All of the books of the New Testament were written within a lifetime of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Not so the so-called “other gospels,” which were pseudepigraphical Gnostic works written 100-300 years later. To date we have over 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, with an astounding 2.6 million pages of biblical text.1 While some of these manuscripts are small and fragmentary, the average size of a New Testament manuscript is 450 pages.2 Add to this the ancient manuscripts in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, etc. which number in the tens of thousands,3 and you realize that there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to New Testament manuscripts. No other ancient text can compare with the New Testament when it comes to the sheer volume of manuscripts, nor when we consider how close the earliest manuscripts are to the originals.
So what are the earliest New Testament manuscripts?
Papayri P90 and P104
Housed in the Sackler Library Papyrology Room at the University of Oxford, England are two of the earliest New Testament manuscripts.
- P90 (P. Oxy. 3523), is a small fragment of papyrus with portions of the Gospel of John (18:36-19:7) on both sides in Greek. It has been dated paleographically to the second century A.D.4 This text is part of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, a group of manuscripts discovered in the ancient garbage dump near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.
- Papayrus P104 (P. Oxy. 4404) is a second-century papyrus fragment that contains Matt. 21:34-37 on the front, and traces of verses 43 and 45 on the back.5 This manuscript is 6.35 cm by 9.5cm in size.
Scholars date the writing of Matthew’s gospel to the late 50’s or early 60’s in the first century. This is due in part to a comment by the church father Irenaeus that “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.”6 John’s gospel is dated to the late first century, after the composition of the other gospels. Again, Irenaeus, writing near the end of the second century states, “Afterward, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”7 Early church history records that John lived the final years of his life in Ephesus, dying as an old man sometime near the end of the first century. This means that these two manuscripts date to within 100-150 years of the original autographs. For comparison, Pliny the Elder wrote his encyclopedia, Natural History, in the first century and the earliest manuscript we have is from the 5th century – a gap of about 400 years.8
Papyrus P98 (P. IFAO inv. 237b [+a]) is a manuscript fragment that contains verses from the first chapter of the book of Revelation. It was copied circa A.D. 100-200, likely in Egypt.9 The manuscript was first published by Guy Wagner in 1971, who dated it to the second century. He did not recognize that it was a biblical text, however, and it wasn’t until 20 years later that Dieter Hagedorn identified it as coming from Rev. 1:13-20. The manuscript is in the collection of L’Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Cairo, Egypt.
In about A.D. 185, Irenaus wrote that the book of revelation was composed, “almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.”10 Domitian reigned from A.D. 81-96, which is one of the reasons many scholars believe the book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John sometime in the 90’s. Thus, P98 was likely copied within about 100 years of the original autograph.
The earliest and most famous Greek New Testament manuscript is the Ryland Papyrus P52, currently on display at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, UK. It was purchased in 1920 by Bernard Grenfell on the Egyptian antiquities market. However, it wasn’t really “discovered” until 1934 when it was translated by C. H. Roberts. Three of the leading papyrologists in Europe to whom Roberts sent photos of the fragment to dated it from A.D. 100-150. P52 comes from a codex (ie. book form, not a scroll) and contains parts of seven lines from the John 18:31–33 on the front, and parts of seven lines from verses 37–38 on the back.
ΟΙ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΟΙ ΗΜΙΝ ΟΥΚ ΕΞΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΠΟΚΤΕΙΝΑΙ
OYΔΕΝΑ ΙΝΑ Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΙΗΣΟΥ ΠΛΗΡΩΘΗ ΟΝ ΕΙ-
ΠΕΝ ΣHΜΑΙΝΩΝ ΠΟΙΩ ΘΑΝΑΤΩ ΗΜΕΛΛΕΝ ΑΠΟ-
ΘΝHΣΚΕΙΝ ΕΙΣΗΛΘΕΝ ΟΥΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΡΑΙΤΩ-
ΡΙΟΝ Ο ΠIΛΑΤΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΦΩΝΗΣΕΝ ΤΟΝ ΙΗΣΟΥΝ
ΚΑΙ ΕΙΠΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΣΥ ΕΙ O ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥ-
the Jews, “For us it is not permitted to kill
anyone,” so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he sp-
oke signifying what kind of death he was going to
die. Entered therefore again into the Praeto-
rium Pilate and summoned Jesus
and said to him, “Thou art king of the
ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΕΙΜΙ ΕΓΩ ΕΙΣ TOΥΤΟ ΓΕΓΕΝΝΗΜΑΙ
ΚΑΙ (ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ) ΕΛΗΛΥΘΑ ΕΙΣ ΤΟΝ ΚΟΣΜΟΝ ΙΝΑ ΜΑΡΤY-
ΡΗΣΩ ΤΗ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΠΑΣ Ο ΩΝ EΚ ΤΗΣ ΑΛΗΘΕI-
ΑΣ ΑΚΟΥΕΙ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΣ ΦΩΝΗΣ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ
Ο ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ ΤΙ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΚAΙ ΤΟΥΤO
ΕΙΠΩΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΞΗΛΘΕΝ ΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΙΟΥ-
ΔΑΙΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ ΕΓΩ ΟΥΔEΜΙΑΝ
ΕΥΡΙΣΚΩ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΑΙΤΙΑΝ
a King I am. For this I have been born
and (for this) I have come into the world so that I would
testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth
hears of me my voice.” Said to him
Pilate, “What is truth?” and this
having said, again he went out unto the Jews
and said to them, “I find not one
fault in him.”11
As mentioned above, the Apostle John likely wrote his gospel sometime late in the first century. This means that P52, the earliest New Testament manuscript, was likely copied within 50 years or so of the original. Moreover, since the manuscript was discovered in Egypt, a significant distance away from Ephesus where the gospel was originally written, we can see that the text of the Bible was being copied and widely circulated already in the early second century A.D.
Other Possible Second Century Manuscripts
In addition to the above four manuscripts which were copied sometime between A.D. 100-200, there are another group of manuscripts that may date to the second century as well (usually listed as dating from the 2nd – 3rd centuries). These are led by the recently published Papyrus P137 (P. Oxy. 5345), the manuscript formerly known as “First-century Mark.” After six years of rumors, it was finally published in 2018 by Oxford papyrologists Daniela Colomo and Dirk Obbink, who dated it paleographically to A.D. 150-250.12 While not the first-century manuscript that some were anticipating, it is nonetheless the earliest copy of the gospel of Mark in existence.
According to the database maintained by the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (www.csntm.org), there are six other manuscripts that are also dated to the 2nd or 3rd centuries.
|Papyrus P32||Titus||Greek||2nd-3rd Century|
|Papyrus P46||Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews||Greek||2nd-early 3rd Century|
|Papyrus P66||Gospel of John||Greek||2nd-3rd Century|
|Papyrus P77||Gospel of Matthew||Greek||2nd-3rd Century|
|Papyrus P103||Gospel of Matthew||Greek||2nd-3rd Century|
|Majuscule GA0189||Acts of the Apostles||Greek||2nd-3rd Century|
This brings the total number of possible second-century New Testament manuscripts to 11. These 11 manuscripts, and in particular, the four that are securely dated to the second century, are important links in chain connecting the Bible we read today to the original text of the New Testament.
1 Sheri Bell, “Testing the Historical Reliability of the New Testament.” Josh McDowell Ministry. January 10, 2018. https://www.josh.org/historical-reliability-new-testament/ (Accessed February 1, 2019)
2 Justin Taylor, “An Interview With Daniel B. Wallace On The New Testament Manuscripts.” The Gospel Coalition. March 22, 2012. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-interview-with-daniel-b-wallace-on-the-new-testament-manuscripts/ (Accessed February 1, 2019)
4 “P90.” The Center for the Study of New Testament Manscripts. http://www.csntm.org/manuscript/View/GA_P90 (Accessed February 1, 2019)
5 “P104.” The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. http://www.csntm.org/manuscript/View/GA_P104 (Accessed February 1, 2019)
6 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/irenaeus-book3.html (Accessed February 2, 2019)
8 Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017). Pg. 60.
9 “P98.” The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. http://www.csntm.org/manuscript/View/GA_P98 (Accessed February 1, 2019)
10 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.3. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/irenaeus-book5.html (Accessed February 2, 2019)
11 Tim Challies, “The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P25.” Challies.com. March 21, 2013. https://www.challies.com/articles/the-history-of-christianity-in-25-objects-rylands-library-papyrus-p52/ (Accessed February 2, 2019)
12 Elijah Hixson, “Despite Disappointing Some, New Mark Manuscript is Earliest Yet.” Christianity Today. May 30, 2018. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/may-web-only/mark-manuscript-earliest-not-first-century-fcm.html (Accessed February 1, 2019)