E. C. Colwell on P52

E C Colwell

Ernest Cadman Colwell (1901-1974) 

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. I50 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.”

Roberts P52

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.


This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Codices, Palaeography, Rylands Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to E. C. Colwell on P52

  1. Geoff Hudson says:

    Brent, so Colwell’s caution about the dating of P52 arises from the scarcity of comparable material dated around 150 CE. Given the contemporary scholars who agree with that dating, one has to question his caution for other reasons. I state the obvious. P52, being supposedly the earliest Christian manuscript, is used to support the early existence of Christianity. This argument is very much weakened if the manuscript is late second or early third century, as you suggest. Thus, not only is this weak evidence for an early Gospel of John, it raises the question as to when Christianity originated.

    • Well, there’s a difference you seem to be glossing over: There isn’t really any strong evidence for the circulation of the Gospel According to John until the latter part of the second century (quotations by Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus, the commentary of Heracleon–depending on when one dates that!–, etc.). For the worship of Jesus, there is ample evidence both from participants (Paul’s letters, etc.) and from non-participant observers (Pliny, etc.), so I don’t think P52 has any bearing on the question of “the early existence of Christianity.”

      • Geoff Hudson says:

        Brent, don’t you think it strange that the earliest date of all fragments of NT manuscripts, including Paul’s letters, is CE2-3? Why should this be so? Doesn’t this fact point to these manuscripts being fabricated?

  2. robertstl says:

    Excellent! Great minds think alike.

  3. Tom Hennell says:

    Brent; I await with keen interest the publication of your second paper on P52. But without spoiling our anticipation; would it be fair to presume from your latest post, that you have not rejected conclusions of the first paper? In the terminology of E.J.Colwell, while “you have not closed the door on the possibility that P52 may be dated later than A.D. 150”; yet equally “you have not closed the door on the possibility that P52 may be dated earlier than A.D. 150”? Or do your latest findings now positively exclude Roberts’s suggestion of a possible date for P52 in the first half of the 2nd century?

    • Thanks, Tom. I hope it’s out sooner rather than later. When it comes to Greek literary writing of the Roman period, I’m still convinced that we can’t be overly narrow in our estimate of the dating when the analysis of handwriting is the only guide. We can’t exclude earlier dates or later dates on that basis alone.

  4. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 149 Has Come to Town! – Karen R. Keen

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