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GUEST POST! Dr. Brent Nongbri on How We Date Manuscripts

One of the people we are lucky to have as a member of the blog is Dr. Brent Nongbri, who did his PhD at Yale in 2008 and who is now a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University (see http://www.mq.edu.au/about_us/faculties_and_departments/faculty_of_arts/department_of_ancient_history/staff/dr_brent_nongbri/ ).   Among other things Brent is one of the most knowledgeable and productive scholars working in the field of palaeography – the discipline that deals with the dating of ancient manuscripts.  He has been following this discussion of a possible first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark, and to my great appreciation has agreed to do a GUEST POST for us all, on an area many of us are very interested in.  How would we know a first-century manuscript if we saw one???    Here is his succinct and lucid summary of how scholars date ancient manuscripts, from a leading authority, in his own words.   Many thanks, Brent!

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 Despite all the excitement about the alleged “first century” fragment of Mark’s gospel, a recent report suggests that, in fact, nobody who has been talking publicly about this fragment has actually seen the papyrus! (The possible exception is Scott Carroll, the man who has gained notoriety in recent years for buying up early Christian papyri on behalf of wealthy American collectors). So we should probably now just let this story die a quiet death. But before we do, it might be a good idea to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on just how we go about establishing dates for undated Greek manuscripts.

A couple things about this story made those of us who spend our days studying early Christian manuscripts scratch our heads. It wasn’t so much the claim that there was a fragment of Mark that might have been copied in the first century. That would be surprising, but also interesting and exciting.  What was odd was the specificity of these claims.  Take Craig Evans’ comments as quoted in the LiveScience story that rekindled interest in this fragment: “Evans says that the text was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, studying the handwriting on the fragment and studying the other documents found along with the gospel. These considerations led the researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before the year 90.”  Or Dan Wallace’s statements from an interview back in 2012: “it’s dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers, whose name I’m not allowed to reveal yet…his understanding is it definitely is [first century].”  Or Evans again here on Bart’s blog: “a fragment of Mark…which those studying it think dates to the 80s.”

To those of us who work regularly on early Christian papyri, these are really confusing claims.  “Before the year 90,” “definitely first century,” “dates to the 80s.”  Could any of the methods of dating mentioned by Evans and Wallace actually produce such a specific date?

 

Palaeography

Palaeography, the analysis of handwriting, is, for better or worse, the main way that we assign dates to undated ancient manuscripts.  This method can work reasonably well when you have lots of examples with exact dates—you can make informed comparisons of undated samples of handwriting with dated samples. Unfortunately, securely dated samples of “literary” Greek handwriting of the Roman era are not as numerous as we would like.  Competent palaeographers thus hesitate to give highly specific dates, usually allowing at least a 50-year window.  And there are good reasons to think that window should be even wider, up to a century or more. To name just three: First of all, ancient scribes could have pretty long working lives, 30-50 years.  Second, similarities in writing style were, unsurprisingly, passed from teachers to students and thus persisted for multiple generations. And finally, ancient scribes were perfectly capable of writing in different styles that we associate with different time periods (for detailed evidence of these claims, you can see a recent article of mine on the topic here). So palaeography doesn’t give us such specific dates.

 

Radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon analysis is great when we’re dealing with questions of large chunks of time. For instance, radiocarbon dating showed conclusively that the Shroud of Turin was a product of the 13th or 14th century and not the first century.  But it’s less helpful when we’re talking about smaller periods of time.  That’s because radiocarbon dates (when they are reported accurately) are expressed in terms of ranges and probabilities.  For example, about 10 years ago, some linen from the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found was subjected to radiocarbon analysis.  The results looked like this:

50 BC – 80 AD, probability 95.4%

5 BC – 55 AD, probability 57.6%

What we get are ranges of dates and probabilities that the actual date of the artifact falls within this range.  So the wider the range, the greater the probability that the actual date of the artifact falls somewhere within that range. To get up to around 95% probability, you have a range of over a century.  And this presumes optimal testing conditions, which we don’t always have (In the 1990s, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves were subjected to radiocarbon analysis, but it was later discovered that the parchment samples were probably contaminated with modern castor oil in the 1950s, so all those results are suspect. But that’s another story…).

 

Other documents in the mask

This fragment of Mark is said to come from the waste papyrus used to make a mummy mask. Let’s say such a mask is taken apart, and it contains a bunch of documents (letters, receipts, tax records, etc.) that all date within a given period, say from the years 220-100 BC (most mummy masks made with waste papyri are Ptolemaic, not Roman). If any undated literary fragments are found together with those documents, it’s a safe bet that the literary pieces probably date to roughly the same period. But it’s important to remember that the dated documents in such a mix give us what’s called a terminus post quem (literally the “time after which”), the earliest possible date the mask was made. So the mask was made no earlier than the year of the latest dated material in the find.  The mask could have been made considerably later. Even in these circumstances, then, you’re not going to end up with a really narrow date for any undated literary manuscript that turns up.

At the end of the day, then, the claim that this fragment of Mark was “written before the year 90” is a bit dubious. Really the only way that could be a true statement is if the copy of Mark were written on a roll (instead of a codex) and the back of the roll was then reused for a document (like a letter or a receipt) that had an exact date in the year 90. And if that was the case, Wallace or Evans should have just said so.

So, yes, it’s time for this story to go away until some actual evidence appears in print. But the next time we see these kinds of claims (and there probably will be a next time), it’s a good idea to keep in mind how tenuous this whole process of assigning dates to undated manuscripts really is. If you hear that an early Christian manuscript dates from “circa” some specific year, proceed with caution.  Palaeography and radiocarbon analysis are helpful, but these methods give us pretty wide ranges of dates, not the really specific dates we might like to have.


More on Greek Numerals
Another (Final!) Insight into that Mummy Mask and Papyrus

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  February 1, 2015

    Would a possibility be something like handwriting that gave the range of, say, 40-90 CE, with the earlier dates being ruled out based on current views of when Mark was composed?

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  February 2, 2015

      Well, we probably couldn’t get a range of possible palaeographic dates so narrow, but, for the sake of argument, if we could find some really compelling similarities with handwriting samples from lots of dated documents in that range, I suspect that some people would make the argument that you suggest while others would probably begin to argue that we should just date the composition of Mark earlier!

  2. Avatar
    Adam0685  February 1, 2015

    Thanks!

    Bart – if this thing exists, and if we end up seeing it, like the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” scholars have to make sure it’s not a forgery.

  3. Avatar
    Scott  February 1, 2015

    What happens when the paleography gives a date range of 80-150ce and the radio carbon dating yields, say, 75bce-90ce? Understanding that a great deal rides on the quality and replicability of the testing, Is it legitimate to use bracketing like this to narrow the window?

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  February 2, 2015

      If we had a relatively narrow overlap using the different methods, then yes, one possible conclusion could be that we assign a date in that area of overlap. Another possible conclusion is that one of our methods of dating might need some tweaking. That is to say, either the style of handwriting may have began to appear earlier than we thought or something is amiss with the radiocarbon analysis. The latter does happen on occasion; an Aramaic deed on papyrus designated as XHev/Se 8a (that’s just what we call it; don’t ask) was radiocarbon analyzed with the following results:
      231-332 A.D.; probability 68%
      144-370 A.D.; probability 95%
      But this deed actually contains the date it was written: 134 A.D.–so go figure.

  4. Avatar
    Scott  February 1, 2015

    This guest post is one more reason that this is the BEST BLOG EVER!

  5. Avatar
    Jim  February 1, 2015

    Hi Brent and thanks for your post. I had two questions … the first one had something to do with how well do they pay post docs? … but I’ll just skip that one. 🙂 Re paleography, if a fragment is found that contains only one or possibly two NT verses, does the limited number of letters in such a small sample pose any difficulties on dating by this method?

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  February 2, 2015

      On the first question–not enough! On the second question, yes, definitely. If a given sample doesn’t have representations of all the letters in the alphabet, we’re at a real disadvantage in trying to assign a palaeographic date.

    • Bethany
      Bethany  February 2, 2015

      As my dissertation adviser once told me, the thing about graduate student stipends is at least they make postdoc stipends look good. 🙂

      (I don’t know about other disciplines, but in my area — psychology — postdoc stipends often (but not always) seem to tend to follow National Institute of Health postdoc stipend levels even for projects not funded by the NIH, unless the funding has a source that requires higher levels, of course.)

  6. Avatar
    Jason  February 2, 2015

    In the second to last paragraph here the suggestion is made that a gospel would be reused for a receipt or some type of dated document. I have always gotten the sense that religious papyri and parchment manuscripts from the first few centuries CE were treated with more reverence than this (esp. From Dr.s. Ehrman and Tabor’s writing.) Are there many Biblical roll fragments with front/back content discrepancies like this, and among them is it always assumed the Biblical side was the original use and the non-biblical side the “palimpsest?”

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  February 2, 2015

      Well, ancient people seemed to have treated biblical manuscripts in a variety of ways. Keep in mind that all the biblical manuscripts recovered from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus were recovered from the trash heaps on the outskirts of the city–people tore them up and threw them away! There’s a great article on this topic by Anne Marie Luijendijk. You can find it here:
      https://www.academia.edu/5103316/Luijendijk_Sacred_Scriptures_as_Trash_VigChr

  7. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 2, 2015

    Great explanation. Thanks for taking the time to describe the problems with the publicized dating of this supposed fragment of Mark, Dr. Nongbri.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 2, 2015

    Thanks for such a terrific review. It helps me understand the difficulties of dating such texts even within a hundred years or so.

  9. Avatar
    James  February 3, 2015

    I don’t know if this is the definition of nerdery, but I’m actually looking forward to Nongbri’s forthcoming piece on P.Bodmer XIV+XV that he alludes to in a footnote in the article he links to here rather a lot more than what is likely to be an entirely unremarkable fragment of Mark.

  10. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  February 3, 2015

    I don’t know how long it’s been there, but I just noticed the function at the bottom of your post that allows a reader to go forward to your next post, or back to your last post. Love it! Please thank Steve, is it?

  11. Avatar
    dws  February 3, 2015

    Thanks Brent. That was a great post. You have a knack for writing for a general audience.

  12. Avatar
    MikeyS  February 3, 2015

    Hi, just rejoined the forum from the UK again and one question that has bothered me and that is IF these ancient manuscripts can only be dated within a time frame of 50 to 100 years as indicated then how can you be CERTAIN that the gospels were all dated from 50 AD for Mark, 60-70 for Matthew and Luke and around 85-95 for John? Surely Christian Historians will point out that if this was the case, then why is it impossible that these Gospels MAY have been written within a shorter time from the Resurrection of Jesus even within a year by eye witnesses even though they may be anonamous? Same could be applied to the letters of Paul? Personally IF some of these writings were post AD70, I can’t see how the destruction of the temple and killing of tens of thousands of Jews could or would have been left out, especially when that was apparently prophesied by Jesus. Book of Revelation as well? Sorry for the long question.

    Thanks.

    Mike

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2015

      Historians of antiquity are rarely *CERTAIN* (in an absolute sense) about such things. It’s a question of what is *probably* the case (very probably or just probably). The reason the destruction of the temple is not *explicitly* mentioned is because in the days of Jesus it had not happened yet, and the Gospels are about the days of Jesus. But all the Gospels appear to presuppose that Jerusalem, and the temple, have been destroyed (e.g., Mark 13:2).

      • Avatar
        MikeyS  February 6, 2015

        OK but how can historians rule out the Gospels were not written with say a decade of the resurrection if they can’t be that precise on dating. Skeptics say all the time that as these were written ‘many’ decades after the resurrection by non eye witnesses they cannot be relied on other than via an oral tradition where things may have been changed or altered to suit a later agenda. eg the Trinity, and indeed the resurrection. And the claim that Jesus was God.

        When its said that ‘most’ historians generally agree the dates of eg AD 50, or AD 70 or AD 85 etc, They surely cannot be that specific then. Surely, It would be more logical to say they could have been written by eye witnesses or non eye witnesses anytime within the first century dating from the resurrection itself. I know you are not one to appeal to a consensus view Dr Erhman and why I was surprised you changed your mind about whether Jesus was an actual historical figure when there there is no or little non biblical evidence. I heard you many times in debates claim if there was no ‘real’ historical evidence from these other sources, then the jury is still out isn’t it? ie unless you want to join the majority view thing again? If Josephus wrote about other jewish religious men of his day as he did and yet didn’t mention Jesus at all other than some text about the brother of James that is still a contentious view as whether that had been added later? That itself would call into serious doubt that he was a real person?

        I know you don’t like long statements, sorry.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 6, 2015

          The Gospels are dated in part based on the fact that they appear to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE; if Mark *does* know about that (see Mark 12:9 and 13:1), then it is probably after 70. If Matthew and Luke used Mark, they are later still. If John is last, it is later still. Etc….

          • Avatar
            jachandler@gmail.com  February 15, 2015

            so that puts Mark (and Matthew and Luke) after 70. But why not then a few decade range for Mark–say 70-100. If covered elsewhere, just direct me to it. Thanks.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 17, 2015

            Could be. But if you think Matthew, for example, is first century, Mark has to be some time earlier.

  13. Avatar
    Ronald  February 4, 2015

    I was interested to note the cmment that the radioactive dating of the dead sea scrolls may have been from contaminated samples. I believe that with this material there is ample internal evidence from the text itself that can be used to estimate the dating of its genesis. I still accept Dr. Eisenman’s claim that some of the Dead Sea Sroll material can be dated to the lifetime of Jesus and the early movement of his followers.

  14. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  February 5, 2015

    Question for Dr Ehrman: as I was doing some clearing up in the kitchen, funny how these things can be musing at the back of your mind, it suddenly stuck me about a possible connection between your speciality and the dating question (although probably not the dating of this fragment, however, from what has been said):

    In addition to palaeography and carbon dating, is there an extent to which we can also allow the actual words to inform the dating process? In texts so widely copied, but also researched, documented and grouped by amazing folk like yourself, could not specific variants be used as time markers?

    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2015

      You can’t date a *manuscript* that way, but you can date the text found in the manuscript that way (i.e., when was Ecclesiastes probably written, based on its language.)

  15. Avatar
    nichael  February 6, 2015

    Dr Nongbri

    Thank you so much for this post.

    If possible, could you recommend a book (or some “further reading”) for the interested non-specialist on the topic of paleography, especially in the realm of NT studies?

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  February 7, 2015

      There’s not really anything out there at the moment for a non-specialist audience (but I’m in the middle of writing a book on it, so stay tuned!). The classic introduction is the second edition (1987) of Eric Turner’s Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World. It has been out of print for a while, but I’ve heard rumors a reprint edition is in the works. Otherwise, even though it’s a little dense, this article by Willy Clarysse and Pasquale Orsini has some good introductory material (although they tend to date things more narrowly than I think is possible): https://www.academia.edu/3667498/Early_New_Testament_Manuscripts_and_Their_Dates._A_Critique_of_Theological_Palaeography

  16. Avatar
    Curtis7777  February 7, 2015

    Great post Dr. Nongbri. Perhaps other would benefit from your previous article:
    https://www.academia.edu/436092/The_Use_and_Abuse_of_P52_Papyrological_Pitfalls_in_the_Dating_of_the_Fourth_Gospel
    Regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls and carbon-14 dating. If the Castor oil contaminated the process, how is the same not true for the Shroud of Turin which experienced a fire and was doused with water. Would not that contaminate the results? (Mind you, that I am convinced the Shroud is a forgery.)

    Also would it be fair to assume that neither Dr. Nongbri or you Dr. Ehrman accept the research of Young Kyu Kim,
    “Paleographical Dating of P46 to the Later First Century”. Biblica 69 (1988): 248-57? He dates p46 to the end of the first century.

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  February 9, 2015

      On the carbon-14 question: There are a variety of cleaning methods that labs use to make sure samples are free of contamination. The problem with the Dead Sea Scrolls was that, apparently, no one told the labs that castor oil had been applied to the scrolls in the 1950s. The labs that analyzed the Shroud of Turin used thorough cleaning processes described in detail here (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v337/n6208/pdf/337611a0.pdf) and the suggestion that the partial burning of the Shroud might affect the carbon-14 content is treated here (https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/radiocarbon/article/view/1987).
      On Kim’s article: I don’t find it compelling. It focuses too much on isolated letters. For a pretty thorough rebuttal, see S. R. Pickering, “The Dating of the Chester Beatty-Michigan Codex of the Pauline Epistles (P46),” in T. W. Hillard et al., eds., Ancient History in a Modern University, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 216-27.

  17. Avatar
    Prizm  February 25, 2015

    This was a very interesting read, thanks.

  18. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 21, 2015

    Dr. Nongbri, since there was a problem in the 1990’s dating some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have they been re-tested and what are the results? Is the range similar for all of them?

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  March 22, 2015

      Not that I know of. Other material from Qumran (like the linen I mentioned in the post) has been subjected to radiocarbon analysis an yielded dates in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods, which is basically consistent with when most historians think that the scrolls were produced.

  19. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 21, 2015

    Bart, when Dr. Nongbri publishes his book for non-specialists on paleography, would you post it publication (if you can remember to do it)?

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