Overdue: Dating Early Christian Papyri at the SBL Annual Meeting. A Report


The unruly half of the panel, i.e. Nongbri and Choat, and myself before losing control over those two….

You know academics are always late, right? So I am super-late in reporting a much fun session I organised and chaired on November 21 in San Antonio (Texas), at the last Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a monster of a conference gathering together thousands of people interested in the history of the Bible from the most amazing perspectives.

As a member of the Archaeology of Roman Religion Group (obviously the coolest group of all), I planned a session on “Dating Early Christian Papyri: Old and New Methods”. The reasons behind the panel were basically three. First of all, in recent years there have been lively discussions on the dating of the earliest copies of the New Testament, driven in some cases by ideology (you remember all those laughs about the first-century Mark fragment madness, right? By the way, I believe there might be fun developments forthcoming…so stay tuned), and in others by well-argued doubts about the methods papyrologists have applied so far in order to date such manuscripts. Secondly, new technologies and methodologies developed by the so-called “hard” sciences have appeared opening new possibilities to scholars. Finally, the new multidisciplinary context in which the dating and study of manuscripts is nowadays conducted requires more conversation between specialists in different fields, and needs to find clearer languages through which communication exchanges might become more effective. (You can download and read my introduction to the panel from here or sbl2016_introduction).

  1. Speed-Dating Papyri: Familiarity, Instinct, and Guesswork

The first paper was delivered by Malcolm Choat who started with an important methodological warning: especially when studied as material objects, Christian papyri shouldn’t be considered as a separate group from the rest of the evidence because this would lead to distortions in the interpretation of data. (There is now a very useful IT tool that provides dated comparanda for documentary papyri: PapPal). Malcolm’s paper was influenced by his current project on forgeries. He focussed on the birth of the diplomatic science (the study of Medieval documents’ shape and palaeography) in sixteenth century France, drawing attention to the fact that while this was born with the goal of proving the authenticity of manuscripts for legal, practical matters, papyrology-palaeography, on the contrary, was developed as a means to date documents which did not contain dating formulas and other clear chronological indications and above all as a discipline which studies writing as a complex social act connected with many aspects of history. One of the most interesting aspects of the paper was the discussion of the “expert eye”: Malcolm rightly pointed out that papyrology and palaeography are practical subjects. In other words, you learn more going through documents (what he defined as “speed-dating papyri”) than absorbing notions and theories from books. This opens the door to a problematic aspect of papyrology, which recalls “art expertise”: the idea that the more papyri you see, the more you would be able to evaluate pieces in terms of date, location, style and so forth so on. It is certainly true that some papyrologists have developed special skills in dating papyri based on the large numbers they’ve studied, nonetheless to attribute a date in a peer-reviewed journal article should be based on solid arguments, first and foremost extensive discussion of comparable, securely dated examples.

  1. Palaeography and Radiocarbon Analysis in the Dating of Early Christian Manuscripts: Problems and Prospects

Brent Nongbri came next. I have a passion for Brent despite he’s a troublemaker: since the publication of his “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel” on the Harvard Theological Review in 2007, he has constructively criticized the ways papyrologists, palaeographers and as a consequence NT scholars have proceeded in assigning a date to our league champion, P52 (= P.Ryl. III 457), a fragment of the Gospel of John supposedly being the first extant copy of the New Testament. The fragment is one of the big attractions of the John Rylands Library of Manchester, where it is on public permanent display, and we had to change labels in the Rylands: Brent truly is a nuisance…

He divided the paper into two sections: in the first he discussed current standard methods in dating texts, while in the second he dealt with radiocarbon dating. His careful analysis has brought to light positive aspects, but also shortages, in both methods. What seems important to achieve in the future is more clarity in the way experts present data and methods related with date attributions; according to his research, at present both palaeography and radiocarbon analysis are only allowing to locate a manuscript in a time span of a century, while some scholars tend to attribute shorter, more precise chronological indications without giving solid arguments in doing it.

  1. Dating Ancient Egyptian Papyri through Raman Spectroscopy: Concept and Application to Fragments of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and the Gospel of John 

The third paper was the most challenging, but the one showing how science and technology are impacting our field. It also had a “sexy” aspect besides science since the entire project behind it started as a means to test the authenticity of the so-called Jesus’s Wife Gospel and his twin John Gospel fragments, now both known to be forgeries. So we had professor Karen King and journalist Ariel Sabar joining the session. (Besides a fully packed room: I told you we are a cool group…).

Settled after the “finding” of the Jesus’s Wife fragment, the Ink Analysis Laboratory based in New York is composed by five members: a leading scientist (James Yardley) with two assistant researchers (Sarah Goler and Angela Cacciola), two papyrologists (Roger Bagnall and David Ratzan), and a conservator (Alexis Hagadorn). The main aim pulling the team together was that of starting a systematic study of the Raman spectrum of carbon based black pigment as a function of date. Seventeen securely dated papyri were selected from the Columbia University collection, and analysis began. Basically, micro-Raman spectroscopy is a non-destructive light scattering process through which incoming photons from a light source cause quantized vibrations in a material and as a consequence the scattered light is measured. In short, Raman-spectroscopy provides detailed information of the structural properties of the materials under analysis. So what the team has obtained so far is a precise description of the qualities of the ink of the abovementioned seventeen papyri; these results were then processed through mathematical models in order to develop a system to ‘predict’ the date of undated manuscript through Raman-spectroscopy analysis. Then blind-prediction analysis was performed: in brief, some dated papyri were processed through Raman spectroscopy and then attributed a date according to the abovementioned model in order to see if that date matched with the documented one (here results were mixed). Now, when such analysis was applied to the infamous Jesus’s Wife and Gospel of John fragments the outcomes were interesting. The structure of the ink of the John fragment was incompatible with any of the ancient ones, while the pigment of the Jesus’s Wife fragment presented some similarities to those of the second century CE, but the morphology was different from those of securely dated papyrus samples. In both cases, the conclusion was that both fragments are forgeries (and that the forger has used different inks, I would add).

To sum up: the paper showed that this technology has the potential to help developing a more refined method to analyse ancient ink compositions, to improve dating of texts not containing chronological indications, and to establish if a manuscript is authentic or not. I want to underline the phrase I used: to help developing. In fact this paper and the whole session made absolutely clear that science in isolation is unable to function properly as a means to achieve such goals.

  1. Conclusion

Discussion was gripping. We were very lucky to have in the room Ira Rabin (Bundestal für Materialforschung und Materialprüfung, Berlin), who moved a number of critiques to the Raman spectroscopy project, mainly for the small sample considered so far, the chemical processes analysed by the team, and the mathematical models applied. Many of the people in the room recognized the need for more interactions between disciplines and the invention of far more precise ways to communicate results concerning the dating of papyri when based on either palaeography or radiocarbon analysis and other scientific methods. Transparency on the way we reach conclusions – conclusions always ephemeral and subject to be constructively criticised – is an essential methodological aspect of our profession, which allows research moving forward.

We are going to publish the papers as a section or a special issue of a peer-reviewed journal, so follow my blog and I’ll keep you posted.


More Christmas “prestigious” auction alerts


Screen shot of the vintage souvenir of the Rylands fragment of John on sale through Sotheby’s New York on December 5th

Christmas auction madness never ends surprising me this year. In few days, Sotheby’s New York will auction an awful vintage reproduction of our P.Ryl. III 457 (P 52), with an estimate price of $ 300-500. By the way, the other side of the facsimile fragment is BLANK. So this really is a super-crappy souvenir.

To maybe add an ironic touch, the catalogue specifies that provenance (whatever they mean through the term…) is unknown, and date is 19-20 century. You bet.

The lot is part of the sale of the Bible Collection of Dr Charles Caldwell Ryrie, on which see Brice Jones’ blog.

Are you thinking to buy this “souvenir”? You should really be a bizarre collector full of money to throw away: consider donating to the poor instead, it’s Christmas time after all…


The real P.Ryl. III 457, and there’s more on the back…