Here is the second post by Brent Nongbri on his recent book God’s Library. I mentioned in the first of his posts that the book is “ground-breaking.” In part that’s because he challenges the widely accepted dates of a number of our earliest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament. Here he talks about his further explorations of this problem. The basic question: When scholars say “This manuscript dates from the fourth century” (or the second, etc.): how do they *know* that? Or do they?? A lot of scholars will not be happy with Brent’s conclusions! But no one can simply write him off — he gives some very convincing analyses….
Brent Nongbri’s most popular books are Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept and God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts.
In my last post (HERE), I talked a little bit about some of the interesting stories of discoveries of ancient Christian manuscripts I uncovered while researching my recent book, God’s Library. What I would like to do now is discuss some work I’m currently doing that builds on the sections of God’s Library that deal with problems in assigning dates to early Christian books.
How do we know how old an ancient piece of writing is? It depends on the kind of writing. The “everyday” writing of antiquity (receipts, tax records, letters, wills, marriage licenses, etc.), which scholars simply call “documents,” often contain dates, usually in the form of “Year X of the emperor so-and-so.” But copies of ancient literature didn’t carry those kind of explicit dates. Starting in the ninth century AD, we do find biblical manuscripts with dated colophons, or notes from the monks who copied the manuscript, but older manuscripts lack these kinds of dates. So how do we know the age of these older manuscripts? Sometimes we get lucky. For instance, a fragment of a copy of a gospel harmony (a combination of the four canonical gospels) was found in the ruins of Dura Europos, a city in Syria that was sacked, destroyed, and abandoned in 256 AD. So this harmony must have been copied before that time. Sometimes when literature was copied on a papyrus roll instead of a codex, the blank back of the roll might be reused for a document with a date, so again, we would know that the piece of literature on the front of the roll was copied before the date of the document on the back. These are objective ways of knowing at least roughly when a manuscript was copied.
You might think that early Christian manuscripts would be analyzed using radiocarbon dating, but …
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