How are New Testament Manuscripts Dated?


Scholars have found tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts that contain parts of the Bible1. Each manuscript had two aspects to it: 1) the physical media it’s on; 2) the text that has been written on it.  The media and the text have to exist at the same time, but they don’t have to be created at the same time. It is possible for a 2,000 year old text (i.e. the New Testament) to be written on modern media (i.e. paper). It is not possible for modern text (i.e. this article) to have been written on media (i.e. parchment) 2,000 years ago (although modern text can be written on ancient media in modern times). Put another way, both the media and the text have to exist before the writing.

Before dating a manuscript, scholars need to decide what’s being dated

  • Text (i.e. the writings of the Apostles)
  • Media (i.e. parchment)
  • Manuscript (i.e. a New Testament; the media with the text written on it)

In many cases, it’s the last item scholars want to date. With many manuscripts, and Biblical manuscripts in particular, there’s no written date on the manuscript, so dating is based on educated guesses.

Relationship of the Text and Media

Actually an editor who derived A from B should be quite unmoved by external evidence that B is on twentieth century paper, while A is on medieval vellum.2

When I first read that statement, I didn’t understand it, although I made a note of it because I suspected it was significant. It was only after I had done a lot more reading about manuscripts did I understand the significance between the text, media and manuscript dates. Here’s a hypothetical example, using the Gospel of John as text B, and a medieval commentary of the Gospel of John as text A:

  • A.D. 60-90 – Gospel of John is written on papyrus
  • A.D. 1000 – Commentary of the Gospel of John is derived from Gospel of John and is written on vellum
  • A.D. 1995 – Gospel of John is printed on paper

We now have these dates:

  • Text
    • Gospel of John – A.D. 60-90
    • Commentary of John – A.D. 1000
  • Media
    • Papyrus – A.D. 60-90
    • Vellum – A.D. 1000
    • Paper – A.D. 1995
  • Manuscripts
    • Gospel of John on Papyrus – A.D. 60-90
    • Commentary of John on Vellum – A.D. 1000
    • Gospel of John on Paper – A.D. 1995

Back to the quote above: text A (A.D. 1000) was derived from text B (A.D. 60-90), but text B was later written on twentieth century paper (A.D. 1995). Now text A is on medieval vellum and text B is on twentieth century paper, even though text A is derived from text B. Once I understood the differences in what was being dated, the quote made sense.

Dated and Undated Manuscripts

Some documents may have dates on them, such as sales receipts and diaries. A shopkeeper will likely use modern media to write a receipt, so the media and the text would be contemporary. A reporter will write about current events, while a historian will write about past events. Even though the reporter and historian may be writing about the same events, they’re doing so at different times and from different perspectives, using different texts and different medias, resulting in different manuscripts. Modern historians and archaeologists may be able to date these events, which can help date the texts and the manuscripts.

Papyrus 𝔓52 (@ University of Manchester)
Papyrus 𝔓52; John 18: 31-34, 37-38; about A.D. 110-125 (@ University of Manchester)

The writing material papyrus is made from thin strips of material from the papyrus plants. The strips are glued together horizontally on the front and vertically on the back, which creates a grain. Generally, the front (horizontal) side of the papyrus would be used, but the back (vertical) side would often be left unused. In particular, scrolls usually didn’t have writing on the back, but single leafs of papyrus in a Codex (book) would have writing on both sides.

If a dated document was written on the front side of a sheet of papyrus and an undated literary work was written on the back, scholars can be reasonably certain the undated work was written after the dated work. The dated work gives the undated work the earliest possible date, or terminus post quem (Latin for “limit after which”), for the undated work.

The converse is also true. If an undated work is written in the front and a dated work is on the back, the dated work gives the latest possible date, or terminus ante quem (Latin for “limit before which”), for the undated work.

One of the main problems with dating a text is that it is not the same as dating a manuscript, which can often be done with reasonable accuracy. To use a technical term, the manuscript’s date gives us only the terminus ante quem for the text, i.e. the date before which the text found in the manuscript must have originally been compiled. Every NT [New Testament] manuscript is of course based on an earlier or a contemporary copy, and the text that the later manuscript contains may…be much earlier than the manuscript itself. Codex B (Vaticanus) is a famous example: originally thought by some to be a fourth-century recension (edited compilation), the discovery of 𝔓75 (‘ P’ for “papyrus”) proved that B’s text was at least early third-century.3

Other Dating Methods

Even if a manuscript doesn’t have a written date on it, not all is lost. If the manuscript was found with a collection of other manuscripts4, scholars will look through the other manuscripts for ones with the same writing style, and search those for dates. The way cultures teach writing changes, so it may be possible to identify styles in a manuscript and compare it with manuscripts of known dates. If a match is found, this can lead to possible dates when the first manuscript was written.

One method which can help with dating is the use of nomina sacra 5. Nomina Sacra are contractions scribes used to write references to God. Scholars believe there were originally four or five words which were contracted, but a total of 15 words became common. Manuscripts with few words written as nomina sacra are likely early, and manuscripts with many words written as nomina sacra are likely written late.

There are scientific tests which can be done on the media and ink, but scholars are usually reluctant to perform the tests. The most famous test is C14 (Carbon 14), but it requires cutting a bit of material off the piece being tested, leaving the piece damaged. This would indicate approximately when the parchment was made, but not when the text was written on it.

Summary

Scholars must understand the manuscript format (scroll, codex), layout (number of leafs in a quire, number of lines on a page, number of letters on a line, number of columns on a page), writing materials (papyrus, parchment, etc.), inks (gall, iron), writing instruments (reed, quill, metal pen), and a myriad of other technical details to be able to date manuscripts.

There are several methods which can be used for dating manuscripts, but none of them are consistently accurate; usually a range of dates is the result. In most cases, real accuracy isn’t needed, as nothing significant would change if an exact date were known.

Resources

  • Comfort, Philip Wesley and Barrett, David P. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 34. (Logos)

Footnotes

  1. How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?
  2. Hill, Archibald A. Quoted by Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, Third Enlarged Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992) 166. (Amazon – 4th edition)
  3. Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 438-439. (Amazon)
  4. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, archaeologists found an estimated 500,000 papyri documents at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.
  5. What are Nomina Sacra?

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