Early New Testament Fragments?

(The following appeared on Larry Hurtado’s blog in regard to the Green Collection)

Newly-Identified Early New Testament Fragments?
by larryhurtado

Over the last couple of days have appeared numerous postings on reports that fragments of several early NT manuscripts have been identified (e.g., http://sheffieldbiblicalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/first-century-fragment-of-mark/). A statement by Dan Wallace in a recent debate with Bart Ehrman seems to be the source of these reports. In the debate, Wallace says that he referred to a fragment identified as part of a first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark (http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/02/wallace-vs-erhman-round-three/).

The fragment in question seems to be part of a collection of papyri that are part of the Green Collection (http://explorepassages.com/collection). The key figure listed as the guiding expert for the Greek Collection is Scott Carroll. One of the recent postings lists several putative early fragments of several NT writings (including some Pauline letters allegedly dated to the second century CE). According to Wallace, a formal scholarly publication of these items is in the works, scheduled to appear next year sometime.

It is entirely understandable, and yet also in some ways unfortunate, that polemicists for and against the Bible (such as the protagonists in the Wallace/Ehrman debate) have made the identification and secure dating of NT manuscripts such a controversial matter. It would be a wonderful further boon to textual scholarship to have additional early manuscripts of NT writings, even legible fragments. Among other matters, depending on the amount of text actually preserved, all portions of early manuscripts are vital for tracing the textual history of the writings they attest. With regard to NT writings, we are already in an enviable and unparalleled situation, with substantial early papyri copies of a number of them (e.g., the Chester Beatty papyri, and the Bodmer papyri). But here are some notes to bear in mind as we await further news of the putative new finds.

The identification and palaeographical dating of manuscripts requires huge expertise specific to the period and texts in question. Let’s wait and see whose judgement lies behind the claims.
Palaeographical dating can ever only be approximate, perhaps as narrow as 50 yrs plus or minus. Expert palaeographers often disagree over a given item by as much as a century or more. It’s never wise to rest much upon one judgement, and confidence will be enhanced only when various experts have been given full access to the items.
It is particularly difficult to make a palaeographical dating of a fragment, the smaller it is the more difficult. For such dating requires as many characters of the alphabet as possible and as many instances of them in the copy as possible to form a good judgement about the “hand”.
Although it rachets up potential sales of a publication to make large claims and posit sensational inferences about items, it doesn’t help the sober scholarly work involved. It also doesn’t actually accrue any credit or greater credibility for the items or those involved in handling them.

With many others, I await further news, and even more so I await more forthcoming scholarly work on these mooted items. Early New Testament fragments? As someone said when asked what he thought of the French Revolution: “Too soon to tell.”

  • Michael De Master

    While one can be crititcal of polpular partisan debate, as Dr Hurtado is. And as an eminent scholar in the field, it is wise to heed his caution of “too soon to tell”, for he reminds us in this day and age of well preserved and documented writing that when it comes to first century, it “ain’t that easy”. However, as one who has been drawn into the “debate” first by Ehrmans assertions and then by Witherington’s response, I would, from my much less scholarly vantage point, be more inclined to acknowledge this public debate as a valuable means to further understanding of the subject matter. In short, if it were not for Ehrmans, at least for me, I would not have found Witherington. And if not for Witherington, I would not have found Hurtado. So, while I most certainly appreciate the wise advise on this matter, I wanted to share how a layman came to know of and appreciate, the matters discussed here.

  • Percival

    I think that was Chou En Lai who said that about the French Revolution. Supposedly.

  • Danny Dawson

    As a clarification on paleography and how it works – I have noticed that just about everyone woman my grandma’s age (80-100) has very similar handwriting, looping precise cursive style, that no one seems to do anymore. I can barely tell my own grandma’s from my wife’s. It has always amazed me that it looks like millions of people learned a similar writing style then that was replaced almost by the time the Baby Boomers came around and definitely by my time in the 80′s. Is this an appoximation of paleography, that even 1800 years ago writing styles shifted at this pace regionally, or was it much slower?

  • Benw333

    Danny because writing ability involved only about 10% of the population the situation in antiquity was much different, and more controlled than in your grandma’s day. There are definitely distinctive features for example to the Middle Aramaic inscriptions of the early Jewish period which distinguish them from earlier and later Aramaic inscriptions and writings.

  • Anonymous

    While I have the training of a seminary degree, I’m no expert in the field. But I too came very much to read Dr. Witherington’s blog because of his responses to Ehrman, and now know of Hurtado because of this blog as well. I really appreciate keeping up with the scholarship on these matters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003280676483 Temp Handle

    “Too soon to tell”, but I will be following this news closely since Mark hasn’t been well represented in early documents (before 4th century). Mark is an oddity in that it appears to be the source for Matthew and Luke, but if it is the ur-text (so to speak), why are there so few copies to be found?

  • Benw333

    Hi ‘Temp’, there is a ready answer to why so few early copies of Mark. 95% of Mark is found in some form in Matthew, plus lots of other stuff. Matthew was the runaway best seller of the Gospels in the second and third century, and the one most copied by far. If a scribe had to choose whether to copy Matthew or Mark it was a no brainer…..