A Christian Lie About the Dating of Matthew

Apr 20, 2018
A Christian Lie About the Dating of Matthew
  • Bob Seidensticker wrote a series in April 2018 on his blog, Cross Examined, about human sacrifice in the Bible. On the second post of this series, he racked up over 1000 comments--many provoked by Christians who took umbrage to the assertions in the post. One of those Christians attempted to claim that he had a papyrus fragment from the Book of Matthew dating to 60CE, which is way before most estimates. Ficino, one of our commentariat who is a working historian trained in the field of history (and who guest-wrote a brilliant post on Roll to Disbelieve about an anti-gay clobber verse fundagelicals like to wield), responded.

    Ficino Commentary:

    On Bob's second Sacrifices post, there is still a discussion of the papyrus fragment of Matthew, which the commentator These Things Were Written brought up as evidence that the gospels are historically accurate - in all they assert, as far as I understand TTWW. TTWW relies on what he says is scientific dating by palaeographical methods to put the time of writing at or before A.D. 60. That is a stupendous and not generally accepted date. I'm taking the liberty to post a few further comments here because that thread is already very long!

    ID: the papyrus fragment in question is P. Magdalen Greek 17/ P. Barcelona 1. The dual listing comes from the fact that three scraps of the same codex reside now in Oxford and two in Barcelona. In the standard NT papyrus inventories these are named P64 and P67.
    Thanks to ildi [hope I have your screen name right!] for figuring out that the mysterious papyrus so often mentioned by TTWW is this one.

    TTWW, without saying so, is relying on the dating proposed by Carsten Peter Thiede in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 105 (1995) 13-20. I just read Thiede's article. Much of Thiede's article is taken up with his correction of earlier wrong shelfmark numbers of the papyrus in Oxford, with the history of its finding and dating by others, and correction of some readings of the text that it offers. Interestingly, the scribe spelled Galilee wrongly in Greek as "Galeglaia" and not "Galilaia." Thiede comments, "The scribe of Magdalen Gr. 17 was not averse to original decisions; even this mistake is, in a way, original." The article closes with photos.

    When PMagd 17/Barc 1 was acquired at Luxor in 1901, it was dated to third century, and judgments based on the handwriting have varied by centuries. The consensus had been late second century to around 200.

    Comparison with letters forms from some Greek documents found at Qumran and Herculaneum (though he says little about those) lead Thiede to place PMagd before the Jewish revolt, on the theory that the Qumran papyri are at latest at same time as the revolt. Although scrolls were more common than codices at this time, Thiede gives some examples of late 1st century codices. He settles on a date that could be prior to 70; nothing, contrary to what TTWW said, is mentioned about A.D. 60 as terminus ante quem. But I emphasize: Thiede is not proposing a SECURE date. He begins his discussion of date with the statement that the consensus date of c. 200 "might be too late" (15).

    In 1996, however, Thiede had made further comparisons of PMagd 17 with a dated document, POxyrhynchus II.246, from A.D. 66. Thiede in a popularizing book in German co-authored with British journalist Michael D'Ancona (I don't cite it here but I will for anyone interested) placed the Matthew fragment at the same time.

    In the next year, 1996, in the same journal (ZPE 113, 153-157)), Harald Vocke rejects Thiede's (and d'Ancona's) dating and points out that Thiede was not a professional papyrologist.

    Thiede's claims have been rejected in more detail by two top papyrologists whom I mentioned earlier, Brent Nongbri and Roger Bagnall. See in detail, Bagnall's Early Christian Books in Egypt (2009) 25-40.

    -------------adding; my two libraries don't have Ecopies of Bagnall 2009, and I can't get to the libes today. The chapter on P64 and P67 (= PMagd 17 and PBarc 1) is not in GoogleBooks. But this is from a review in Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 2010:

    "In the second chapter, 'Two Case Studies,' Bagnall seeks to highlight how there are sometimes hidden agendas at play in the palaeographically based dates assigned to early Christian documents. He therefore assesses the controversial dating of some early pieces by Carsten Thiede to underscore this point. He convincingly shows how Thiede's attempt to redate two fragements of Matthew ..., first to the late first century, then to the mid first century, was based more on a theological agenda that sought to establish an early date for this gospel than it was on a rigorous and sincere attempt to correctly date these two fragments."​

    I posted earlier that Bagnall contends that too many NT papyri have been dated second century for the size of the Christian population of Egypt in that century to have produced. There are sophisticated methods of extrapolating from material remains to reasonable estimates of population of this or that group. The vast majority of the population of the countryside in the second century was not Christian; a good deal of it was Christian by the fourth century. Most of the papyri dated second century are dated only by comparison with the handwriting other NT papyri, so, since none of them is dated, the chance of circularity is obvious.

    I know Roger Bagnall quite well. I trust his character. So far, everything I have seen of TTWW leads me not to trust his character.

    More as I come across it.
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