John Gibbons Studios/by permission of president and fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford

Eyewitness records of the life of Christ? That was how the Times of London described these three papyrus scraps bearing, on both sides, portions of Matthew 26. Acquired on the antiquities market in Egypt in 1901, the fragments were donated to Magdalen College, Oxford, that same year. The manuscript was written in capital letters, in a style called biblical majuscule, an early form of which was first used at the end of the second century and which reached its definitive form in the third century C.E.

Carsten Thiede, relying on recently discovered examples of Greek handwriting, claims that these fragments of Matthew date considerably earlier than the end of the second century, as thought by most scholars. But just how much earlier is something of a question: According to reports in the popular press, Thiede thinks the fragments date to the mid-first century; in a scholarly paper, however, he argues only for a late-first century date—a world of difference because the latter matches the date most scholars assign to the composition of Matthew, while the mid-first century attribution should make Matthew a witness to the events of Jesus’ last days.