Among the ancient Greek manuscripts in the Beinecke Library at Yale University is a fragment of a leaf of a papyrus codex containing the book of Genesis. It constitutes another interesting case of palaeographic analysis, both for the variety of opinions among experts and the changing of opinions by individual palaeographers. Yale purchased the piece (P.CtYBR inv. 419, LDAB 3081) as part of a lot of a few hundred papyri in February of 1931 from the Cairo dealer Maurice Nahman, but it was not published until the 1960s.
According to one of its original editors, C. Bradford Welles, the Genesis fragment “cannot have been written later than A.D.100 and should be somewhat earlier,” as he put it in one publication (1964), or “ca. A.D. 90,” as the editors of P.Yale I stated (Oates, Samuel, and Welles, 1967). If the dating proposed by Welles was correct (and if the codex was a “Christian” rather than a “Jewish” production), the papyrus would be the most ancient extant Christian manuscript. And in fact this was the conclusion drawn in the edition of the papyrus in P.Yale I: “This, then, is to be regarded as the earliest Christian fragment identified thus far, a generation earlier than the Rylands Gospel of St. John.” How did the editors reach this conclusion? As is usual for literary papyri, the determination of date was based only on the analysis of handwriting. The editors proposed that the writing of the Genesis was “an example of a hand which appears in Egypt in the Augustan period for both literary and documentary purposes.” Citing a string of manuscripts said to be written in this “style” from the Augustan period to the middle of the second century, the editors asserted that “within this sequence, the Yale Genesis stands rather early.” But when one actually visually compares these manuscripts to the Yale Genesis, the similarities in the writing are not impressive. Here is the Yale Genesis placed beside one of the editors’ proposed comparanda, Berlin papyrus 6926, a papyrus roll containing a copy of a romance later reused of an account dated to 100 CE (LDAB 4272):
Few modern palaeographers would class these examples as graphically similar. In fact, the manuscripts that the editors cited do not form a unified “style” recognized by modern palaeographers. The editors include in their list of this “style” P.Oxy. 1.20, one of the classic examples of the “Rounded Majuscule” that I have discussed elsewhere (and a hand clearly not closely related to that of the Yale Genesis). But the editors were not alone in thinking the Genesis papyrus was quite early. Archival correspondence in the Beinecke Library shows that Welles had consulted with the most esteemed British papyrologists before his publication. As Stephen Emmel reported, “Colin H. Roberts, E.G. Turner, and T.C. Skeat all initially dated the manuscript to the late first or early second century. Later, however, all three British paleographers moved the Yale Genesis down at least to the mid-second century, possibly into the third.” I was surprised that these authorities accepted such an early date (especially Turner), so I had a look at the archival correspondence and confirmed that it is indeed mostly accurate (Skeat actually opted for “late second century, but without very much confidence”).
But, as Emmel also noted, all the British papyrologists shifted their views on the dating of the fragment. Roberts actually began to distance himself from Welles’s view already in 1966 (in his contribution to a volume in honor of Welles!): “Welles’ own verdict is that the Genesis ‘cannot have been written later than A.D. 100’. Even if a somewhat later date be accepted, it remains one of the very earliest Christian MSS. extant” (Roberts 1966). Roberts later assigned the Yale Genesis to the second century and declared himself “reluctant to date the papyrus before the middle of the century” (Roberts 1979). In his Typology of the Early Codex, Turner placed the codex a century later than Welles: “I was myself once inclined to assign it to the middle of the second century, but I now think it should be assigned to c. ii/iii)” (Turner 1977, 94). Emmel also reported that W.H.P. Hatch had prepared a memo on the Yale leaf shortly after its acquisition and assigned it to the middle of the third century. Most recently, Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse have assigned it to “150-250” CE (Orsini and Clarysse 2017).
This wide disagreement in the dating of the handwriting of the fragment (from the first century to the middle of the third century) and the shifting opinions of the experts are indicative of the problems involved in palaeographic dating of Greek literary hands of the Roman era. This is a case in which AMS radiocarbon analysis could potentially be very helpful. The ample lower margin with plenty of blank papyrus would be an ideal sample. Is anyone willing to fund the testing?
Clarysse, Willy and Pasquale Orsini. “Christian Manuscripts from Egypt to the Times of Constantine.” Pages 107-114 in J. Heilmann and M. Klinghardt (eds.), Das Neue Testament und sein Text im 2. Jahrhundert. Narr Francke Attempto, 2018.
Emmel, Stephen. “Greek Biblical Papyri in the Beinecke Library.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 112 (1996), 289-294.
Luijendijk, AnneMarie. “A New Testament Papyrus and its Documentary Context.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010), 575-596.
Oates, John F., Alan E. Samuel, and C. Bradford Welles. American Studies in Papyrology Volume 2: Yale Papyri in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library I. American Society of Papyrologists, 1967.
Roberts, Colin H. “P. Yale 1 and the Early Christian Book.” Pages 25-28 in American Studies in Papyrology Volume 1: Essays in Honor of C. Bradford Welles. American Society of Papyrologists, 1966.
Roberts, Colin H. Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt. Oxford University Press, 1979.
Turner, Eric G. The Typology of the Early Codex. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977.
Welles, C. Bradford. “The Yale Genesis Fragment.” The Yale University Library Gazette 39 (1964), 1-8.