Dating the gospels

The Jesus Papyrus

December 13, 1996

About the gospels there are today broadly two views. One takes them pretty much as they are before proceeding with matters of faith and discipleship. The other examines them closely, and takes nothing for granted, but maybe supplies from hard-headed imagination a scenario such as a procedure of agglutinative composition, or the struggles of an emergent community. There is the Christ of faith and there is the Jesus of history, and while, to believers of uncomplicated faith, the two are one, to sophisticates there is between them a gulf every bit as great as that between Dives and Lazarus in Jesus's parable.

If the Christ of faith, resurrected and due to return as judge of the living and the dead, is unassailable because he is held to be so by faith, the Jesus of history can be investigated and, if you apply stringent tests of certitude, the process will usually yield further questions with - this side of Doomsday - not too many conclusive answers.

Fundamental to both are the gospels, four parallel accounts of the life and teaching of their protagonist, whom they describe as a great teacher and performer of miracles. He deliberately allows himself to be killed, is resurrected (although the witness to this varies on detail), and is taken by his disciples from early days to be the Son of God. There are scant allusions to him in other documents of the time, so the gospels, which are told as factual narrative, and resemble the bios, or life, in ancient literature (Plutarch's Lives for instance was used as a source by Shakespeare), provide virtually all the information that we in later generations have about what Jesus did and said. Textual criticism has traced the descent of such manuscripts as have survived, and the scholarly consensus is that the gospels were put together from about 40 years after Jesus's death in 30ad. Mark is deemed the earliest, John the latest. But what if a papyrus is discovered which proves that the final version of Matthew's gospel (rather than a source book of sayings) was circulating in 66ad? The consensual schema would be time-shifted, and the gospels we read today would more easily be seen as what simple believers have always assumed, and as what Luke set out to provide, namely an orderly account, the result of careful investigation of eyewitness evidence. The gulf between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith would be narrowed, if not spanned.

It is this that hangs on the claim advanced in this book for the dating, or redating, of three scraps of papyrus given to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1901 by an old member, the reverend Charles Huleatt. After reading classics at the college, Huleatt went on to the newly established Wycliffe Hall for two years of theological study until 1888. After curacies at Swansea and Broadwater Down, Sussex, he went as a Commonwealth and Continental Church Society chaplain to the Luxor Hotel in Egypt. There is apparently no record of how the fragments came into his possession, and Huleatt perished in a Sicilian earthquake in 1908. But Luxor, with its temple, was a centre of the new tourism promoted by Thomas Cook. Magdalen dated the fragments to the fourth century ad and placed them in a library display case alongside the typescript of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan.

In 1953 Colin Roberts redated them to the second century, arguing that since they were from a codex (bound pages, as in a book) rather than a scroll, they were unlikely to be earlier. Then in 1994, after five visits to examine the fragments in Oxford, the German papyrologist Carsten Thiede confirmed them as from chapter 26 of the received text of Matthew's gospel, and redated them to 66ad.

Three issues are critical in the business of dating the papyrus: the codex format, its use of nomina sacra abbreviations, and palaeography. For the first, an Italian scholar Italo Gallo is adduced. Gallo suggested in Greek and Latin Papyrology, published in London in 1986, that the codex had come into common Christian use by 70ad.

For the second there is more discussion, and it is persuasive enough, to the effect that the nomina sacra abbreviations, such as IS for Jesus, are not the casual but convenient short forms a scribbler might use today, but rather a studied Christian variant of the scribal convention already established. In the Greek Septuagint the unuttered name of God, YHWH in Hebrew characters, looked like an abbreviation, though it reflected the fact that Hebrew recorded consonants but not vowels. Moreover Roberts, who had dated the Magdalen papyrus to the second century, suggested in 1979 in another context that the nomina sacra convention was adopted by the Christians in Jerusalem before the Jewish revolt of 66ad.

Neither of these two features make an early date for the papyrus necessary, though they would remove obstacles to a pre-70ad dating if that were indicated on other grounds. So what of the writing style? Does this conclusively show the fragment from Matthew to have been copied in or about 66ad? Readers of Thiedes's book are assured that there is a resemblance between the style of the Magdalen Papyrus and that of Scribe A on a scroll of minor prophets found by Bedouins near Qumran which, although it could be late first century, is generally accepted as written in the century's middle years.

Another scroll, from Oxyrhynchus, conveniently contains an explicit date which translates as 65-66ad. This is presented with a flourish as a conclusive result, it resembles the Magdalen Papyrus like a twin, but neither here nor in the previous example is the reader given any explanation of palaeographic similarity. Photographs, an illustration and the book's endpapers present no fewer than four times a Qumran scroll, 7Q5, which seems to be a fragment of Mark 6:52-53 and must presumably have been in existence before Qumran fell to the Romans in 68ad. But 7Q5 is written in a quite different style and is noticeably more decorated than the Magdalen Papyrus. The authors provide no firm link to associate the Magdalen codex fragments with the scrolls of the Minor Prophets or from Oxyrhynchus, which have been ascribed for sufficient reason to the mid-first century.

Despite the bold claims and an elaborate screen of detail, there is no compelling evidence that the papyrus was copied before 70ad. And while there may be reason to consider Matthew to have composed his gospel by, say, 60ad, these three scraps of papyrus do not provide it.

Is all this then to be an evangelical Turin Shroud? Surely radiocarbon dating of the papyrus material would settle the matter? The Oxford laboratory which tested the Shroud did in fact make a preliminary examination early in 1995 of the three fragments of papyrus, but they were found to be too slight. All concerned agreed they were too precious to lose.

The general reader will find the book informative on the Hellenic world, for instance on the scribal centres where manuscripts were copied, on the roles of amanuenses and sponsors. Scribes were paid by the stichos, or row, and stichometry, concerned with line measure, has some importance in the palaeographers toolkit. We are shown Jesus plausibly speaking Greek to the Gentile mother of Mark 7:26, and letters from Rome arrive in Alexandria in three days. There is also a summary of recent developments in scholarship and popular writing in relation to the New Testament texts. The coherence of the argument, however, can be elusive, and the style is in places overblown. Discoveries are "momentous" rather than suggestive, scholars who disallowed the date claim were "incensed". In fact and in critical usage, historical writing cannot be entirely objective, free of genre; and T. S. Eliot never said that Christianity is always adapting itself into something that can be believed.

Roger Kojecky is writing a book on the gospels.

The Jesus Papyrus

Author - Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D'Ancona
ISBN - 0297 816 586
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £16.99
Pages - 193

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