Show Me The Manuscripts

A while back I wrote a letter to the editor of a local free newspaper, responding to a letter by another reader who claimed that the Bible was written in the time of Constantine. The author of this initial letter has now responded once again, asking where the manuscripts are from before the time of Constantine.

Although I can hear gasps of disbelief (and perhaps a few guffaws of laughter) from historians and Biblical scholars, I think it is important to answer such claims clearly, and I wish to do so here.

We have several manuscripts that are earlier than the start of the fourth century, and some seem to be quite a bit earlier.

Where are the manuscripts? P52, a small fragment of the Gospel of John, is in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. It is from before the middle of the second century. P66 is usually dated around the year 200. P72 and P75 are also before the time of Constantine. All of the last three papyrii are at the Bodmer Library in Geneva, Switzerland. The Chester Beatty papyrii, P45, P46 and P47, are (with the exception of small fragments) in the Chester Beatty collection in Dublin, and they are from the third century.

For those curious about methods of dating, most of our earliest manuscripts are dated using paleography. Anyone who has ever read a letter from their grandparents’ time will be aware that handwriting styles change over time, and thus the writings style itself can provide a good indication of the time period in which something was written.

The fact that we have early manuscripts demonstrates nothing about the historical factuality of their contents. For that, historical criticism is required. But it is precisely that approach that Corya seems to wish to bypass by making outlandish claims about textual criticism.

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  • This would be really funny, if it wasn’t so sadly indicative of just how ill-informed the general public is about these things. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve had to explain to people who have laud such junk-literature as Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (and other similar rubbish) as “history” just how erroneous (and guileful, it seems to me) these claims are. I guess that conspiracy theorists are here to stay. It can get downright depressing sometimes.

  • I never managed to read any of Dan Brown’s stuff. I tried…and gave up. But I did read Holy Blood, Holy Grail. From what I’ve read since, Michael Baigent is a bit of a nutter; I’m just wondering if there’s any grain of truth in that book.

  • I first ran into this theory in the works of a writer who calls herself “Acharya S.” I do not know if any more ‘respectable’ writers have embraced it — Acharya S. belonging in the same category as Deepak Chopra, Von Daniken, Madame Blavatsky, and believers in the Shaver Mystery.It strikes me that, while I am glad there are provably early manuscripts, it is totally unnecessary to have them to debunk this particular nonsense.First we have the Pauline Epistles. Whatever you think of Paul as a ‘transmitter of Jesus’ true message, there is no doubt that the Epistles he wrote are what they seem, letters to various churches discussing problems that were current at the time. Had they been crafted in Constantine’s time, they would have come across much like the Timothys and Titus — not written by Paul but in his name, generalized statements for the ‘whole Church.’Even more telling are the works of the Early Church Fathers. They must have been written — by this theory — even later, which implies that they not only are forgeries in their entirety — all hundreds of volumes — but that the forgers cleverly invented non-existent works by imaginary heretics to argue against.Even a boa constrictor couldn’t dislocate his jaws enough to swallow that one. Or, as my favorite fictional detective is wont to say,”Pfui!”

  • Of course half of p46 is in Ann Arbor , Michigan. You don’t have to go to Ireland to see a major manuscript of the New Testament dated to approximately the year 200.