Earliest Fragment of the New Testament Possibly Discovered

It might not get the press of, say, the opening of The Hunger Games in a couple of weeks.  But if biblical scholar Daniel Wallace is correct, the world may soon get a good look at the oldest fragment of the New Testament yet discovered.

Wallace is currently Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.  (He also happens to be the author of a Greek textbook I spent quite a bit of time with during my time in seminary.)  He first announced the discovery during a recent debate with University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor and noted Bible critic Bart Ehrman. 

Wallace has subsequently written that the discovery includes seven New Testament papyri [fragments of manuscripts written on material made from papyrus plants].  Six probably originate from the second century and one from the first.  Regarding the latter, Wallace says:

It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934. 

Not only this, but the first-century fragment is from Mark’s Gospel. Before the discovery of this fragment, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. 200–250 CE). This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years.

P52 from the gospel of John

It’s worth noting that, if the Markan fragment does originate from the first century, we’ll be dealing with a document that dates from the time of living eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry.

Wallace hasn’t been at liberty to discuss many of the find’s details (on which see below). As a result, some scholars have spoken of the need to treat the news with suitable caution.  Andreas Köstenberger, senior professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., explains why in an interview with Baptist Press:

Any find that gets us a quarter-century or so closer to the time the original Gospels were written would be highly significant, even sensational. Of course, in part the significance of the discovery depends on the size of the fragment, not to mention the verification of the date. There have been previous reports of discoveries of early Mark or other Gospel manuscripts that did not check out at closer scrutiny, so it is certainly appropriate to maintain scholarly caution until the full data are known and available to public scrutiny. For example, some scholars got burned when they prematurely accepted so-called “Secret Mark,” which turned out to be a forgery (see Stephen Carlson’s “The Gospel Hoax”).

BAPTIST PRESS: Any guess as to why an announcement is being held back? Why the secrecy?

KOSTENBERGER: Apparently, the publisher is E.J. Brill, one of the world’s leading publishers of high-quality academic work. Presumably, the volume, when it appears approximately one year from now, will contain not only the first-century fragment of Mark but several other early manuscripts that have been found (though not dating to the first century). The Brill volume will no doubt contain all the technical details as to verification of the date, circumstances of the find, and an assessment of its significance. It makes sense for the details of the find to be withheld until the publication of the volume so that this data can be fully vetted by the scholarly community at that time. Doubtless there will be skeptics who, recognizing the potential significance of the discovery, will attempt to challenge the authenticity and/or date of the fragment.

In addition to the fragment of Mark, Wallace had indicated that the other biblical manuscripts include one from Luke and four from the letters of Paul.  The latter, he says, apparently predate the earliest manuscripts we have of Paul’s writings.  The find also includes a sermon on Hebrews 11.

What are the practical implications of these recovered manuscripts?  A more comprenhesive answer is probably beyond a post like this one, but it’s worth saying at least the following: due to (a) the staggering amount of ancient manuscripts we have of the New Testament compared to any other ancient work and (b) the scholarly efforts of what’s called textual criticism, we may have an extremely high degree of confidence that what we have in our Bibles is what the original New Testament authors wrote, word for word.  (Though it has obviously been translated once, from the original Greek directly into English in our case).  This is true even apart from this most recent discovery.  If these manuscripts prove legitimate, however, it will further strengthen what is already a powerful case for the integrity of the New Testament as we have it.

Check out this transcript from an interview that Wallace gave for more information about the find, the work that goes into dating it, and its potential significance.

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