Sometimes when first-time observers read about the production-dates of New Testament manuscripts, one of the first things they notice is that most of the dates are not very precise. Several factors contribute to establishing the approximate production-date of a manuscript. Let’s look at some of them today: colophons, script, content, material, special factors, and radiocarbon dating.
COLOPHONS. Notes written by a scribe, or scribes, involved in the production of the manuscript – sometimes state when the manuscript was made. Such notes, or colophons, immediately simplify the task of assigning a production-date. Medieval scribes who wrote colophons with dates typically used calendars in which the first year of the earth was 5509. Sometimes the production-date was given in terms of the reign of a particular Byzantine Emperor. Robert Waltz has provided a detailed explanation of how production-dates mentioned in colophons should be interpreted. Rarely, dates are given in terms of the number of years A.D. (Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord”).
SCRIPT. Usually, there is no colophon, so analysts attempting to determine a manuscript’s production-date must resort to a study of the handwriting displayed in the manuscript. This involves the field of paleography (or “palæography”), the study of ancient writing. The method of Greek handwriting changed over time – from the majuscule, or uncial, lettering of the early copies (and formal and informal variations), to the minuscule lettering of later copies (with variations such as Perlschrift, Bouletée, and “Ace of Spades” minuscule).
first systematic study of Greek palaeography was made by Bernard de Montfaucon,
a Benedictine monk, in 1708. Almost
instantly, paleography grew into a scientific field of study. In 1912, Edward Maunde Thompson published An Introduction to Greek and Latin
Palaeography, a book which remains useful today. American scholar Bruce Metzger focused on
Biblical writings in his 1981 book Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to
Timothy Janz has written Greek
Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance, which is available to
read at the Vatican Library’s website.
With just a few hours of effort, readers of Janz’s introduction can gain
plenty of information about palaeography (and view the specific scripts in
manuscripts at the Vatican Library).
Bernard de Montfaucon
Manuscripts’ production-dates assigned on the basis of paleography tend to have an unavoidable range of about 100 years, because we have no way of knowing whether an anonymous scribe was just beginning his (or her) career – in which, hopefully, he would continue for 50 years – or whether his career was approaching its end. If a scribe continued using the script he possessed when he first learned to write, then that script could endure throughout his whole career. (Theoretically a scribe could adjust his own handwriting over time, but there is not much to go on to suggest that such a thing was normal.)
CONTENT. A manuscript cannot, of course, be written before the events that are recorded in the manuscript. Some New Testament manuscripts – more than you might expect – mention historical events (especially in lectionary-calendars accompanying the Biblical text) that provide a solid basis for discerning the limits of when a manuscript was made. For example, if a lectionary calendar mentions the feast-day for Cosmas the Hymnographer, bishop of Maiuma, and Andrew of Crete, it must have been produced after the mid-700s. If a lectionary-calendar mentions Lazarus the Wonder-worker, its production-date must be later than the period when Lazarus the Wonder-worker was active in the 900s.
(The Latin term for the earliest possible production-date is the terminus a quo. The Latin term for the latest possible production-date is the terminus ad quem.)
MATERIAL. All New Testament manuscripts are made of papyrus or parchment or paper. (There is a small class of witnesses, which used to be represented by the letter “T” in a Fraktur-style font, which can include other material such as very small manuscripts, amulets, and inscriptions.) Characteristics of these materials can influence the dating of a manuscript – especially when the paper features a watermark, which can narrow down not only the production-date of a manuscript but also its provenance (where it comes from).
SPECIAL FACTORS. Sometimes the provenance of a manuscript helps define the limits of its production-date. For example, the manuscript known as GA 0212 (which technically should not be in the list of continuous-text New Testament manuscripts, because it is not a continuous-text New Testament manuscript) was found in the ruins of Dura-Europos, a place which was beseiged and destroyed by a Roman army in 257. Thus 0212’s terminus ad quem cannot be later than 257.
Even after taking all of the above into consideration, specialists sometimes get production-dates wrong. One example is found in the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, where the editors assigned GA 2427 a production-date of “XIV?” (p. 711), and ranked it as a “consistently cited witness of the first order” in Mark (See the Nestle-Aland Introduction, p. 47* and p. 58*). GA 2427 is indeed cited very frequently throughout Mark in NA27’s textual apparatus.
But in NA28, GA 2427 is gone. In 2006, Wieland Willker already
described 2427 as a fake, and, as Willker reported, Stephen Carlson
demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that 2427 is a forgery, based primarily
on Philip Buttmann’s 1860 Greek New Testament (as he explains in an article at
the SBL Forum Archive). Tommy
Wasserman gives additional details about the exposure of 2427 in a
2009 post at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. Margaret Mitchell of the
So, experts can be fooled, at least
temporarily, by well-made forgeries – even with careful consideration of
colophons, script, material, and special factors. Which brings us to the last resort:
RADIOCARBON ANALYSIS. A small amount of parchment that undergoes carbon-14 tests can yield an approximate production-date for the material. (The date when the material was used may be later.) This is usually not done (because the carbon-14 tests involve the destruction of the things they test). But sometimes it is. For instance the Ethiopian Garima Gospels, initially assigned a production-date in the 1000s, was suspected by Jacques Mercier of being much earlier. Mercier submitted small sample fragments of the manuscript to radiocarbon tests, which gave one fragment a date of 330-540, and another fragment a date of 430-650 (as reported in 2011 in the journal of Kenyon College). And just like that, the Garima Gospels went from being a minor witness to the Ethiopic Version to being confirmed as a contender (with the Rabbula Gospels of 586) to be the oldest illustrated manuscript of the Gospels. Perhaps what is presently a last resort should in the future be the first resort, where parchment is involved, and when the requisite amount of material can be spared, and the cost of radiocarbon analysis is not prohibitive. Rare is the parchment New Testament manuscript that does not have a blank border that could be removed without appreciable loss.