The pictures below show the front and the back of the oldest manuscript of the New Testament which has been found.
This manuscript is referred to in two different ways. Its official designation is p52. The “p” indicates that it was written on papyrus instead of vellum. The manuscript is also referred to as the Rylands Fragment. It gets its name, because it is kept in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. This tiny scrap of papyrus is only about 3 ½” X 2 ½”. The two sides contain respectively portions of John 18.31-33 and John 18.37-38. It has been determined that in order to obtain the text on the front and the back as we have it, the complete manuscript of the Gospel of John must have been 130 pages long and its dimensions were approximately 8 ½” X 8 ” for the codex itself. You may recall that scrolls would normally be written on only one side, so we know that the Rylands Fragment is from a codex, because it has writing on both sides.
Just as the silver amulet of Numbers we discussed last week has implications for the dating of the Pentateuch, this tiny manuscript when first discovered sent shock waves through the academic community, precisely because of what it told us about the date at which the gospel of John was written. Traditional dating for the Gospel of John tends to go from AD 70 – 100, with perhaps more people accepting a date late in the first century (close to AD 100).
Beginning in the Nineteenth century, however, a large school of scholarship was teaching that John could not have been written that early, that in fact it dates from the second half of the second century (AD 150 – 200). F.C. Baur, a scholar who represented the Tubingen School in Germany, said that John actually was written @ AD 170.
Manuscript p52 was acquired in Egypt in 1920. It remained in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England until 1934, when a student first began to analyze it. He had the fragment examined by three scholars who specialized in studying and dating ancient papyri. All three of them agreed that this small scrap of the Gospel of John was written between AD 100-150, probably closer to 100-130. A fourth scholar actually placed the Rylands Fragment as early as the 90s, which would make it almost contemporary with the autograph.
So now we have a fragment of the Gospel of John, presumably not the autograph (original), that dates no later than AD 150 and probably some years earlier. Also, the manuscript was found in Egypt. Although some scholars have suggested Alexandria in Egypt as the place where John was written, Asia appears to be more likely. If the Gospel of John was written in Asia, then Ephesus would be the most likely location. Let’s admit that much of this is speculation, but it bears on the date of the Gospel. Unless Alexandria is accepted as the place of writing for the original, then the Gospel of John had to have been written early enough for this little fragment to have been copied and then taken to Egypt where it was acquired in 1920. Even if it were written in Alexandria, we must still accept a date of @ AD 100-125 for the writing of the gospel of John. So, a whole school of Biblical scholarship based on speculation was destroyed by a scrap of papyrus, just as it was challenged for the Pentateuch by a silver amulet.
As I have said a number of times, I do not believe we must accept traditional dates for the books of the Bible. We should examine each one on its own merits and follow where the evidence leads. I have come to believe, however, that liberal scholars tend to be at least as biased as conservative ones, especially when dealing with matters that are based on speculation.
I am convinced that the whole body of Biblical studies would benefit greatly from a little more humility on the part of scholars espousing their particular theories. I still like the short prayer I read somewhere. “Lord, make my words sweet and tender, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”