Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Testament Papyri: Part Two

We ought to be clear that none of the 'New Testament Papyri' about which we are thinking actually ever were manuscripts of the whole New Testament – papyrus based technology seems to preclude that - although in some cases groups of separate manuscripts could have functioned as something like a ‘New Testament’.[i]

The ‘New Testament Papyri’ of which we speak are the extant remains of manuscripts of the constituent parts of the New Testament – as later defined - many of the most important and interesting of which were written precisely during the period when ‘the New Testament’ was still in the process of taking definitive shape.[ii] There is, however, a definite technological shift involved in the movement from papyrus to parchment, which enabled the production and binding of more substantial volumes and which enabled the production of not only whole New Testaments, but also whole Greek Bibles in the fourth and fifth centuries.[iii]

[i] For example, the Chester Beatty collection, P45 (four gospels and Acts), P46 (Pauline epistles), P47 (Revelation), could have functioned as something like a ‘New Testament’ collection. P74 (Acts and the Catholic Epistles), from a later period, reflects a standard portion of the New Testament as canonically arranged.
[ii] We should note, however, that evidence from early Christian papyri is important in considerations of the reception, acceptance and influence of the separate books, and can be of importance in relation to issues relating to the NT canon. The most popular non-canonical document, the Shepherd of Hermas, is extant in large numbers of papyrus manuscripts, reflecting its undoubted popularity (and probably some acceptance of its authority and even ‘inspiration’ among its readers); while the worst attested of the larger New Testament documents is the Gospel of Mark, with relatively few manuscripts, and relatively few other indications of its influence.
[iii] Neither of these large formats had substantial longevity, and the vast majority of NT manuscripts of the later period reflect separate bindings for the four gospels, the Pauline epistles, and Acts and the Catholic Epistles.


  1. Excuse my ignorance, but how does the relative paucity of paryri of Mark accord with its status as the earliest of the Gospels. I would have expected the earlier writings to have been distributed and copied more simply because there was more time to do it in. So what explanation is given to account for this?

  2. It appears from the numbers of surviving mss that in Egypt Matthew and John (the directly apostolic gospels) were the most popular. It seems that something can have widely accepted canonical status within the church -- and still not be copied in such large numbers or known well. A good example of this would be Origen, who certainly accepted Mark, but whose surviving works show little knowledge of it.

  3. Thank you for the reply.
    Are you saying that the papyri that survived were largely from Egypt and so that created a bias in what we have?

    Or are you saying that not only was Mark not copied, but the book was also not quoted as well. In which case, I am still wondering what led to that happening. Any theories?