Monday, June 6, 2016

P75, P66, and the Useful Life of Papyrus Codices

The Summer 2016 issue of The Journal of Biblical Literature published a new piece by Brent Nongbri, a researcher at Macquarie University of Sydney, Australia: 
"Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV (𝔓75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament." Journal of Biblical Literature 135, no. 2 (2016): 405-37.
In this essay, Nongbri argues that Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV (P75) should be dated into the fourth century (ca. 350 CE) rather than in the first half of the third century. This new proposed date is 100-150 years later than the traditional ca. 200-250 CE date. His essay follows a similar line of argumentation as in his previous article which contended for a fourth century date for P66 as well.
“The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35.
One interesting line of evidence which Nongbri brings to bear in these articles is that both codices appear to originate from the same ancient library/collection, the so-called Bodmer collection. A large portion of the collection dates into the 4th and 5th centuries. Therefore, Nongbri argues, this is evidence that both P66 and P75 date into the 4th century as well.

The Useful Life of Papyrus Codices.

I do not wish to debate the particulars of Nongbri's assessment, however, what I thought interesting was that the latest pieces included in the Bodmer collection date to the 5th century. And, if some of the additional papyri that Robinson contended were part of the assemblage as well, then the latest pieces date into the 6th or 7th centuries ("The Limits," pg. 25). What this means is that the manuscripts could not have been deposited in their location any earlier than the 5th century (probably the latter part of that century). Even if one agrees with Nongbri's 4th century date for P66 and P75, then these codices were in use for at least 100-150 years before they were discarded, add another 200 years if the collection was deposited in the 7th century. If the traditional dating holds for these codices (early third century) then we are looking at a useful life of 200-250 years, or, if the Bodmer papyri were deposited in the 7th century, 400-450 years of useful life.

In his masterful study of Roman libraries, George Houston noted the useful life of papyrus bookrolls:

"The identification of such collections, and of the manuscripts within them, provides new evidence on an old question: how long did a papyrus roll last? The evidence from our collections indicates that a usable lifetime of about 100 to 125 years was common and can reasonably be considered the norm; a small but significant number of manuscripts were still usable some 300 years after they were first created; and on rare occasions a manuscript might last, it seems, for half a millennium." (Inside Roman Libraries, p. 257)
The useful life of P66 and P75 appear to fall within the upper end of Houston's assessment. However, it is important to note that Houston's observations were specifically in regard to bookrolls and not codices (for the difference between bookrolls and codices read here). In the case of the Bodmer papyri, we have at least one instance from antiquity that confirms Houston's assessment with regard to the useful life of the papyrus codex as well.

The Marks of a Long Useful Life.

Nongbri notes that P75 had been rebound and repaired sometime in antiquity and bore other marks of continued use ("Reconsidering," pg. 431-432). Besides the evidence of rebinding, P75 has several interesting marginal notations that are not made by the original copyist's hand. Nongbri notes that at least two of these marginal notations use a 4th or 5th century majuscule hand ("Reconsidering," pg. 432-433).
P75 Marginal Note in Later Majuscule Hand
P75 Marginal Note in Later Majuscule Hand

Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with Nongbri's dating of P66 and P75 into the 4th century, he has teased out some very interesting details that highlight the long useful life of papyrus codices. Those who read them in antiquity obviously valued them. They repaired these books and rebound them. They studied their texts while making notes in the margin. These codices are more than just husks that carried texts, they are ancient artifacts that inform us on how early Christians used and valued these books.

(For more discussion on the useful life of papyrus books, read here, and read here)


Houston, George W. Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014.

Nongbri, Brent. "Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV (𝔓75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament." Journal of Biblical Literature 135, no. 2 (2016): 405-37.

____________. “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35.


  1. Hi Timothy,

    Thanks for pointing out this important upcoming article. I have tended to assume the ca 200 date for P66 is secure, so it's good to have this reminder to check the evidence. In my work on Codex Bezae, I have used agreement with P66 to date textual features in Bezae. This is something I'll have to look at closely now.


    1. Thanks for your comment Pete.
      I think that Nongbri's thesis for P66 is not widely accepted. Especially in the discipline of palaeography. I think that, considering Orsini and Clarysse's confirmation of the tradir dating of both P66, and P75, you are okay to continue referencing P66 and P75 as 3rd century codices.
      With that said, it is good to re-evaluate traditional dates for papyri as new discoveries and publications refine our knowledge of Greek scripts.

    2. Sorry, that should have read ". . . traditional dating of both P66 and P75 . . . "

  2. Nongbri has a penchant for late dating biblical texts. I wonder why Evangelicals are so quick to discount early dates by Comfort and so quick to accept non-evangelicals.
    Accepting the traditional date of around 200 for P66 and a deposit around 300 would give some credence to claims of church fathers that the original manuscripts were available for view in the 4th century.


    1. Thank you for your observations Tim and for reading the blog.
      Nongbri is a respected papyrologist who has given very precise and detailed arguments in well written articles re-dating P52, P66 and P75 in high-quality peer-reviewed journals. Scholars will do well not to be too quick to dismiss his culling of evidence without careful consideration.
      In contrast, Comfort has not published his palaeographical method in any peer-reviewed journal, high-quality or otherwise (that I know of). Those publications that have contained detailed descriptions of his palaeographical analysis have been heavily criticized by leading palaeographers. For these reasons, it seems, that scholars weigh Nongbri's claims more heavily.
      With that said, I am a big fan of Comfort's work. I own both of his commentaries and his "The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts" is a valuable and affordable resource which has given access to pastors and teachers the texts of important early papyri who otherwise may not have received any exposure.

    2. Timothy,
      Are you aware of Nongbri's latest article where he questions religion's common human history argument? He is biased against religion and his methods show it. Several leading New Testament scholars have refuted his dates and methods.
      I have read each of his articles and while not an expert I can identify methodological assumptions that Nongbri portrays as fact.


    3. Thank you Tim, no I have not read that particular article by Nongbri. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.