I want to dwell a little bit on one of the lines from the Egypt Exploration Society’s statement on P.Oxy. 83.5345:
“This is the same text that Professor Obbink showed to some visitors to Oxford in 2011/12, which some of them reported in talks and on social media as possibly dating to the late first century AD on the basis of a provisional dating when the text was catalogued many years ago.”
There are a number of things worthy of further consideration here, but I want to focus on the “provisional dating” that was made “when the text was catalogued many years ago.”
My working assumption is that this statement refers to the cataloguing process undertaken in the 1960s. If this understanding is correct, then we would have a papyrus identified as the earliest existing Christian manuscript in the 1960s which was then left in a box in Oxford for fifty years. That seems unlikely. What seems more plausible is that in the course of cataloguing tens of thousands of difficult fragments this piece was simply labelled as a literary papyrus from the first century. It probably would have been one of many such examples.
But here’s the curious thing. The fragment is obviously from the bottom of a leaf of a codex and not from a roll. So, even if the contents of the text weren’t identified as Mark, or even as Christian (despite the nomen sacrum), in the 1960s, this piece would still have been a stunning discovery if there was even a possibility that it could be assigned to the first century. It would have potentially been the oldest surviving fragment of a Greek codex and possibly the oldest fragment of a codex, period.
In the 1960s, the earliest Greek codex was thought to be P.Ryl. 3.457 (a.k.a. P52, LDAB 2774), the famous fragment of the Gospel According to John in the Rylands Library, at that time generally thought to have been copied at some point in the first half of the second century (“circa AD 125,” as it was usually said). The oldest existing codex was (and to my knowledge still is) generally thought to be P.Oxy. 1.30 (LDAB 4472), a fragment of a leaf of a parchment codex containing a Latin historical work. In 1949, Jean Mallon had re-dated P.Oxy. 1.30 to “about AD 100” give or take 30 years. So, the discovery of a papyrus leaf of a Greek codex dating to the first century would have been a very big deal regardless of the contents of the leaf.
And yet, if the Mark fragment was unidentified but already dated to the first century in the 1960s, it is strange that it would have lingered for a half century before finding its way to Dirk Obbink’s pool table in 2011. What makes this even stranger is that people with an abiding interest in the early codex were well connected with the Oxyrhynchus collection in the intervening years. Eric G. Turner, who was Chairman of the Committee of the Egypt Exploration Society (1956-1978) and who for many years oversaw the production The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, published The Typology of the Early Codex in 1977. He made reference to unpublished Oxyrhynchus pieces in his writings with some regularity, but to my knowledge, he never mentioned an unpublished, potentially first-century codex in the Oxyrhynchus collection. The authors of The Birth of the Codex (1983), C. H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, both were familiar with the Oxyrhynchus collection and on good terms with its caretakers. Now, as far as I know, neither Roberts nor Skeat was directly involved in the 1960s cataloguing project. They were occupied with other things. Skeat had a demanding job as Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum from 1961 until his retirement in 1972. Roberts was Secretary to the Delegates (essentially the Chief Executive) of Oxford University Press from 1954 to 1974. But both had strong connections to the Oxyrhynchus project, and no one among their colleagues alerted them to the existence of a potential first-century codex fragment?
My own suspicion is that if Turner (or Parsons or even Roberts and Skeat) ever saw this piece, they would have immediately recognized the implausibility of a first century dating. If the fragment was even known among those with familiarity with unpublished pieces, it had probably long since been recognized as a (relatively) unremarkable example of a third-century codex fragment. But of course that brings us back to the recurring question: Why then did “some visitors to Oxford in 2011/12” come away from their meeting with Dirk Obbink thinking that they had seen a first-century copy of the Gospel According to Mark (to say nothing of their impression that the piece was for sale)? Again, I’m genuinely curious.
Mallon, Jean. “Quel est le plus ancien exemple connu d’un manuscrit Latin en forme de codex?” Emerita 16 (1949), 1-8.
Roberts, C. H. and T. C. Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. The British Academy, 1983.
Turner, Eric G. The Typology of the Early Codex. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977.