What difference does it make if a New Testament manuscript is dated to the late second century or to the early fourth century? Sometimes it’s a big deal.

The Greek text of the New Testament that is the foundation for our modern translations isn’t based on just one manuscript. It’s what we call an eclectic text, a reconstruction that draws on readings from many different ancient manuscripts. But the eclectic Greek text does rely heavily on one particular manuscript, the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus.

In the middle of the 20th century, most New Testament textual critics believed that the text of the New Testament preserved in the Codex Vaticanus was the result of an editorial revision that took place in the fourth century. Then in 1961, a papyrus codex containing the Gospels of Luke and John in Greek (P.Bodmer XIV–XV or P75 to specialists) was published. It is often called the most important New Testament papyrus so far discovered because it was dated, on the basis of its handwriting, to about A.D. 175–225, and its text agrees very closely with that of Codex Vaticanus.

P.Bodmer XIV–XV was thought to provide evidence that the text of Vaticanus was produced as early as the second century and was carefully transmitted, which overturned the mid-20th-century consensus. But all of this rests on the date of P.Bodmer XIV–XV. And while palaeography does allow for a date in the third or even the later second century, circumstantial evidence points in a different direction.

First of all, handwriting very similar to that of the Bodmer codex can be found in documents that date to the fourth century, such as the archive of Theophanes from the 320s. Second, papyrus books of the same format and construction techniques are known to have been produced in the fourth century (such as some of the Nag Hammadi codices). Third, other books probably found with P.Bodmer XIV–XV can be dated on objective grounds to the fourth century at earliest. What this means is that we have to seriously consider the possibility that P.Bodmer XIV–XV is a product of the fourth century rather than the second.

If this conclusion is correct, it reopens the possibility that the New Testament text of P.Bodmer XIV–XV and Codex Vaticanus represents a fourth-century recension rather than a case of especially careful transmission (from the second century to the fourth), and we will need to rethink one of the 20th century’s most significant conclusions in New Testament textual criticism.

The page here contains the end of Luke and the beginning of John.—Brent Nongbri