Posted by: aboutalbion | January 31, 2013

The earliest Christian documents

I’m going back for a moment to the 2013 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association (see post on Friday, 25 January).

The president had a passage in his address in which he spoke about the epistemological foundation of history.  For him, the question “What are the documents?” was the discipline-defining question.

In my approach to the origins of Christianity, I am interested in asking the question “What are the earliest Christian documents that have survived to the present day?”.

I find that Larry Hurtado (Emeritus Professor, University of Edinburgh) has recently posted an essay entitled “The Early New Testament Papyri: A Survey of Their Significance” which greatly assists me in answering my question.  [http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com is his website, and the essay is under the ‘Selected Published Essays tab.]

He writes that the earliest 51 documents (out of more than one hundred that are extant) can be palaeographically dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE.  And then this:

Of the 51 manuscripts that we consider in this discussion, only five provide us with much more than … small portions of text.”

I am going to focus on the five substantial texts because (from the standpoint of statistical inference) the confidence associated with the palaeographical dating decreases with the decreasing size of the samples of text.

The big five that he cites are P45, P46, P47, (from the Chester Beatty collection), P66, P75 (from the Bodmer collection).

Of these five substantial papyri, P45, P66, and P75 are documents related to what Christianity calls ‘the Gospels’, and P47 is a document similarly related to ‘Revelation’.  That leaves P46 as the single earliest document that refers to what Christian tradition has called ‘the Pauline Epistles’.

My particular interest in Christian origins is in the letters ascribed to Paul of Tarsus.  And for this reason, papyrus 46 is the document that most interests me.

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