Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Date of P.Bodmer II (P66)

Detail of PSI V 446 (133-137 CE)

P.Bodmer II, also known as P66, is a Greek papyrus codex of the Gospel of John. Because of its age and extent of preservation it has been considered an important early material artifact of Christian book culture. Ever since its publication by Victor Martin in 1956 it has been assigned a date from 150-250 CE and recently by Brent Nongbri (see previous post here and here) into the 4th century as well.
Title of the gospel of John in P.Bodmer II (P66)

Over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog, noted palaeographer Pasquale Orsini wrote a helpful guest post clarifying some issues of palaeography that surfaced during an interchange between Peter Malik and Brent Nongbri (here, here, and here). I also interacted with Orsini in the comments section of the blog who then helpfully responded. My question had to do with the validity of comparing the hand [that is, the style of handwriting] of P.Bodmer II with the 4th century (securely dated) papyri P.Cair.Isid.2 and P.Lond.1920. In the blog post Orsini had agreed with Nongbri's method of comparing these two papyri with that of P.Bodmer II in order to expand that date of P66 into the 4th century. It was my impression, however, that the overall structure and course of the pen strokes in forming some of the letters (alph [α], mu [μ], delta [δ], for example) between all three papyri were different enough for me to question this comparison. Orsini helpfully responded by stating,
"In a "stylistic class" the differences in structure of some letters are common, because the graphic phenomenon has not been "normalized" according to a scheme (as it happens in a "canon" or "normative majuscule"). The differences observed by you are part of this variability of a "stylistic class". The elements of the style (for example round shapes with loops, oblique and horizontal strokes prolonged, some letters written in a single sequence) prevail over the structure of the individual letters."
Detail of P.Cair.Isid. 2 (298 CE)
The "stylistic class" Orsini is referring to is the "Alexandrian stylistic class" of scripts. This type of hand came into use sometime during the second century, a typical early example being PSI V 446 (Cavallo, 129). This can be securely dated to 133-137 because it is an edict of the prefect Marcus Petronius (Orsini and Clarysse, 458). Both P.Cair.Isid.2 and P.Lond.1920 are considered as belonging to the "Alexandrian stylistic class." P.Bodmer XX on the other hand (another papyri Nongbri used in his re-dating of P66) is considered as belonging another style of script and thus is not a suitable comparison to P.Bodmer II (i.e. apples and oranges).

To the casual observer, the variations between the letters may seem slight and petty. For example, if one considers the differences between their own unique signature and the hand writing of someone else writing the same name, the variations are slight and are often subconsciously implemented by the writer. The same is most likely true of the scribe who copied P.Bodmer II. The style of script used has a lot to do with the manner in which a scribe was trained to write (On this, see, Cribiore, 114-116). By examining securely dated papyri that use a specific style of writing one can determine a general time period the script was in use. In this case, using PSI V 446 as the rough starting point and P.Lond. 1920 at the extreme end, the "Alexandrian stylistic class" was in use around 200 years. If these comparisons are fully valid, then one can set a rough date for P.Bodmer II at somewhere around 150-350 CE. This does not mean that P.Bodmer II is an exact match with each papyri only that this style of writing was in use for roughly this time length.

In order to better illustrate these slight differences in script between these four papyri (PSI V 446, P.Bodmer II, P.Lond. 1920, P.Bodmer XX, and P.Cair. Isid. 2), I laid out images of the letters of each of the papyri side by side for ease of comparison. Pay particular attention to the alpha, delta, kappa, mu, and phi. The differences in ductus and shading are slight but noticeable. I will not argue here for a specific date for P.Bodmer II, but it is obvious when comparing the letters below that P.Bodmer XX is not the same style as the rest of the papyri. 


Cavallo, Guglielmo. "Greek and Latin Writing in the Papyri." Pages 101-148 in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Edited by Roger S. Bagnall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Cribiore, Rafaella "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt" (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1996).

Nongbri, Brent. "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.

Orsini, Pasquale. "I Papiri Bodmer: scritture e libri." Adamantius 21 (2015): 60-78.

Orsini, Pasquale and Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88 (2012): 443-74.