Monday, March 11, 2013

“Theological Palaeography”? Reassessment of the Dating of NT Papyri

A very controversial issue is the date of the early papyri of the NT. On his blog, Larry Hurtado summarizes a very important recent article on the subject of “theological palaeography”:

Pasquale Orsini & Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88 (2012): 443-74.
Abstract :The date of the earliest New Testament papyri is nearly always based on palaeographical criteria. A consensus among papyrologists, palaeographers and New Testament scholars is presented in the edition of Nestle-Aland, 1994. In the last twenty years several New Testament scholars (Thiede, Comfort-Barrett, 1999, 2001 and Jaroš, 2006) have argued for an earlier date of most of these texts. The present article analyzes the date of the earliest New Testament papyri on the basis of comparative palaeography and a clear distinction between different types of literary scripts. There are no first-century New Testament papyri and only very few papyri can be attributed to the (second half of the) second century. It is only in the third and fourth centuries that New Testament manuscripts become more common, but here too the dates proposed by Comfort-Barrett, 1999, 2001, and Jaroš, 2006 are often too early.
I have compiled a small table demonstrating that the critique for a general tendency to date early in “theological palaeography” is not applicable to the Nestle-Aland edition. In spite of some significant differences, we see that seven papyri or uncials are still dated potentially to the second century (P30, P52, P4+64+67, P90, P104, 0171, 0212) . However, now three papyri in the second-century range in NA, are dated to the third century by Orsini and Claryssee (P77, P98 and P103), one uncial in the second-century date in NA is assigned to the fourth century (0189). Conversely, Orsini and Claryssee assign two papyri and two uncials in the second-century range (P30, P4+64+67, 0171, and 0212) which NA has dated later. Perhaps the most significant difference here is 0171 which Orsini and Claryssee think is 125 years earlier!

GA no. P30 P52 P4+64+67 P77 P90 P98 P103 P104 0171 0189 0212
N-A date 200–300 100–150 200–250 150–250 100–200 100–200 (?) 150–250 100–200 300–350 150–250 200–300
O-C date 175–225 125–175 175–200 250–300 150–200 200–250 200–300 100–200 175–225 300–400 175–225


  1. Another thread to debate dating...trying to get another one over 30 comments?

    Tommy, what do you think generally of the work of Comfort? I have read a lot of his work, and yeah, he does come across like he is trying to push dates earlier, but his reasoning doesn't sound overly insane to me either.

  2. Not overly insane. Compliment?

  3. I am writing something on dating Coptic manuscripts right now, and as I review the recent pieces on dating NT MSS, it strikes me that most everything is a response to Comfort-Barrett, Thiede, Jaroš and a couple other scholars who constitute a fringe. Recent proposals by Nongbri, Barker and Orsini-Clarysse essentially support the general consensus, only tweaking or broadening previous dates. No one is calling for any sort of basic change in method.

    With respect to Greek and Coptic MSS, the issues are fundamentally different between the informal hands of the papyri, and the more formal hands of the parchments. With regard to the papyri, a massive amount of documentary evidence is available for comparative use, although I think that this approach deserves scrutiny. One could consider the new Heidelberg resource which has an extensive databank of dated documentary hands. The evidence for Biblical majuscule hands in the early Byzantine era is frighteningly weak.

    Have any knowledgeable conservative scholars been supportive of the Comfort-Barrett edition(s)?

  4. Thanks for posting this Tommy. I do think that at some levels they have misconstrued the scholarly situation (e.g. I don't see any evidence that NT scholars in general have been persuaded by Thiede, Comfort, Jaros). But leaving that aside, the authors have offered us an excellent article with an absolutely clear method (learnt especially from Cavallo), which broadly vindicates the consensus views expressed in NA28, and which sets the scene for further discussion.
    We have seen on this blog that some people are tempted to assign early dates to new manuscripts (and old ones).
    Anyway, I would say this is now the go-to article on the subject.

  5. Of course I was also pleased to see that they supported my dating for 0312 to the late fifth century over against Jaros' attempt to date it to late third century (p463).