How Old Are the Most Ancient New Testament Manuscripts Known Today?

There is a world - I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes straw, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit - which is not the world in which I live... In my world, almost every book, except some of those produced by government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is written by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees. In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was headed for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world no prophecy, no matter how vaguely worded, is ever made except after the event. In my world we say "The first world-war took place in 1914-18." In that world they say, "The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century."
-A.H.N. Green-Armytage, "John Who Saw" (1952)

How much time elapsed between the writing of the manuscripts of the New Testament (1) and the events they record is not an idle matter. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries many people have assumed a large gap of time passed between the time of Christ and the writing of the NT Canon. This belief was an presumption, rather than an empirically driven hypothesis. John Robinson, the liberal NT scholar, discovered this to his chagrin. "We may start with the fact, which I confess I did not appreciate before the beginning of the investigation, of how little evidence there is for the dating of any of the New Testament writings." (Redating the New Testament, 1976) (Thiede comments, "who could have expected the archliberal author [John Robinson] propose dates prior to A.D. 70 for all New Testament writings?", p. 19) By assuming large gaps of time one could freely speculate that the NT is not what it claims to be, that it does not really hold the key to eternal salvation - and thus reject the claims of Christ. If large gaps of time could be established to have passed, who knows what the truth could be about the actual origins of Christianity? (2)

Cults have long twisted Scripture to suit them, but "scholars" in recent years have had a field day, with everyone from homosexuals to feminists to marxists rewriting the NT to suit them and make Jesus one of their own.

The idea of late authorship for the NT had become entrenched over time and intolerance, even arrogant dismissal, of the straightforward belief that St. Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke, Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, and St. Paul actually wrote the Pauline epistles, has become widespread even at nominally Christian seminaries and universities. However, for more than a century archaeologists and papyrologists have been recovering ancient manuscripts of the NT that contradict the assumptions of mainstream academia. The belief that large gaps of time passed between the time of Christ and the writing of the NT is no longer tenable, and all conclusions based on such speculation (no matter how dogmatic or clever) must now be rejected.

In his recent book Eyewitness to Jesus, Dr. Carsten Thiede provides a detailed and authoritative look into the world of dating of ancient MSS, and the implications of recent work in his field. I recommend it for anyone seeking further, up-to-date information on this subject. The following is a list of manuscripts and their dates, based on information and analysis provided by Dr. Thiede, American scholar Dr. Phillip Comfort, and others. Keep in mind this is the age of MSS we have on hand; the originals would have to have been written earlier, such that they were in circulation by the dates mentioned.

Manuscript (MS)Contains: DateEyewitness page ref. Notes
Magdalen Papyrus (P64)Matthew 26:7-8, 10, 14-15, 22-23 and 31.Before 66 A.D.1253
Dead Sea Scroll MSS 7Q5Mark 6:52-53Before 68 A.D.
"could be as early as A.D. 50"
Dead Sea Scroll MSS 7Q41 Timothy 3:16-4:3Before 68 A.D.1405
Barcelona Papyrus (P67)Matthew 3:9, 15; Matthew 5:20-22, 25-28 Before 66 A.D.68-716
Paris Papyrus (P4)Luke 3:23, 5:36"not much later" than 66 A.D.707
Pauline Codex (P46)Paul's Epistles (??)85 A.D.70-71
Bodmer Papyrus (II) (Johannine Codex P66)Gospel of John, "near complete"125 A.D.71
P32?175 A.D.71
P45?150 A.D.71
P77?150 A.D.71
P87?125 A.D.71
P90?150 A.D.71
John Rylands Greek 457 (P52)John 18:31-33, 37-38100-125 A.D.115, 126, 1388
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2683 (P77)Matthew 23:30-39150 A.D.126
P. Oxyrhynchus 2 (P1)Matthew 1:1-9, 12, 14-20"not much later" than P4 (ca. 100 A.D.?)1269
P. Oxyrhynchus 3523 (P90)John 18:36-19:7ca. 125-150 A.D.?127

What about complete or nearly complete copies of the New Testament?

(From McDowell, pp. 46-48)

Manuscript (MS)DateNotes
Chester Beatty Papyri200 A.D.Much but not all of NT on papyrus.
Codex Vaticanus325-350 A.D.A codex is a book, as opposed to a papyrus scroll.
Codex Sinaiticus350 A.D.
Codex Alexandrinus400 A.D.
Codex Ephraemi400 A.D.
Codex Bezae450 A.D.+
Codex Washingtonensisca. 450 A.D.
Codex Claromontanus500's A.D.

What other evidence exists that supports the belief that the NT was written sooner rather than later?

In addition to the NT MSS themselves, we have the writings of the Church Fathers, early Christian writers who quoted from the NT. To quote extensively from books and epistles (letters) of the NT those books and letters must already have been written and be in circulation.

The number of such quotations of the Bible known from early Christian literature is vast - over 36,000 quotes are known from before the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. (McDowell, p. 52). Sir David Dalrymple once asked himself the question, "Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the 3rd century, could it have been collected together again from the writing of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?"

His answer? " I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses." (McDowell, pp. 50-51)

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, was martyred around 180 A.D. He was a student of Polycarp, the long-lived disciple of St. John himself. Extant quotes of Irenaeus' writings include quotes from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, I Corinthians, I Peter, Hebrews and Titus (10). Ignatius (70-110 A.D.) quoted from Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians, Phillipians, Galatians, Colossians, James, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, and I Peter. Barnabas quoted from the N.T. around 70 A.D., Hermas 95 A.D., and Tatian 170 A.D. Clement of Alexandria, who lived 150-212 A.D., quoted from all but three books of the NT. Justin Martyr, in 133 A.D., quoted from the Gospels, Acts, Revelation, and both Pauline and the other epistles. (McDowell, pp. 51-52).

"We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today." -Dr. William Foxwell Albright, the distinguished archaeologist, 1955 (McDowell, pp. 62-63).


1. Manuscripts are referred to as MS (singular) or MSS (plural). New Testament is referred to as NT.

2. An article from the Pointcast News Service this morning (4/3/97) gives an example of what can happen over several centuries without careful transmission of information. According to an article originating with the New York Times ("Lack of Oppression Hurts Christianity in Japan" by Nicholas Kristof), "hidden Christians" survived several centuries in Japan during which Christianity was officially repressed and forbidden. It appears from the article that their knowledge of Scripture underwent significant decay during this time. Many stories became muddled or mixed with native folklore. For example, Noah survives a tsunami rather than a Cataclysm, with a canoe rather than an ark. Mary visited Japan, and Christ was put to death by two men, Ponsha and Piloto. Prior to current discoveries, some scholars wondered if similar confusion could have occured in the early Christian era.

3. This is the manuscript that precipitated the writing of Thiede's book. It was found in Egypt, where a favorable climate has preserved many ancient manuscripts. "In a nutshell, then, our tour of indirectly dated, datable and precisely date papyri... has reached a conclusive result. The comparable material yields a date of c. A.D. 66, with a distinct tendency toward an even slightly earlier date. Conversely, there is no equally conclusive, comparable material from later periods. Thus, the usual paleographic "margin of error" would allow for earlier, but not for later, dates:". (p. 125)

4. This fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls has been highly controversial, since the Scrolls must date from before 68 A.D., when the Roman X Legion "Fretensis" overran the area during the Jewish rebellion. Thiede spends much time on this MSS and forcefully answered all the objections I had seen raised against it's identification as a Christian NT fragment, objections that had previously caused me to reject the claim. Interestingly, Thiede (p. 31) mentions an Austrian scholar who did accept the fragments as being from the NT, trying to reconcile this with conventional academic thinking by proposing that the fragments were deposited at a later date during the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 A.D.) Thiede explains that this is untenable.

5. "The ongoing debate about the contents of Cave 7 and the Markan papyrus 7Q5 tends to overshadow the fact that there is a papyrus scroll fragment from this cave (7Q4) which was identified by Jose O'Callaghan as 1 Timothy 3:16-4:3. This claim has proved resilient in the face of skepticism muted as that has been. Indeed, even scholars who remained skeptical as to the identification of 7Q5 were convinced by the identification of 7Q4 as verses from 1 Timothy." (p. 140)

6. The Barcelona papyrus is recognized as a "twin" of the Magdalen papyrus, was recovered from the same site, and is held to be the same age.

7. Also related to the Barcelona/Magdalen papyrii but not held to be the same date. Before the new dating of the Magdalen papyrus, Comfort had assigned it an "early 2nd century" date (100-125 A.D.?), which is probably now too late.

8. Thiede notes P52 "has been dated to the first quarter of the second century but could be still older," (p. 126).

9. Regarding P1, "...the third-century date commonly ascribed to it is definitely much too late. One could not place it in the same early period as the Magdalen and Barcelona fragments, or even the Paris St. Luke, but it is not much later." Thiede also comments on other papyrii; P5's date of "third century" "is as widely accepted as it is deceptive and late." P69: "who could now conceivably date it as late as the third century - as it is at the moment?" P70: "Third century? Only if tradition holds sway over new thinking."

10. By the time of Irenaeus the Gospels had clearly been around a good while, and all four were well known and recognized among Christians. "For as there are four quarters of the world in which we live, and four universal winds [these two comments refer to N, S, E, W], and as the Church is dispersed over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and base of the Church and breath of life, so it is natural that it should have four pillars... [God] has given us the gospel in fourfold form, but held together by one Spirit." (McDowell, pp. 63-64).

McDowell, Josh, EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, Vol. I (San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life, 1972), 386 pp.
Thiede, Carsten P. and Matthew D'Ancona, EYEWITNESS TO JESUS: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origins of the Gospels (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 206 pp.

Dr. Thiede is the director of the Institute for Basic Epistemological Research (IBER) and a leading papyrologist, an authority on ancient manuscripts. Dr. McDowell is a former atheist and popular campus apologist.

"The problem is, this upsets the whole theological establishment." -Ulrich Victor, referring to Thiede's work.

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(Created: 2 April 1997 - Last Update: 4 April 1997)