Tag Archives: Textual Transmission

Daniel Wallace and Bart Ehrman debate New Testament origins and reliability

Brought to you by The Ehrman Project.

I did watch this, but there is no snarky summary, because I was busy fixing my desktop hardware while it was playing on my laptop.

For those who cannot see the debate, I do have a consolation prize – a new article I found on the “earliest” manuscript fragment (P52). I said earliest in quotes, because Daniel Wallace thinks that there is a new fragment of Mark that can be dated to the first century – and he even brings it up in his debate with Ehrman (above).


This manuscript, called the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, is on exhibition at Rylands Library in Manchester, UK.  It measures 3.5 by 2.5 inches, and has writing on both front and back.  The front contains parts of 7 lines from John 18: 31-33; the back contains parts of 7 lines from John 18: 37-38.  This fragment of John is probably the oldest New Testament manuscript discovered so far.

You can see in bold (above) which Greek  letters are actually on the front side of the papyrus.  The papyrus is dated by paleographers between 117 and 138 AD.  Why is this significant?

Let’s say you found a puzzle piece that had a date stamp of 1929 on the back.  Let’s say the partial picture on the puzzle piece that has not faded matches a puzzle piece from a complete 1982 puzzle that you own.  Let’s say the shape of the puzzle piece fits perfectly into your 1982 puzzle.  You would be fairly sure that your 1982 puzzle was originally made in 1929 or before.

What do we learn from the “puzzle piece” called P52?

Early Date

1.  It suggests a 1st century date of the original writing of John’s gospel ~ not in the 2nd to 4th century, as some conspiracy theorists say.  This papyrus was found in Egypt, having been copied in a particular Alexandrian script.  Since it is dated 117-138 based on the particular script (a type of date-stamp), it means that the book of John (thought to be written in Ephesus) had to travel to Egypt and then be copied before early 2nd century.  The P52 papyrus is so fragile that scholars do not want to run other types of tests, and so the dating, though considered very reliable by many, is not iron-clad.  Some scholars even date P52 as early as 90 AD.


2.  It shows the accuracy of the preservation of this passage in John by its incredible agreement with later manuscripts.   P52 has no significant variance with P66, a 2nd-3rd century papyrus fragment which includes much more of the gospel of John.  P52 has no significant variance with our earliest gospels that are in codex (book) form, including 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century Codex Vaticanus, and 5th century Codex Alexandrinus.  Variations that  exist include word order and pronunciation (itacism) differences .

The early dating and  high level of accuracy of P52 indicate that the gospel of John was written in the 1st century and preserved in a way that gives us confidence in the reliability of the gospel of John that we have in our Bibles.

The article explains what P52 means to Bart Ehrman’s case. You can make a similar case for the reliability of transmission by looking at how little the Old Testament has changed from the time of the Dead Sea scrolls to the previous earliest copies we had before the Dead Sea scrolls – a gap of a 1000 years.


Also on display through Dec. 31 will be three Dead Sea Scrolls, two on parchment and one on copper, on loan from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

The scrolls were discovered in a cave, coiled inside clay vases, by a goat herder in 1947. Excavations at the Dead Sea region later discovered about 900 scrolls in 11 caves.

Despite being safely stored in a dry container, 2,000 years took a toll on the scrolls, which were eaten away by fungi, worms and moisture. The scrolls on display, like all of the documents discovered in the find, are in fragments.

After connecting about 100,000 pieces, scholars have found that the scrolls contain biblical books, hymns, prayers and other important documents many believe were written by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived near the Dead Sea.

The find was of great historical significance because it was about 1,000 years older than any known version of the Bible, placing its authors much closer to the time of the Bible’s actual events.

Some of the scroll’s contents were published soon after their find, but for various reasons some were not released until the 1990s. The secrecy fueled speculation that the scrolls contained some sort of bombshell revelation that would contradict or significantly alter traditional biblical interpretations.

The eventual release of the scrolls seemed to prove just the opposite.

“To some degree, we didn’t know how reliable later translations of the Bible were,” said Risa Levitt Kohn, director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University and an associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism in SDSU’s Religious Studies Department. Kohn said the scrolls showed that translations of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, changed little in 2,000 years.

Peter Jones, scholar in residence and adjunct professor at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, said he studied the scrolls at Princeton University and wrote a doctoral dissertation comparing the Apostle Paul with the founder of the ancient city of Qumran, where the scrolls were discovered.

“It’s sort of amazing to see how well the text had been preserved for 1,000 years, because the text we had been using 1,000 years later can be verified by these very early texts, so that’s one good thing,” Jones said.

I don’t talk much about textual reliability on this blog, because I prefer the scientific arguments – but everybody should know this stuff. Everybody has to know how to make the case.