Jesus Papyrus Review

Emily and I moved to Oxford to start the new millennium, and one thing I was eager to see was the controversial “Jesus Papyrus” a.k.a. P64, a parchment manuscript kept in Magdalen College old library. It is already the oldest copy of any part of Matthew’s gospel, having been dated c. 170 AD by C.H. Roberts in 1934. A few years ago a German scholar proposed a redating of the papyrus to the first century, bringing controversy and a pilgrimage of interested parties to Magdalen. The librarian, Dr Christine Ferdinand, is not sure she appreciates all the extra visitors!  I went to see the papyrus and took the Ministry Teaching Programme students earlier this month.

The manuscript itself merits a paper, regardless of the redating. As usual, such a study has brought up a number of related issues which deserve to be commented upon.

Then there is the question of the redating. It is hard to have a firm opinion due to the expert knowledge required, for example concerning the shape of certain letters and whether ink has flaked off the papyrus. In short, there is insufficient evidence for a firm conclusion either way on the redating at this stage. The principal[1] books outlining the arguments are

  • in favour of redating, Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus, London 1997. Carsten Peter Thiede is a German papyrologist, Matthew D’Ancona a Times correspondent and Magdalen graduate. Magdalen college has benefited from good publicity as a result of the book.
  • against the redating, Graham Stanton, Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus and the gospels London 1995. Graham Stanton is a New Zealander, formerly of Kings College when I was a student there doing law.

However, what also came out of the discussion was the question of the implications of an earlier dating. “If accepted, this date would revolutionise our understanding of the origin of the gospels and just about every other aspect of earliest Christianity.”[2]   The debate reminded me of the immense pressure I experienced as a theology student in Cambridge in 1998 to accept liberal ideas concerning the origins of the Holy Scriptures. Two years and much soul-searching and mental argumentation later, I now feel sufficiently distant from the experience to see false arguments for what they are and confident enough to expose them in a reasoned manner.

So this paper will not be the most systematic (as the title indicates), but will break down into the following parts:

  • The manuscript P64
  • Issues of interest arising
  • The redating question
  • Comments on liberal theology
  • The manuscript P64.

For beginners to manuscripts, they are catalogued with a “p” number. The oldest manuscript in the world is in Manchester, the John Rylands Papyrus. This has the number P52. It contains five verses of John 18, three verses on one side and two on the other. It is quite small, around 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches. It was bought in Egypt in 1920 and dated to 100-150 by the same scholar from St John’s, Oxford, C.H. Roberts.[3]  And no, if someone today gives you your P45, it is more likely you are looking for a new job rather than that you have been handed a priceless manuscript!

There may be a manuscript near you!  Douglas Jacoby has listed many of them with their p numbers in the archived material for his column, the Bible on Trial, at, under Week 10 The Originals. It is beyond the scope of this paper to digress further.

We have thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament in whole and part. Ninety-nine are fragmentary pieces of papyrus containing one or more passages or books of the New Testament. Papyrus was a widely used writing material made from the papyrus plant that grew in the marshes of the Nile Delta in Egypt.[4]  A few manuscripts are written on ostraca, pieces of pottery, but the remainder are written on parchment or vellum, made of animal skin. Codex Sinaiticus contains our whole New Testament and is written on parchment. P64 is papyrus, not parchment.

P64 has writing on both sides. This means it is likely to have been part of a book form, known as the Codex (plural codices). Before this, Scriptures were normally written on a scroll, on one side, although just possibly there were double-sided scrolls.[5]  The codex is normally associated with the Christians, scrolls with the Jews. Although scrolls were aesthetically pleasing, imagine trying to study the Bible with someone!  The Repentance study alone would need the scrolls of 2 Peter, Acts, 2 Corinthians and Mark in its simplest form, and then you have to scroll through to find the reference!  Very clumsy. When did codices come into being?  The general view is around the 3rd century, although there is evidence of use by the Romans as early as the first century.[6]

The writing is Biblical Uncial. This is a large, rounded Greek script in capitals, the same as used in Codex Sinaiticus. There are no spaces between words and no punctuation. We have 306 manuscripts in uncial. We have another 2,856 manuscripts in a new Greek script called minuscule, more cursive in nature, emerging roughly AD 800.

So what does P64 say when translated?  It has three pieces.

Fragment 1           poured it on his head as he was at table. When they saw this, the disciples said

(Matt 26:7,8)        indignantly…

Fragment 2           Jesus noticed this and said, “Why are you upsetting the woman?  What she has

(26:10)                   done for me…”

Fragment 3           Then one of the Twelve, the man called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests

(26:14, 15)            and said, “What are you prepared to give me…”

Back of 3              They were greatly distressed and started asking him in turn, “Not me, Lord, surely?”

(26:22, 23)            He answered, “Someone who has dipped his hand into the dish with me…”

Back of 1              Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away from me tonight, for the scripture says…”


Back of 2              “… I shall go ahead of you to Galilee.”  At this, Peter said to him

(26:32, 33)

There are several points to note.

  • Fragment 3 is the largest
  • These are arranged in the order in our present Matthew 26. However, the order of the fragments allows a scholar to reckon they are from a codex with two columns per side, like many Bibles today.
  • Jesus’ name is mentioned twice and Peter and Judas Iscariot’s names. These are the earliest copies of their names found anywhere to date!
  • We have four sayings of Jesus.

In the Greek text of fragment 2, Jesus name is shortened to the first and last letters, IS. This is shorthand for the full name IESOUS. It is like someone writing Js for Jesus each time. Why use shorthand?  Try writing out a gospel by hand some time and you may be tempted too!  In Fragment 3, the twelve is also abbreviated to the equivalent of XII. These abbreviations of Jesus’ name are known in the trade as nomina sacra and occur in other manuscripts.

How did P64 come to be in Magdalen College?  A graduate of the college, Charles Bousfield Huleatt was serving as a Hotel Chaplain (nice job) at the Luxor Hotel on the River Nile in Egypt. (The famous travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook had opened the Hotel in 1877.)  Huleatt probably bought the papyri in a market. He sent them to Magdalen in December 1901 for safekeeping, suggesting tentatively that they might be 3rd century.

The most significant thing to remember is that P64 is the oldest copy of any part of Matthew’s gospel in the world.

(2) Issues of interest arising

In no particular order, these are some useful points and quotes I extracted.

A good quote on Codex Sinaiticus

In May 1844 the German linguist Konstantin von Tischendorf had found the Codex Sinaiticus at the monastery of St Catherine on the slopes of Mount Sinai, a fourth century text of the Old and New Testaments which he instantly realised was ‘the most precious Biblical treasure in existence – a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined during twenty years’ study of the subject.’ [7] The codex was written on vellum and would have needed the skin of 360 sheep and goats.”

Languages in first century Israel

Palestine was tri-lingual. Hebrew was the language of the synagogue and temple; Aramaic was the language of the everyday; Greek had been the cultural language of the eastern Mediterranean since Alexander the Great. In addition, some would have acquired a working knowledge of Latin, especially those dealing with the Roman administration.

The famous Pilate inscription in Caesarea is of course in Latin, and the titulum over Jesus on the Cross “The King of the Jews” was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, according to John 19:20.

Bethsaida, the largest of the lakeside Galilean towns, was in Philip’s well-hellenized province. Even the names Andrew and Philip are Greek names. Although a fisherman, Peter’s epistles were not written in an unknown tongue – Greek would have been all around him back in his hometown of Bethsaida. Jesus himself was brought up in Nazareth, only 4 miles from Sepphoris. Sepphoris was being rebuilt as the capital of Galilee during his childhood, and was the most hellenized town of the North. It had a theatre capable of holding 5,000, indicating a very large population. Looking for a multiplex cinema for a discipling time?  Try the theatre in Sepphoris!  There are a number of (weak) arguments that Jesus himself was able to converse in Greek.[8]

No-one doubts Jesus could speak Aramaic. Phrases to come down to us quoted verbatim in the gospels are abba (daddy), talitha koum (little girl, get up), ephphatha (be opened), eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.

He was probably able to read Hebrew, the main language of the synagogue unless the Septuagint was in use. In Luke 4:16-30, he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Paul was conversant with Greek authors. He quotes Aratus in Acts 17:28, Menander in 1 Corinthians 15:33 and Epimenides in Titus 1:12. The Roman commander who had arrested Paul (for his protection) was surprised at Paul’s grasp of Greek. (Acts 21:37)  This suggests that the average Jew would not have been Greek-speaking. However, Paul with his Cilician background, Bethsaidans and Nazarenes would have been better placed than most.

In Acts 22:1, it says they became very quiet when the Jews heard Paul speaking to them in Aramaic. Interestingly Paul says that Jesus’ voice to him on the road came in Aramaic, a small detail perhaps, but one which lends added credibility t his defence (in Greek) before Agrippa in Acts 26 (v. 14). Jesus’ words themselves “kicking against the goads” are used in classical tragedies. One wonders if Jesus even may have had knowledge of these.[9]


Life in the first century was different. The differences must be born in mind for meaningful exegesis of the Scriptures. However, we can’t assume every aspect of life was hopelessly primitive.

It may be an obvious point, but writing was common. Paul wrote, and had secretaries (see below). Jesus wrote on the ground. The Jews objected to the writing above the cross. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, wrote his name on a tablet. John is told to write by the angel in Revelation.

P64 (and P52 in Manchester) were both found in Egypt. John’s gospel was written, scholars believe in Ephesus, and Matthew probably in Antioch. Given the time presumed necessary for such gospels to travel and be copied, there is a further pressure to date the manuscripts as late as possible. The further away the extant copy, the earlier it presses the date for writing the original (known technically as the autograph).

However, mail could be distributed very quickly. “Corinth (Greece) to Puteoli (Italy) in five days was a normal delivery time and in favourable weather conditions it was possible to send a letter from Rome to Alexandria in only three days. Documents sent from Thessaloniki in north-east Greece routinely reached Ascalon in Palestine within twelve days.”[10]  Who today could hope for a letter posted in Rome to reach Alexandria 3 days later?

Moreover the Qumran caves held documents in Greek. They imported documents from Jerusalem, from Damascus and even from Rome: in Cave 7, a jar was found which carried the Hebrew inscription ‘Roma’ twice on its neck” indicating it had come from Rome. In 1995, fragments of wine jars were found on Masada, Herod’s fortress, with labelling in Latin. We know the kind of wine he ordered, where it came from and whom it was for. Even a desert fortress could procure wines from Italy – move over, Internet shopping!

Another remarkable find at Masada was a papyrus sheet left behind by a Roman officer with the earliest extant quotation from Virgil!

What do we learn from this?  It would be no difficulty for scribes to make multiple copies of a gospel and then to send a copy from, say Antioch to Jerusalem within a week to be read. In the case of P52 and P64, both found in Egypt, these were quite likely copied in scriptoria in Alexandria. This was the home of a great library, of Apollos the learned man who came to Ephesus, and the birthplace of the new Septuagint translation in the 200s BC. It would not take more than a couple of weeks for copies of Matthew to get from Antioch or Jerusalem across there

Use of secretaries

“For every word of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan. And so, though seated in one spot, the scribe traverses diverse lands through the dissemination of what he has written.” Cassiodorus, Institutiones, c. AD 356

There is plenty of evidence of the use of Greek scribes, or amanuenses, to help write the letters and gospels. We even know some of their names. Their use accounts for the variants in Greek from letter to letter by the same person. (1 Peter is better Greek than 2 Peter, for example.)

Romans                 Tertius helped Paul write Romans. “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.”  (16:22) Tertius is a slave’s name (third born).

1 Corinthians        In contrast, in some letters, Paul would insert a section in his own hand. “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.”  (1 Cor 16:21)

Galatians               “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (6:11) Was this perhaps due to bad eyesight?

Colossians             “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand…  Grace be with you.” (4:18)

2 Thess                  “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”  (3:17)

Philemon               “Here is my signature: Paul” (v. 19)

1 Peter                    Pete wrote “with the help of Silas”. (5:12)

It is true that all Paul’s letters end with this phrase, “Grace be with you” or some variant. It was his custom to write this bit personally, like a signature. Hebrews does not have this salutation, which is one reason for doubting its Pauline authorship.

Some scribes were skilled in shorthand. The term tachygraphos was used for shorthand writers. It is speculated that both Matthew (as a tax collector) and Tertius may have shorthand writers. It is possible that in Matthew we do have an almost verbatim account of the Sermon on the Mount.

  • The redating question

“Why is it, as a classical historian of Gottingen University put it, that Gospel scholars are the only academics dealing with texts from antiquity who do not like being told that their sources are contemporary, authentic documents?  It is, indeed, a puzzle.”[11]

Carsten Peter Thiede wishes to redate P64 to c. 60 AD.  Thiede’s redating is based on comparison of the handwriting with other papyri which have dates. The problem is finding a fixed date for ANY papyrus. The best you can say is that they belong to the same period, but this is very vague. For example, how long is the period?

The arguments for redating are based on

  1. use of nomina sacra. These are special, stylised abbreviations which were fashionable as Manuscript conventions for a time. (e.g. using “XII” to refer to the apostles, just as we might use JX or Xn).
  2. comparing P64 with Greek texts of Leviticus in the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially one leather scroll.
  3. a dated document found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri in 1899. It is a letter from an Egyptian farmer called Harmiysis to a civil servant Papiskos at Oxyrhynchus. It reads “I declared, in the present 12th year of Emperor Nero (i.e. 65/66)… that I have twelve lambs from my stock of animals.” The three officials signing date it 24th July AD 66. Thiede claims in style that this document resembles P64 “almost like a twin.”[12]

Three arguments for rejecting a redating are:

  1. Matthew was not written that early. However, this is a circular argument. If P64 could be proved to be from 60-70 AD, you would have to incorporate the early writing of Matthew’s gospel into your view of NT origins.
  2. The fact that P64 is from a codex (a book with pages) implies a later date, since codices (plural of codex) were not common till much later.
  3. The papyri used by Thiede are from all over the Empire. You cannot assume similar style or vocabulary prove same period when large geographical distances are involved. (You cannot say conclusively that a UK document is from 1960 because you have a dated American document from 1960, also in English, using the same word. Certain words can be in common use in the US for up to 10 years before coming into common parlance in the UK e.g. “sharp” meaning well-dressed or talented.)
  4. Doubts that the style of writing of P64 is that early. As those who see P64 will agree, there is not much to go on! How much style can you get in 15-20 words?

So if papyrology does not yield a conclusive argument, is there no other way we can test the dating?   Carbon dating was considered in 1995 and was rejected. It is not possible for the following reasons:

  1. It is too imprecise. It could be 150 years out either way, which would not really help us.
  2. It requires a minimum amount of material to burn, and the fragments are too small (weighing 45, 25 and 21 miligrams)
  3. No scholar will agree to the destruction of any original. Accelerated Mass Spectronomy could be carried out on such small fragments, but it still involves destruction of the original.

There is another piece of Matthew in Barcelona and a piece of Luke in Paris, all dated to second century. A well-respected scholar, T.C. Skeats, has seen all three and believes they are all part of the SAME codex – a remarkable co-incidence for the same codex to have come down to us when so many codices have not. Thiede would prefer not to link them, as the 2nd century dating is more secure in their case due to there being more to see and compare on those fragments.

Dr Ferdinand told us that Thiede has done well out of the publicity, but he was more cautious when presenting his views to the German Papyrological body, saying the fragments “might” be from the first century.

  • Comments on Liberal theology

The publication of this thesis caused a disturbance in the academic community. Without going into the merits of Thiede’s argument for earlier dating, the response to his argument raises a number of issues of the disposition of NT scholars that is a study in itself. Graham Stanton, a New Zealander who was at Kings College when I was studying there and moved to Cambridge to be the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity just after I left Cambridge wrote this:

“If accepted, this date would revolutionise our understanding of the origin of the gospels and just about every other aspect of earliest Christianity.”[13]

It might be revolutionary for Stanton. For most readers of this paper, it would simply confirm what we already believe – that Jesus was revolutionary and so was his church.

The early date would be “an unpalatable conclusion for NT scholars convinced that St Matthew’s gospel is a later, community creation, describing Jesus as a miracle-worker, theological thinker and prophet in a way that would meet the needs of the eighties of the first century. To some academics and many ordinary Christians however already convinced that the Gospels consist of authentic eyewitness material from apostolic times, the result has come as no surprise.”[14]

Conspiracy theories are in vogue. To believe something clever about the causes of Princess Diana’s death, Neil Armstrong’s setting foot on the moon or JFK’s murder makes one feel “in the know”. For some reason, the more far-fetched the argument, the more confident one feels regardless of the strength of the evidence. I believe the  feeding of pride has contributed the popularity of the “conspiracists” who have been applying their minds to the gospels for the last 200 years. They say first that the gospels were the work of the early church - so far, so good. But beyond that, they suggest that much of Jesus’ teaching and actions, right down to his resurrection, were not factual, but fables created by the early church. Parallels can be drawn with Arthurian legend (do we really believe there was a sword in the stone or a lady in the lake?) or the stories of St Patrick who supposedly drove all the snakes out of Ireland. The argument of the conspiracist has several fatal weakness – one being time. Like getting over a romantic break-up, coping with bereavement, evolutionary processes and a good wine – it needs time. The gap between the writing of the NT documents, anywhere between 50 and 90 AD, and the events they describe is sometimes mysteriously called the “Tunnel Period” by NT scholars. I do not think there was very much mysterious or underground about the period at all. Christianity was very public and overground. The early church was very honest and unconspiratorial. Can the same be said of our scholars?  It probably takes a conspiratorial mind to project such an idea onto the sacrificial, evangelistic early Christians!  Persecution has a way of clearing the mind, not making it harder for yourself. As Paul said in one trial, “None of this has been done in a corner.”  In order to work, the alleged conspiracy of the gospel writers requires a linear passing-down of the story by a number of people, just like the game of Chinese Whispers, with the original teller keeping his mouth shut. Would the Jewish apostles really have kept their mouth shut?  Of course the gospel writers were nothing like this. Those who prefer such a view of the origins of the NT show an “unhealthy preference for inferior argument” which should not characterise the genuine scholar.[15]

I have written in more length about liberal theology, its attraction and its flaws elsewhere[16]. The problem Stanton and liberal theologians have with the attempted redating of the Jesus Papyrus is that such an early date would kill the conspiracy theory. Hard as it is for some to stomach, we have no alternative even on existing evidence: Jesus was indeed the Son of God. He has been recognised as God’ son by disciples up to the present day, including throughout the “tunnel” period. This then is the raw nerve that the redating of the Jesus Papyrus touches.[17]

In conclusion, Lee Strobel was a Yale Law School graduate who became Legal Affairs Editor for the newspaper the Chicago Tribune. When his wife became a believer, he set out to prove her wrong in her faith. After years of studying the questions for himself, he came to believe and wrote the evidences book “The Case for Christ”. This is how he writes in the concluding chapter:

“What clinched it for me was the famous study by A.N. Sherwin-white, the great classical historian from Oxford University…  [He] meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth… There was simply not enough time for mythology to thoroughly corrupt the historical record of Jesus, especially in the midst of eyewitnesses who still had personal knowledge of him. When German theologian Julius Muller in 1844 challenged anyone to find a single example of legend developing that fast anywhere in history, the response from the scholars of his day – and to the present time – was resounding silence.”[18]

James Greig, Oxford, December 2000

[1] This is not a properly scholarly paper, as I have not gone into the original papers submitted to various Papyrological societies. However, if I do not write something down based on the secondary material I have read, I am worried nothing will be written at all. I dare to hope it will still be beneficial, as my main reasons for writing this are in fact the secondary issues that arise from the controversy, not the arguments themselves.

[2] Graham Stanton, Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus and the gospels, London 1995.

[3] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids 1998, p. 61 (citing Dr Craig Blomsberg)

[4] The Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote in AD 70, “On the use of papyrus as rolls civilization depends at the most for its life, and certainly for its memory.” Jesus Papyrus, p. 37

[5]Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides…” Rev 5:1, but query whether this is a theological statement that the message was open to view rather than descriptive of current practice.

[6] “If you want to take my books (codices) along with you, wherever you go, So that they may accompany you on long journey, Go and buy those small-size paperback editions, others fill your bookshelves, but mind are handy… I will tell you where to go and find them: Go straight to Secundus … You will find him behind the Temple of Pax, at the Palladian market.” The Roman poet Martial, written 84-86 AD. Secundus was the rail terminus W.H. Smith of the first century!

[7] Quoted in Ian Wilson, Jesus the Evidence, London 1984,p. 16

[8] Jesus Papyrus, p. 151-2

[9] Agamemnon by Aeschylus and Bachae by Euripides.

[10] Jesus Papyrus, p. 127-8

[11] ibid., p. 201-2

[12] Jesus Papyrus,  p. 143

[13] Stanton, Gospel Truth?

[14] Jesus Papyrus, p. 145

[15] Phrase borrowed from Michael Green in a lecture on “The NT documents: are they reliable?” (Oxford, 2000)

[16] The paper is called “On Liberal Theology”. It starts with my exposure to liberal theology while studying for a Diploma in the faculty of Divinity in Cambridge and makes some recommendations for those either in academia or troubled by claims made in  popular literature about Jesus and the New Testament.

[17] This is not the only earlier redating to take place. J.A.T. Robinson, noted author of Honest to God can hardly be called conservative. Yet he shocked the world of NT scholarship with his book Redating the NT when he argued for a date of pre-70AD for ALL the NT documents. And there have been other redatings.

[18] Full citations of Sherwin-White’s 1963 book published by Oxford: Clarendon Press in 1963 and by Julius Muller’s  Theory of Myths in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids 1998, p. 264-5