Back in 2005, I wrote an article on P.Ryl. 3.457, or “P52,” the small papyrus fragment of chapter 18 of the Gospel According to John kept at the Rylands Library in Manchester. I argued that the date generally assigned to the fragment on the basis of its handwriting (“first half of the second century,” or “circa 125 CE”) was overly narrow and that reasonably good palaeographic comparanda could be found among documents securely dated to the later second century and into the third century. As a result of this, I argued that P.Ryl. 3.457 should not be a factor in historical arguments about the date of the composition of John’s gospel.
At a conference in Manchester in 2014 I gave a paper that collected some new archival evidence on both the acquisition of this papyrus and the establishing of its date. The paper remains in a publication queue, but I was reminded today of an item of bibliography that had somehow escaped my notice when I was preparing that original 2005 article but that I luckily stumbled upon before the 2014 talk: E. C. Colwell’s review of the original edition of P.Ryl. 3.457 by C. H. Roberts in The Journal of Religion 16 (1936), 368-369. I thought I would highlight some of its salient lines:
“If the editor’s view that it was written before A.D. 150 is sound (and he cites such experts as Kenyon, Schubart, and Bell as agreeing), this is the earliest Christian document in existence. But it is exactly in regard to date that a study of literary papyrus hands encounters difficulties. The scarcity of dated material for comparison and the stereotyped nature of the script make anything more than approximate dating very difficult. The wise reader will, therefore, hesitate to base any important argument on the exact decade in which this papyrus was written; he will even hesitate to close the door on the possibility that it may be later than A.D. 150.”
I had mixed feelings when I found this review. On the one hand it was a bit disturbing that I had missed the opinion of a prominent scholar (I had tried to be pretty exhaustive in reviewing the bibliography). On the other hand, it was encouraging to find that Colwell had reached conclusions similar to those I reached 70 years later. In terms of the history of scholarship on P52, it is also quite interesting that Colwell’s opinion did not seem to be cited in subsequent studies of P52 (although it is worth recalling that in 1936, Colwell was quite early in his career and did not command the wide recognition that he gained in the following years). In any event, Colwell seems to me ahead of his time in his cautious assessment of historical conclusions that rest only upon the palaeography of literary Greek writing of the Roman era.