Some thoughts on the implications of P52 for dating the New Testament

P52 is a fragment of a codex of John's gospel, first published in 1936  by Colin Roberts, and dated to 125 AD ± 25 years.  The following note was written in usenet in response to the following demand:

"The case for early gospels in anything like the form we understand is very fragile. The onus is on proof of this early date on solid grounds, as the  evidence for a later date is plain. That is, we know 'latest dates', earlier dates have to be substantiated."

I reproduce it here, because I feel it summarises my view on this better than I have otherwise been able to achieve.

This is very much the thrust of late 19th-early 20th century scholarship; that the new testament documents must not be dated any earlier than can be conclusively shown from other documents (themselves not subjected to this approach, fortunately). I rather think the logical fallacy with this has been mentioned; but it's really rather theoretical these days. As you know, this methodology produced a date for John's Gospel of 160+. 

The discovery of P52, dateable ca. 125 by Roberts &c, demonstrated that this could not be so. But more, it demonstrated incontrovertibly that the methodology - of dating as late as possible - was wrong. The result was a quiet but general retreat from the extreme positions adopted under the influence of this approach, and the result is the generally much more conservative datings of the 40's and 50s. 

The non-immediate consequences of the discovery of P52 have rarely been properly comprehended. Once you accept that the process of taking only the latest date that will meet the scanty extant data is a fallacy, quite a number of conclusions follow. As was remarked at the time, while it is perfectly possible that P52 was written within days of composition, "it must be admitted it is the reverse of probable" (H.I.Bell, discussing biblical papyri 1937-ish). Bell therefore recognised that we could well be looking at 25-30 years to get from the autograph, via an unknown number of intermediaries and by geographical transfer up the nile and to the cheap provincial copy extant in P52. And in fact it could be double this without obvious unreason. But 25-30 years puts the date of composition back from the first quarter of the second century to the fourth quarter of the first century, perhaps around 85-90 --- which is, of course, the traditional date. 

But there is more. Few suppose that the synoptics were written before John. Indeed there is the statement transcribed by Eusebius that the old apostle saw the others and was influenced by their contents. Whether this is so or not - and the survival of so much material, comparatively about him is yet another indicator that John deceased much later than the other apostles - we again must ask what interval there was between these events. And here again the 'last possible date' approach raises its head, and again we think of P52 and must reject it. Last possible date is a couple of days earlier. But we see that such an extreme position has led to crass errors. So what is a reasonable period? It's hard to say. But if we move back 20-30 years, are we saying too much? It's hard to say - but there is no reason why not. But if we do this, we immediately find outselves from the fourth quarter of the first century into the third quarter of the first century. But this again is the traditional date of these documents. 

Is this a valid methodology? In the absence of evidence, I'm not sure what is, except to avoid making definitive statements. The point here is not to establish a date, but that there is no real rational reason, on grounds of survival, to object to the traditional datings. 

It sounds very rational and scholarly to say that we will not accept any date for the composition of a document that we cannot prove from the extant citations. But in practice this is nonsense. Consider, for instance, that this would involve dating much of the text of Porphyry to the 15th, or even the 19th century. This since all we have of it is a 19th century edition of a lost 15th century manuscript of Macarius Magnes' statements which may (only may) be from Porphyry. 

We must not make unevidenced statements. If we wish to detach documents from their traditional location and redate them, we must ensure that we have a valid methodology. It is, after all, no very scientific method that debunks all the data on the subject and then says that the strongest evidence for its theory is that there is no evidence against. To say that the first person whose works are extant to list the gospels by name is so-and-so is testable, and as such is data. To imply that therefore they did not exist before then is inference. Let's keep them separate. 

I would suggest that in situations where there is minimal data, a wise man will confine himself to repeating that data and letting it speak for itself. To do more, will almost always involve speculation.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.

Written 1st October 2001.

This page has been online since 24th August 2005.

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