.
Philip W. Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005.
Larry Hurtado, “P52 and the Nomina Sacra.” Tyndale Bulletin, 2003: 1-14.
Larry Hurtado, “The Origin of the Nominal Sacra.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1998: 655-673.
Tuckett, Christopher M. “P52 and Nomina Sacra.” New Testament Study, 2001: 544-48.
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 The symbol “P” stands for “Papyrus.”
 The John Ryland’s manuscript, P52 is the oldest copy of John fragments, containing 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.
 John F. Oates, Alan E. Samuel, and Bradford C. Welles, Yale Papyri in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (New Haven, American Society of Papyrologists, 1967), 1:4.
 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.
 “A gap or place where something is missing in a manuscript” Encarta Dictionary
 In the Figure 1 image P52 Recto Side-John 18:31-33, the square brackets encompasses the portion that is missing. The paleographer is able to determine what would have been there by counting the letters in the lines, the use of other manuscripts, the pattern, and the skill level of the copyist, among other things.