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Second Century Papyri

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February 1, 2009

It is sometimes alleged, even by scholars who know better,1 that we have to wait hundreds of years after the completion of the New Testament before we get any extant manuscripts of it. This is clearly not the case, for we have several manuscripts from within a century of the completion of the NT. To be sure, these manuscripts (all but one of which are papyri) are all fragmentary, but they may not be as fragmentary as some might suppose, and there are more of them than is often realized.

These manuscripts include P52 (100-150), P90, 104 (2nd century), P66 (c. AD 175-225), P46, 64+67 (c. AD 200), P77, P103, 0189 (2nd or 3rd century), P98 (2nd century?). These ten manuscripts are the extent of those that the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung has identified as possibly or definitely from the second century.

In addition to these, there are a few other candidates. Comfort and Barrett argue for at least half a dozen other manuscripts as possibly from the 2nd century.2 Their method, however, is generally to take the earliest date possible. Nevertheless, the date they suggest for P4 (second century) is probably correct in light of some recent work done by T. C. Skeat of the British Library,3 and the date they offer for P32 (late second century) is quite possible. In addition, renowned papyrologist Herbert Hunger considered P66 to be from no later than the middle of the second century.4 The original editors of P75 also thought this manuscript should be dated late second to early third century.5

This means that there are at least ten and as many as thirteen NT MSS6 that are possibly or definitely from the second century.

But what about their contents? How much of the NT do they actually contain? First, we can quantify this by the books that are attested: three out of four Gospels are attested in the MSS, as well as nine of Paul’s letters, Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation. In other words, most of the NT books (15 of the 27). Another way to look at this is that over 43% of all the verses in the NT are already found in MSS within 100 years of the completion of the NT.7

Although we do not have 100% of the NT attested in manuscripts from the second century, it is remarkable how minimally the manuscripts we do have differ from the great fourth century majuscules of the Alexandrian text, in which the entire NT can be found. The evidence from the earliest Greek manuscripts, therefore, is quite strong that the text of the NT was relatively stable in at least the Alexandrian stream of transmission, a stream that most scholars would regard as the best group of witnesses to the original text of the NT.8

1 E.g., Bart D. Ehrman, in his interview in The Charlotte Observer (Dec 17, 2005]), asked: “If we don’t have the original texts of the New Testament—or even copies of the copies of the copies of the originals—what do we have?” His response is illuminating: “We have copies that were made hundreds of years later—in most cases, many hundreds of years later. And these copies are all different from one another.” The implication seems to be that we don’t have any manuscripts of the New Testament until hundreds of years after the New Testament was completed. He repeated the assertion that we don’t have any MSS for hundreds of years in his lecture at the fourth annual Greer-Heard Forum in New Orleans, April 2008. In November 2008, he repeated this same point: “we don’t know how much the texts got changed in all those decades/[and] centuries before our earliest manuscripts, and we have no way of knowing” (posted on the ‘tc-list,’ an international Internet discussion group of biblical textual critics [Nov 1, 2008]; italics to ‘centuries’ and ‘earliest’ are added; italics to ‘before’ are original).

2 Philip W. Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001).

3 T. C. Skeat, “The Oldest Manuscript of the Four Gospels?” NTS 63 [1997] 1-34). Skeat argued that P4, P64, and P67 were from the same MS, and that the MS should be dated to the second century.

4 Herbert Hunger, “Zur Datierung des Papyrus Bodmer II (P66),” Anzeiger der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 4 (1960) 12-33.

5 See Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 58.

6 Thirteen if P4 is not a part of P64+67.

7 But this does not mean that every portion of each of these verses is in these MSS. Thanks are due to Brett Williams for doing the painstaking work of tabulating the number of verses that are found in the second-century manuscripts.

8 Even Ehrman has said as much: ); “Modern scholars have come to recognize that the scribes in Alexandria… were particularly scrupulous, even in these early centuries, and that there, in Alexandria, a very pure form of the text of the early Christian writings was preserved, decade after decade, by dedicated and relatively skilled Christian scribes” (Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; first paperback edition [New York: HarperOne, 2007] 72). 

Related Topics: Textual Criticism