Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The P52 Bomber

From the September 2010 E-Block.


In my response to Robert Price, I indicated that I would devote a separate article to discussion of claims made by Brent Nongbri in the Harvard Theological Review concerning P52, the tiny scrap from John’s Gospel that is usually regarded as the earliest NT manuscript (c. 100-150 AD). Does Nongbri offer anything to overturn this evaluation? He has certainly attained Messianic status with the likes of Price, who are apparently tired of P52 looming over their heads (though truly, it has never stopped them from such creative contrivances as saying that the rest of John was completely different). But does he give us any reason to disregard the consensus established by Roberts nearly a century ago? 

Well, no. But he does give us fair reason to look at the evidence afresh; that is the most that can be said. 

It is not unreasonable to suggest that new information might change our view of how a manuscript is to be dated. However, the reader won’t be able to get much out of Nongbri’s arguments to convince fairly pro or con. The appeals here are frequently involving art as much as science: Judgments are involved in how much the style of calligraphy (shall we say) on one scrap dated to one year are comparable (or not comparable) to that of some other scrap. In some cases Nongbri simply disagrees with some assessment made by Roberts (eg, “he says it looks like this, but I don’t think it does”). In other cases he argues that some form of letter appearance persisted into a later time, so that Roberts’ evaluation of the form as early cannot be sustained. 

In the end, two points emerge. First, the basis for Nongbri’s case frankly cannot be evaluated by someone like me who does not have the resources or depth training necessary to decide who is right. I must turn to expert discussion, which I will do shortly. Second, for all of how he has been used by Skeptics, Nongbri never says that Roberts’ dating of P52 is wrong – only that he doesn’t think that enough evidence is available to justify it, and that P52 may be datable to the late second or early third century also -- not that it cannot be dated to the middle second century. This would hardly be good news for most Skeptics. 

Now before we get to the expert views I found, a word on why Price and others are so delirious, and why they should not be, even if we manage to find that P52 ought to be dated to, say, 1800 AD! Price and his ilk are clearly disgruntled by an early dating for P52 because it makes hash of attempts to deconstruct John into some late second-century text that was composed a layer at a time. They lack hard evidence for such composition, but that has not stopped their creativity. Their arguments for layers are contrived, but that still won’t stop them. Finally, even without P52, we still have many more manuscripts of John, much closer to the original composition date, than we do for any other ancient work that is not part of the NT. If P52 is lost to apologetic causes, it will not cause the balance of evidence and argument to suddenly spring radically in the opposite direction. That, like theories of John’s piecemeal evolution, is merely a fantasy of fringe scholarship. (Some have also pointed out that Nongbri appears to have an agenda similar to the one we have described for Price, but we must fairly say as we have elsewhere that “agenda” is not a basis to evaluate truth claims.) 

So what then of expert views on the matter? Since Nongbri didn’t commit to any “corrected” date for P52, just a wider range of possible dates, it’s not surprising that this doesn’t appear to have been discussed much; he was duly cautious, though one would never know this from Price’s rhetoric. Some scholars criticized Nongbri for paying too much attention to individual letter formations and not enough attention to “trends” in script development. 

Since I needed expert help on this, I figured I’d drop Daniel Wallace a line, but it turned out I didn’t need to. His evaluation of Nongbri can be found in a footnote of an article here, where he says: 

The thesis of the article is that the standard dating of P52 to 100-150 CE is disputable and thus the date of John’s Gospel is again open to question. The date of 100-150 CE was originally assigned to the fragment in 1935, when Colin H. Roberts, the man who discovered the manuscript in the bowels of the John Rylands Library at Manchester University, inquired from three of the leading papyrologists in Europe as to its date. Each one independently confirmed a date in the first half of the second century. (To be sure, some scholars date it later than that, but they are in a distinct minority. Further, Deissmann thought it could be dated as early as the late first century.) But that the long-held date of P52 can be so cavalierly put aside (by simply arguing for what is possible, rather than by noting what is probable) seems to be a desperate measure, born out of a postmodern agenda: skepticism must reign over all matters related to the scriptures. The prerequisites for a certain date that Nongbri suggests (explicit date on the manuscript or in situ discovery that places the fragment among other artifacts that can be dated) are of course well known. But short of certainty are many shades of probability. The author’s statement that “paleography is not the most effective method for dating texts” seems to imply that a better method is available to us for this fragment. That is not the case, as Nongbri admits. Indeed, he uses paleography to attempt to discredit the standard dating of this fragment! But he does not seem willing to grant the likelihood that P52 brings a lot to the table concerning the date of John. His conclusion that the papyrus “cannot be used as evidence” for the date of John is certainly overdone. That the vast majority of NT MSS are dated strictly on paleographical bases, and that there are several other papyri of John from as early as the second century, suggests that Nongbri’s skepticism is unwarranted. 7That is, reconstructing the wording of the text without any MS support, a practice that is required for almost all other ancient literature. 
Following this, Wallace quotes several authorities in support of the latter point. Nongbri’s comment about paleography as a dating method was also a sore spot for a couple of commentators (both scholarly and lay-expert), though it is responded by others that he doesn’t actually totally dismiss paleography, he merely issues cautions about it. (I believe if this is so, Nongbri wasn’t circumspect enough to make this clear.) 

So what can be said in close? First, Nongbri, even if correct about the latest possible date for P52, does little to support views like Price's and even less damage to dating of the NT. Second, it appears that some have gone far beyond what Nongbri himself stated, and have turned his cautious uncertainty into gospel certainty: In their hands, his profession that P52 could be dated anytime between the earlier time consensus has previously assigned, and a later date, has been frequently turned into a claim that it definitely dates to the later period. 

Which reminds us again that it is never a wise idea to trust an Internet Skeptic. 

Or Robert Price.

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