A New Radiocarbon Calibration Curve and Early Christian Manuscripts

I gave a talk on early Coptic books a few weeks ago in which I mentioned the results of some radiocarbon analyses of Coptic codices. Now I learn that some of what I said is already out of date! A recent e-mail from Mike Holmes prompted me to check in on the OxCal website, where I saw that a new version of the OxCal calibration program is up and running using new data (IntCal20). The new calibration curve appears to have a noticeable effect on the dates of some early Christian manuscripts.

The results of radiocarbon analysis yield ages in terms of “radiocarbon years before present (BP).” Because levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere fluctuate over time, these results need to be converted into calendar dates through a process of calibration. Objects with known dates, usually tree rings, are subjected to radiocarbon analysis, and these results are compiled and used to translate radiocarbon years BP into calendar dates for objects of unknown dates. Every so often, the accumulated and refined data for calibration is used to generate a new calibration curve.

The appearance of a new calibration curve means that older analyses can be re-calibrated using the new data. For this reason, authors who publish the results of radiocarbon analyses should report not only calendar ages but also radiocarbon years BP so that the calendar dates can be easily recalculated when new calibration data becomes available (less conscientious authors will omit BP dates). In some cases, the new calibration yields very little change to the resulting calendar dates, but in other cases, the change is meaningful.

I’ll illustrate with a couple of the examples that I mentioned in my talk. The first is the Manichean Synaxeis codex at the Chester Beatty Library. Samples of papyrus from a leaf of this codex were subjected to AMS analysis in 2013. The weighted mean for the samples was 1630 ± 22 radiocarbon years BP. The calibration (using IntCal13) yielded the following outcome:

Image source: Jason BeDuhn and Greg Hodgins, “The Date of the Manichaean Codices from Medinet Madi,” in Samuel N.C. Lieu et al. (eds.), Manichaeism East and West (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), p. 28, Figure 8.

The resulting span of calendar years was 350-534 CE (95.4% probability). The authors who published the analysis quite reasonably interpreted these results in the following way: “70 to 72% of the probability density function spans the period 380 CE to 435 CE. All things being equal, it is most probable that the Medinet Madi codices date to somewhere within the last quarter of the 4th to the early decades of the 5th centuries AD.”

Calibrating this radiocarbon years BP date with the new program noticeably adjusts the calendar dates.

Image source: OxCal v4.4.2

The calendar range is now 405-538 CE (95.4% probability). Using the new calibration curve, then, the possibility of a fourth century date for the papyrus appears diminished. The probability of a date in the first part of the fifth century remains relatively high, but a date in the sixth century is no longer quite so easily excluded.

We see less change in the case of another Coptic book, the Glazier codex. In 1994, a piece of the leather wrapping band of the codex was tested and yielded a result of 1565 ±45 BP. When this data was published in 1999, the calibrated age was reported as 420-598 CE (95% probability). Using those numbers with the new curve, we get the following results:

Image source: OxCal v.4.4.2

The range of calendar dates is now 418-590 CE (95.4% probability). So, we see in this instance very little change.

From a general comparison of the IntCal13 and IntCal20 curves over the period of 100-700 CE, it seems that IntCal20 will shift calendar dates slightly later in most cases or keep them roughly the same. One of the frustrating things about the fluctuations of carbon-14 levels is reflected in the wiggle in the calibration curve that occurs during the third and fourth centuries CE. This dip has become more pronounced in IntCal20 with a higher peak and a lower trough, which means that the usefulness of AMS analysis remains very limited for distinguishing between material dating to the third century CE and material dating to the fourth century CE.

This entry was posted in Glazier Codex, Radiocarbon analysis. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A New Radiocarbon Calibration Curve and Early Christian Manuscripts

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 174 for August 2020 | Reading Acts

  2. clarkbates97 says:

    This is fascinating but I’m not sure that it’s much help, given that, in the examples provided at least, the span of time covers 2 centuries. This doesn’t appear to be any more narrow than what can be determined paleographically. Perhaps the biggest benefit is revealing the legitimacy of potentially later dates?

    • Yes, I think the legitimacy of the later range is the main thing we learn from this. Samples dating in the range of 2nd-4th cent. CE on earlier calibrations, for instance, look quite different on the new curve. But in the case of the Medinet Madi codices, it is helpful to see the the 4th century dates (for now, anyway) looking less probable. From a bookbinding technology perspective, this would seem to make more sense.

  3. LB says:

    Nice article!
    It would be nice to see how the calibration curve looks like before 200 and whether there’s any hope of differentiating between 3rd, 2nd or 1st century manuscripts based on carbon dating.

  4. Pingback: Radiocarbon Dating of the Cologne Mani Codex | Variant Readings

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