The Oldest Text of the New Testament?

 What’s the Oldest Surviving Text of the New Testament?

by Ibn Anwar

   I recall numerous instances of facing Christian detractors who would attempt to undermine Islam by questioning the validity of the primary sources that support it. Specifically, they would question the Hadith. Their main assertion would be that the Hadith is unreliable since it was compiled 200 years after the fact(in reference to Sahih Bukhari). Though this is absolutely false I do not wish to delve into it here. In this article we shall discuss the Christian source material instead. As it happens, the Christians do not have any record or documents that date to the first century CE in support of their New Testament. Most of the documents that make up the New Testament are traced back to either the mid second century or later(many are later) e.g. Chester Beaty Papyrus 1(P45)[3rd Century], Chester Beaty Papyrus II(P46)[A.D.200], Chester Beaty Papyrus III(late 3rd century), Bodmer Papyrus II(P66)[A.D.200] and Bodmer Papyrus XIV-XV(P75)[early 3rd century). In fact, modern scholarship realise that the works attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke etc. are in reality anonymous(Click here for further details). We have absolutely no idea who wrote them! One of the reasons for this absolute ambiguity and vagueness is due to the fact that NONE of the originals(if there were even any)survives. Scholars say that what they have now are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies made from purported originals. In reality this is nothing more than guess work. We have no idea if there were even originals to begin with since they do not exist anymore to substantiate the so called copies and there is absolutely no chain of transmission whatsoever so as to substantiate the authority of those who transmitted the words and messages down to the copyists(whoever they were). As mentioned, the books themselves are totally anonymous. Professor Bart D. Ehrman, the foremost textual critic notes:

“Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later-much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.” [1]

I am sure you have heard Christians making the claim that the Gospel of John was written several decades after Jesus and so were all the others. Such claims are unsubstantiated by any real textual evidence. As a matter of fact, today we know that the OLDEST text we have is dated more than 100 years after Jesus(125 to 150 CE to be more precise). It is not even a complete text. It is nothing more than a horribly worn out fragment labelled p52.

“Th oldest fragment(P52), found in a mummy cartonage, contains a small portion of John 18 and is dated ca. 125.” [2]

“Papyrus Rylands Gk. 457

“A tiny fragment (21/2 by 31/2 inches), containing John 18:31-33, 37-38 and dating to the first half of the second century; the earliest of all manuscripts and fragments of any part of the New Testament.” [3]

I was browsing through some Christian forums and I found this amazing claim made by a Christian concerning P52:

“P52 contains verses from John 18. It reliably transmits John 18.”(link)

Let us have a look at the fragment shall we, and see whether it ‘reliably transmits John 18’.

                          A                                                             B

The fragment is written front and back and is no more than the size of a credit card! Let’s transcribe the fragment so as to better see what we’re dealing with here.

            A                                                                                             B

ΙΟΥΔΑΙ ΗΜΙ                                                                ΤΟΥΤΟ ΓΕΓΕΝΝΗΜΑΙ

OYΔΕΝΑ ΙΝΑ Ο Λ                                                      ΣΜΟΝ ΙΝΑ ΜΑΡΤ

ΠΕΝ ΣΕΜΑΙΝΩ                                                           Κ ΤΗΣ ΑΛΗΘΕ

ΘΝΕΣΚΕΙΝ Ε                                                                 ΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ

ΡΙΟΝ Ο ΠΙ                                                                       ΤΟΥΤ

ΚΑΙ ΕΙΠ                                                                            ΤΟΥΣ Ι

ΙΩ                                                                                           ΜΙ

(Supposed to be John 18:31-33)                 (Supposed to be John 18:37-38 )

If you know anyone who can read Greek ask the person if he can make sense of the above. Believe me, even if he is a professor in Greek he won’t be able to make sense of the fragment by itself. So, how did the scholars reconstruct the missing words? It’s quite simple. The verses are reconstructed based on LATER texts that are clearer. To say that P52 reliably transmits John 18 is absolutely fallacious. Anyone who can read Greek will agree that the fragment is meaningless without the assistance of later texts. And how do we know those later texts are reliable and have not been changed, altered and added to when that is something very common with Bible texts? God knows! This is how the eminent scholar Helmut Koester who is the John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the Divinity School at Harvard University puts it:

“The fragment of John in P52 is so small that is immaterial as a textual witness.” [4]

David P. Barret has this to say:

“Though the amount of the text in P52 is hardly enough to make a positive judgment about its textual character, the text seems to be Alexandrian…” [5] (emphasis added)

Lost Christianities says about the fragment:

“A fragment of the Gospel of John(18:31-33,37-38)discovered in a trash heap in the sands of Egypt. This credit-card sized scrap is the earliest surviving manuscript of the New Testament, dating from around 120-150 CE.” [6]

Sadly enough there are still many Christians out there who have absolutely no idea that this is the kind of manuscript evidence they have for their beloved New Testament. To continue claiming that the Bible is absolutely inerrant, containing no mistakes and that it is supported by good and reliable manuscripts is nonsense at best and utterly foolish at worse. Let us end this discussion with the words of Prof. Bart D. Ehrman who in his bestselling Misquoting Jesus astutely observes:

“how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes – sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly?” [7]

“It’s a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don’t even know what the words are!” [8]


[1] Bart D. Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus(2007). HarperSanFrancisco. p. 10

[2] Richard N. Soulen & R. Kendall Soulen. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. London: Westminste John Knox Press. p. 128.

[3]Edward P. Blair. Abingdon Bible Handbook(1975). Nashville: Abingdon Press. p. 362

[4] Helmut Koester. The Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century, Gospel Traditions in the Second Century(1989). Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 19

[5] David P. Barret. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts(2001). Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers. p. 365

[6] Bart D. Ehrman. Lost Christianities(2005).  New York: Oxford University Press. p. 50

[7] Bart D. Ehrman. Op. Cit. p. 7

[8] Ibid. p. 11

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13 Responses to “The Oldest Text of the New Testament?”

  1. al-Habeshi says:

    Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem,

    As-Salaamu ‘Alaykum Wa Rahmatullah,

    It feels like two different things are being compared, one is the compilation of the documents contrasted against the earliest available manuscripts. Thought it is a good little introduction with regards to textual critisism and manuscript evidence for the Bible.

    Maybe you are trying to show that since there is no manuscript evidence from before 120, we can assume that the text did not exist before then? If that is the case then it would have been interesting to see how and why scholars date the text to 70 or 80 or 90 C.E.

    Going to read the article on the authorship of the Gospels.

  2. Joshua Harris says:

    Dear Brother,
    There is manuscript evidence dating prior to 120 AD.
    It seems some of the dates/ dating used in your article is outdated. Perhaps this can help. God Bless, josh

  3. Ibn Anwar says:

    Joshua..the article on that link is hardly reliable..look at this paragraph,

    “After many of the greatest NT papryi were discovered and initially dated in the 1950’s, it was assumed that the oldest NT papyrus, and therefore the oldest fragment of the NT in existence, was p52, which was dated to about 125 AD and which contains portions of John 18:31-33, 37-38. A date of closer to 100 AD is today considered more accurate. p52 and p90 were considered the next oldest, dated to about 125-150 AD.”

    lol..p52 is dated earlier to 100 AD instead of 125 AD then just a few lines later it reaffirms the 125 AD dating …

    No, the references I provided are not outdated. Misquoting Jesus, Lost Christianities and The Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century, Gospel Traditions in the Second Century are very recent works.

  4. Captain Planet says:

    “In fact, modern scholarship realise that the works attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke etc. are pseudonymously written and are in reality anonymous”

    Bro, there is a big difference between “pseudonymous” and “anonymous.” If the authorship of a writing is pseudonymous, then it CANNOT be “anonymous.” Likewise, if it is anonymous, then it CANNOT be “pseudonymous.”

    It is simply impossible for a writing to be anonymous and pseudonymous at the same time. Why? Because:

    Anonymous means the author has said nothing whatsoever about his or her identity.

    Pseudonymous means the author has claimed to be someone, say Paul or Peter, but we know that the author was highly unlikely to have been Paul or Peter for various reasons (possible reasons: date of document rules out authorship by Peter or Paul, the style markedly differs from that of writings we know were written by either Peter or Paul, indications within the text, or signs, that the writing was written long after the death of Peter or Paul etc etc).

    In short, a writing is pseudonymous when an author claims to be someone and when there are reasons to believe that the author was wrong about his/her identity i.e. he/she was lying.

    The gospels are ANONYMOUS. They are not pseudonymous because the authors no where identify themselves. Had the author of Matthew’s gospel, for example, said “I am the apostle Matthew,” then we could say that the gospel of Matthew is pseudonymously authored since it is highly unlikely to have been composed by the apostle Matthew. But the author of Matthew’s gospel does not name himself. He says nothing about himself. Therefore, the gospel of Matthew is ANONYMOUS and not pseudonymous. The same holds true for the remainder of the gospels.

    Probable example of pseudonymous writings in the NT would be the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) and almost certainly 2 Peter and, probably, 1 Peter.

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Yes, you are quite right…the gospels are anonymous and not psudonymous as I have discussed in a follow-up article to this, “The Anonymous gospels”. Thanks for pointing it out. I must have not been thinking clearly when writing that lol.

  5. stevecan2 says:

    Your point is very valid and has been considered multiple times over and over and over and over and over and over again. The oldest surviving document does not in fact prove beyond a doubt that the synoptic Gospel are then counterfeit or otherwise non trust worthy. Debate will ensue even amongst Christian scholars as to certain particulars of originality and authorship. But also don’t lose sight of Islam’s greatest contribution to evidence and that is the scientific method. Since there has been no 100% evidence to dis prove the synoptic Gospels then therefore they are not exclusively proven wrong. Even if there may not be a 100% agreement on all aspects of the synoptic Gospels there has been one message that has prevailed that is the corner stone of the Christian faith. That Christ was risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Not even Islam denies that Christ was a chosen one of God and was ascended into heaven even though the resurrection from the dead is denied, this more than validates that the synoptic Gospels can not be proven 100% wrong. With that said I discourage and fervently dispute Christians that attack the Islam faith by means of petty arguments and lies.

  6. usman says:

    “Is that how it’s done? Someone finds a bit of script that contains a few of the words that are found in some later manuscripts that come to called the gospel of John and concludes that the entire book had been written in its entirety by that date? That proves it? I know nothing of these things but that sounds equivocal. Is it because the whole thing (book of John) “hangs together so well” that they don’t acknowledge the possibiilty that what they found, the bit of script was just that, some notes jotted down by someone trying to recall a story they they had just heard, and as that person wanders about, they hear more stories, so they jot them down, etc. and then even later someone collects them all and viola, we have an entire book. And then, because some of what is written in these bits of script seems to be about/by someone called John, they decide the entire thing must have been written by John? Or perhaps the person that eventually collects and compiles these bits of manuscripts, the editor as it were, knew someone who knew someone who knew someone named John who claimed to be a follower of said Messiah/cult leader, so somehow the document his is compiling comes to be called the gospel of John.”

  7. Mark Gibbs says:

    The implications are immense. Strange that no gospel texts dating from pre-Nicea have survived. One would have thought that the Church would have saved them for their “sacred” value as well as to validate their self-declared “canon. Of course, they couldn’t save them if they changed them at Nicea…could they?

    BTW…it is likely that a similar distortion occurred with the formulating of the Koran. Moslems who reject this notion live in the same artificial world as Christians who think God dictated everything.

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      You’re mistaken, my friend. We do have texts of the gospels i.e. papyri dated prior to the Council of Nicea. Some of them include p32, p52, p66, p90 etc. However, most of the manuscripts and papyri date after the council of Nicea. The Qur’an has not suffered like the NT has in its preservation. You may refer to my article on the preservation of the Qur’an for further information on this.

  8. Aliyu Musa~ Nigeria says:

    May Allah rewards you with the Eternal Bliss

  9. sophie says:

    how does any one know the Texts the Vatican has hidden away?

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