Dating of John Error : The Reliance on P52 by Recent Scholarship
For a time, particularly in the early part of the 20th century, scholars believed that John was written in the mid-second century. The discovery and publication in the 1930s of a papyrus fragment known as P52 changed everything. P52 is a small scrap about the size of a credit card and represents the earliest physical evidence that exists for the Gospel of John contain lines from John 18:31-33 (Passion narrative, Jesus before Pilate).
The fragment of papyrus was among a group acquired on the Egyptian market in 1920 by Bernard Grenfell. Colin H. Roberts published the first transcription and translation of the fragment in 1935. Roberts found comparator hands in dated papyrus documents between the late 1st and mid 2nd centuries, with the largest concentration of Hadrianic date (117 CE to 138 CE). Since this gospel text would be unlikely to have reached Egypt before c. 100 CE, he proposed a date in the first half of the 2nd century. Roberts proposed the closest match to 𝔓52 as being an undated papyrus of the Iliad conserved in Berlin; and in the 70 years since Roberts’s essay the estimated date of this primary comparator hand has been confirmed as being around 100 CE, but other dated comparator hands have also since been suggested, with dates ranging into the second half of the 2nd century, and even into the 3rd century.
Recent scholarship has an erroneous dependence on an early date of the P52 fragment as the basis for dating the Fourth Gospel. Any recent scholarship since 1935 that bases a dating on John on the presumption that the P52 fragment is dated to the early second century should be discounted since it has been determined the P52 dating is likely 25-100 years later than initially dated. This puts P52 more likely in the range of 150-225 CE (A.D.) Thus the excellent scholarship of the early 20th century on the dating of John referenced in Dating of John still stands, and more recent scholarship that assumes an early date of P52 should be considered fallacious.
Revised Dating of P52 by Recent Authorities
Dating of John based on dating of P52
The significance of 𝔓52 rests both upon its proposed early dating and upon its geographic dispersal from the presumed site of authorship, traditionally thought to have been Ephesus. As the fragment is removed from the autograph by at least one step of transmission, the date of authorship for the Gospel of John must be at least a few years prior to the writing of 𝔓52, whenever that may have been. The location of the fragment in Egypt extends that time even further, allowing for the dispersal of the documents from the point of authorship and transmission to the point of discovery. The Gospel of John is perhaps quoted by Justin Martyr, and hence is highly likely to have been written before c. 160 CE; but 20th-century New Testament scholars, most influentially Kurt Aland and Bruce Metzger, have argued from the proposed dating of 𝔓52 prior to this, that the latest possible date for the composition of the Gospel should be pushed back into the early decades of the second century; some scholars indeed arguing that the discovery of 𝔓52 implies a date of composition for the Gospel no later than the traditionally accepted date of c. 90 CE, or even earlier.
Skepticism about the use of 𝔓52 to date the Gospel of John (not about the fragment’s authenticity) is based on two issues. First, the papyrus has been dated based on handwriting alone, without the support of dated textual references or associated archeology. Secondly, like all other surviving early Gospel manuscripts, this fragment is from a codex, not a scroll. If it dates from the first half of the second century, this fragment would be among the earlier surviving examples of a literary codex.
|Authority||Dating of P52|
John Rylands Library
200 CE (A.D.)
170 +/- 50 CE (A.D.)
Early 2nd - Early 3rd Century CE (A.D.)
2nd-3rd century CE (A.D.)
Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse
Proposed:125-175 CE (A.D.) / Conclusion: Second half of the 2nd century CE (A.D.)
John Rylands Library
“The John Rylands Library states “The first editor dated the Fragment to the first half of the second century (between 100–150 AD). The date was estimated palaeographically, by comparing the handwriting with other manuscripts. However, palaeography is not an exact science – none of the comparable Biblical manuscripts are dated and most papyri bearing a secure date are administrative documents. Recent research points to a date nearer to 200 AD, but there is as yet no convincing evidence that any earlier fragments from the New Testament survive.”
Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel”, Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 23–48.
The early date for 𝔓52 favored by many New Testament scholars has been challenged by Andreas Schmidt, who favors a date around 170 CE, plus or minus twenty-five years; on the basis of a comparison with Chester Beatty Papyri X and III, and with the redated Egerton Gospel. Brent Nongbri has criticized both Comfort’s early dating of 𝔓52 and Schmidt’s late dating, dismissing as unsound all attempts to establish a date for such undated papyri within narrow ranges on purely paleographic grounds, along with any inference from the paleographic dating of 𝔓52 to a precise terminus ad quem for the composition of the Fourth Gospel. In particular Nongbri noted that both Comfort and Schmidt propose their respective revisions of Roberts’s dating solely on the basis of paleographic comparisons with papyri that had themselves been paleographically dated. As a corrective to both tendencies, Nongbri collected and published images of all explicitly dated comparator manuscripts to 𝔓52; demonstrating that, although Roberts’s assessment of similarities with a succession of dated late first to mid-second century papyri could be confirmed, two later dated papyri, both petitions, also showed strong similarities (P. Mich. inv. 5336, dated around 152 CE; and P.Amh. 2.78, that dates to 184 CE). Nongbri produces dated documents of the later second and early third centuries each of which display similarities to 𝔓52 in some of their letter forms. Nongbri suggests that this implied that older styles of handwriting might persist much longer than some scholars had assumed and that a prudent margin of error must allow a still wider range of possible dates for the papyrus:
“What emerges from this survey is nothing surprising to papyrologists: paleography is not the most effective method for dating texts, particularly those written in a literary hand. Roberts himself noted this point in his edition of 𝔓52. The real problem is the way scholars of the New Testament have used and abused papyrological evidence. I have not radically revised Roberts’s work. I have not provided any third-century documentary papyri that are absolute “dead ringers” for the handwriting of 𝔓52, and even had I done so, that would not force us to date P52 at some exact point in the third century. Paleographic evidence does not work that way. What I have done is to show that 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.” (Page 32)
Nongbri stresses that, simply from paleographic evidence, the actual date of 𝔓52 could conceivably be later (or earlier) still. Although Nongbri is concerned to demonstrate that the possibility of a late second (or early third) century date for 𝔓52 cannot be discounted, his chief criticism is directed at those subsequent commentators and scholars who have tended to take the midpoint of Roberts’s proposed range of dates, treat it as the latest limit for a possible date for this papyrus, and then infer from this that the Gospel of John cannot have been written later than around 100 CE. (Page 31)
An altogether different approach to dating New Testament papyri has been proposed by a number of paleographers in recent years, drawing on the notion of “graphic stream” developed by Guglielmo Cavallo. Rather than comparing letter forms of undated papyri directly with dated comparators, it is proposed that the hand in question should first be identified to a graphic stream representing the overall development of a particular handwriting style. “The way that individual letters are formed within these graphic streams is secondary to the overall style of the script”. Don Barker, reviewing the proposed comparators and range of datings that have been advanced over the years for 𝔓52, maintains that this papyrus can be placed in a “round block script” graphic stream that is attested from the first century onwards. Barker maintains that the letter formation within this the graphic stream “appears to have great holding power”, and proposes that it is consequently difficult to place 𝔓52 into a narrower time frame within it. ” When the general style and individual letter features are kept in close connection and keeping in mind how a scribe writing a documentary text may write a literary text differently, it would seem from the above dated manuscripts, that a date of the second or third century could be assigned to 𝔓52 (P.Ryl. 457). (p.575)
Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse
Orsini, Pasquale and Clarysse, Willy (2012) “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates; A Critique of Theological Palaeography”, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88/4, pp 443–474
Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse also adopt the “graphic stream” approach; and have applied it to reviewing the dating for all New Testament manuscripts proposed as having been written before the mid-fourth century, including 𝔓52. Since none of these papyri and parchments carry explicit dates, all must be dated paleographically; so Orsini and Clarysse propose that manuscript comparisons for such paleographic dating should be made only between hands that are similar to one another. However, and in contrast to Don Barker, their classification of hands conforms rigorously to the typology of Hellenistic Greek handwriting styles developed by Guglielmo Cavallo; applying his categorization of hands into ‘styles’, ‘stylistic classes’ or ‘graphic types’ as appropriate. Orsini and Clarysse propose dates for New Testament papyri that are often rather later than the consensus dates in the Nestle-Aland lists, and considerably later than the counterpart dates proposed by Comfort and Barrett. They criticize Don Barker for assigning dates they regard as extending too early; the dating ranges they themselves propose for New Testament papyri are never wider than 100 years, more frequently 50 years, and for several early papyri (𝔓46, 𝔓95, 𝔓64+67) they propose purely paleographic dates within a 25-year range.
Orsini and Clarysse propose 125 to 175 CE as the range of dates for 𝔓52; which corresponds with the “mid second century” date proposed Stanley Porter, is much narrower than the ranges envisaged by Barker or Nongbri, and implies within their dating schema that 𝔓52 and 𝔓104 stand as the earliest New Testament papyri so far identified (although, strangely, at the conclusion of their article, Orsini and Clarysse state that 𝔓52, 𝔓90, and 𝔓104 “probably all [date to] the second half of the second century).” (p. 466)
Examples of misuse of P52:
The dating of P52 is based on paleographic dating. Paleographic dating of papyri is never a simple matter, and because of the constant accumulation of new evidence, the dating of manuscripts is an ongoing process. Moreover, in early Christian writings, there are few early quotations of and allusions to John, and even those few are highly questionable. Scholars were debating the nature of these alleged references to John in early Christian authors until the publication of P52 in 1935, when such debates, so scholars thought, had now become moot. The real problem is thus in the way scholars of the New Testament have used and abused papyrological evidence. 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. 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. Most notible are is the scholarship that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that focused on the “external evidence” for John’s gospel which is serve as the basis for the Dating of John page
As Brent Nogbri, has stated in his paper, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel” (Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 23–48), critical readers of the New Testament, often use John Rylands Greek Papyrus 3.457, also known as as 𝔓52, in inappropriate ways, and we should stop doing so. Below are several examples that illustrate the problem. For Brown, this papyrological evidence is enough to mark 100 C.E. as the latest possible date of composition of John. While both Brown and Smith mention other papyri paleographically dated to the second century, they both view P52 as the main evidence for an early dating of John. Many scholars have followed this judgment. In the entry for John’s gospel in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, often a good barometer of widely-held scholarly opinions, Robert Kysar writes that “the latest possible date [of John] has been fixed by the discovery in Egypt of the Rylands Papyrus 457 (P52)” (ABD 3:918). The comments of J. K. Elliott are similar (“The Biblical Manuscripts of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester,” BJRL 81  7).
D. Moody Smith’s Commentary on John’s Gospel
Raymond Brown’s Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, Section on the latest plausible date
Citing Aland he speaks of a “consensus” dating of the papyrus in the early part of the second century, transforming Roberts’s “first half of the second century” to an overly specific “about 125”
Eldon Epp has subsequently claimed that P52 was “written in the first quarter of the second century, but probably nearer 100 than 125,” and in a footnote adds, “Though at an earlier time dated 125-150, recent opinion moves it back into the 100-125 period, perhaps very early in that quarter century.” He cites only Roberts and the above quotation from the Alands as evidence (“The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission,” in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism [ed. E. J. Epp and G. D. Fee; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993] 278-79 and 279 n. 10 [original article 1989]). This so-called “consensus” in “recent opinion,” as it rests on assertions with no evidence, is highly dubious.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John, Chapter 4, Date
“But far more decisive evidence for John’s terminus ad quem has come to light. In 1935 P52, a fragment of the Fourth Gospel dating to the first half of the second century, came to light. The location of this text’s discovery far from the Gospel’s likely places of origin pushes its proposed date of writing back at least a quarter century; it had thus been in circulation throughout the early second century. Nor does the manuscript allow us to suppose that this represents a pre-Johannine tradition on which John based part of his Gospel, or that substantial redaction (at least in this part of the Gospel) occurred after the date of its copying. As Dibelius notes, That oldest fragment of the Gospel of John dating from the period 100–140 does not differ by a single word from our printed Greek texts. Metzger, one of the leading text critics of the twentieth century, is more forceful: P 52 proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel in a little provincial town along the Nile, far from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor), during the first half of the second century… This is the earliest attestation available for any sample of early Christian literature and represents a phenomenal discovery.
Probably the earliest New Testament fragment that has come down to us is a fragment of John, Papyrus 52, dating from AD 130 and containing a few words from John 18.
Recent Scholars That Take a More Cautious Approach to P52
A few recent scholars, such as C. K. Barrett and James Dunn, have been somewhat more careful in their assessment of the evidence. Barrett wrote in the first edition of his The Gospel according to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (New York: Macmillan, 1957) that P52, “which cannot be dated more precisely than the middle of the second century,” established 140 C.E. as the terminus ante quern for the Gospel of John (p. 108). Though he adopted a more standard position in the second edition of his commentary (London: SPCK, 1978), he maintained that outside of Egerton Papyrus 2 and P52, “there is no other satisfactory evidence of the existence of the Fourth Gospel before A.D. 150” (p. 110).
C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text
The next piece of evidence is the Rylands papyrus, which cannot be dated more precisely than the middle of the second century. It is of course very improbable that the papyrus should be the autograph copy of the gospel, and we may safely push the terminus back as far as A.D. 140, especially since the papyrus may have been written earlier, perhaps twenty or thirty years earlier, than A.D. 150. The wide limits of A.D. 90-140 have now been reached, and it seems impossible to narrow them further without recourse to a hypothesis regarding authorship. John itself is a quite credible product of any date between 90 and 140. None of the attempts made to shift either date is successful. (p.108)
The fact that Ignatius does not quote John can prove at most that Ignatius had not read John; it cannot prove that John was not in existence when Ignatius wrote. On one point however caution must be observed. The gospel was not written before A.D. 90 (it appears), nor was the date of its publication later than 140; it must not be assumed that the date of writing and the date of publication were identical; the gospel may have been slow in coming to the notice of the Christian public. Indeed, we cannot be certain that the gospel was widely known in A.D. 140. (p.109)
Dunn, James D. G.. Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity (Christianity in the Making, Volume 3) (p. 145). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.
The textual fragment of John known as p52 which, until recently, was thought to provide decisive evidence that the Gospel of John must have been written no later than the first decade of the second century since the fragment was generally dated to about 125 ce. This dating, however, has come under question in recent years and a date around 150 argued for instead. Even so, the fragment found in Egypt implies a Gospel already well circulated beyond its most likely place of origin and initial circulation. So, the most popular date for the Gospel of John in recent scholarship, in the last decade of the first century or around the turn of the century, may well still be the most likely. Here again, however, there can be little confidence and no certainty, and it would be wise not to make any thesis regarding the development of early Christianity depend on a clear and firm date for John’s Gospel.