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Archive for March, 2012

First of all, a special thank you to Barry Jones for alerting me to this information. In February of this year (2012) Professor Daniel Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary announced the discovery of fragments of manuscripts containing some books of the New Testament that may be earlier than any existing manuscripts. While comparisons to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are certainly premature, if the initial claims for these manuscripts turn out to be true, such an analogy could turn out to be not far from wrong.

Okay, after all the hyperbole, let me begin with a word of caution. Before we can say anything about this discovery with any degree of certainty, we must allow several scholars to authenticate the manuscripts and especially to establish their date. Dr. Wallace has indicated that it may be a year or more before the details of the manuscripts will be revealed. While certainly I am anxious to find out more, I applaud the caution in such an approach. What we are talking about now are first indications. It’s okay to get excited, but let’s also realize that it is simply too early to make any extravagant claims. With that warning, let me summarize what the early findings indicate.

Seven papyri containing portions of the New Testament have been discovered in Egypt, six of them probably date from the second century; however, one of the manuscripts may actually go back to the first century. The potentially first century manuscript is from the Gospel of Mark. This would make it the earliest New Testament manuscript in existence, supplanting p52 which is a fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from the first half of the second century. Now this fragment of Mark probably only contains a very few verses; however, a first century date would truly be significant. Almost all of the earliest manuscripts we have were discovered in Egypt, because the hot, dry climate makes it more conducive to preserving ancient papyrus. Having a first century manuscript from Egypt also implies that the original must have been written early enough for copies to be made and find their way to Egypt. This may have implications for the remaining six manuscripts as well.

One of the other second century manuscripts contains portions of the gospel of Luke. This would make it the earliest manuscript of that gospel.

We have four manuscripts that contain portions of the letters of Paul. While I wish Dr. Wallace had revealed which letters are included, he wisely chose not to do that at this time. If I read his interview correctly, one of these letters might be Hebrews which was often included in early collections of the writings of Paul.

The final manuscript is not actually from a New Testament book. Rather, it is an ancient homily, dating from the second century, based on the book of Hebrews, chapter 11. This is significant, because it would indicate that in the second century the writer of the homily considered the book of Hebrews to be authoritative, and it would also imply that Hebrews was originally written early enough for it to circulate and obtain a degree of acceptance by the second century.

So there it is. You know what I know. Let me repeat what I said at the beginning. It is too early to accept these claims as is, although Dr. Wallace emphasizes that the manuscripts have been examined by one of the leading paleographers with an outstanding reputation. If I discover any more data to either authenticate or refute this information, I will include it in later posts. For now, it’s exciting to think about, but we will have to allow scholars to do their work.

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