Markus Vinzent's Blog

Friday, 10 February 2012

Daniel B. Wallace on the discovery of the earliest Manuscript of the New Testament


When one approaches New Testament material and their interpretation from the perspective of a Patristic scholar, one is sheerly amazed to see the ideological gulfs that separate opinions and the battles that are fought about the most basic evidence. One of such grounds is the dating and reading of Papyri that are seen as witnesses of New Testament texts. On 1 February 2012, Daniel B. Wallace has debated Bart Ehrmann at UNC Chapel Hill ‘before a crowd ofmore than 1000 people’ and mentioned ‘that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered – six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first’.[1] While ideological disagreements, based on denominations, confessions, even religious backgrounds are mostly remnants of the past and rarely present in Patristic studies, we learn from this debate that whether one is evangelical or critical of evangelicals has even a baring on the dating of papyri, something, the innocent scholar should think is a matter for impartial scholars to decide. And yet, because we are not dealing with bare evidence, but with witnesses of ‘canonical’ texts, ‘pure’ scholarship operates on a stage that is set by vested interests. How can one avoid to be located in any of the preset sceneries? I have chosen, to weigh arguments of either side, lay them open to the reader as thoroughly and broadly as possible, and let the reader follow why I believe what sounds more likely than not, and what has less likelihood as a historical conclusion. With regards to D.B. Wallace findings which are not published yet, one will need to see how a dating of a first century papyrus can be established as a) it would be the very first of this kind and b) papyrologists today – at least those of no confessional leanings – do no longer maintain, as we will see below, that we can date papyri anything near, if we have not internal or external evidence. Likewise with what Wallace calls ‘the second century’ papyri – this statement arouses scepticism when in the same report P52 is still dated ‘to the first half of the second century’, a dating that is no longer supported by recent scholarship.
            Unfortunately, scholarship can not operate on ideological scenes. As soon as pre-determined camps make claims that  ‘the world’s leading paleographers’ issue opinions that are taken to be ‘certain’, even the best willing scholar becomes sceptical. Not for scepticism’s sake, but to be true to his own judgement.
In his article on the misuse of papyrology in New Testament studies, B. Nongbri summarises what he calls ‘nothing surprising to papyrologists: palaeography is not the most effective method for dating texts, particularly those written in a literary hand … Any serious consideration of the window of possible dates for P52 must include dates in the later second and early third centuries. Thus, P52 cannot be used as evidence to silence other debates about the existence (or non-existence) of the Gospel of John in the first half of the second century. Only a papyrus containing an explicit date or one found in a clear archaeological stratigraphic context could do the work scholars want P52 to do. As it stands now, the papyrological evidence should take a second place to other forms of evidence in addressing debates about the dating of the Fourth Gospel’.[1]

[1] B. Nongbri, ‘The Use and Abuse of P52’ (2005), 46.

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