From Dallas Theological Seminary: Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?
On 1 February 2012, I [Dr. Daniel Wallace] debated Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill on whether we have the wording of the original New Testament today. This was our third such debate, and it was before a crowd of more than 1000 people. I mentioned that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered—six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. These fragments will be published in about a year.
These fragments now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, more than 43% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. But the most interesting thing is the first-century fragment.
It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament.
How do these manuscripts change what we believe the original New Testament to say? We will have to wait until they are published next year, but for now we can most likely say this: As with all the previously published New Testament papyri (127 of them, published in the last 116 years), not a single new reading has commended itself as authentic. Instead, the papyri function to confirm what New Testament scholars have already thought was the original wording or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading—but one that is already found in the manuscripts.
Most conservative Biblical scholars advocate that most of the New Testament (NT) was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and that the NT was completed by roughly A.D. 90. If true—and there are no solid reasons to believe otherwise—then the entire NT was written and distributed widely within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This is extremely significant, as it provides evidence that what we have in the NT is true to the original teachings of Christ and the apostles, and gives authentic witness to who Jesus was and the events of his life.
Liberal and non-Christian Biblical scholars have long advocated that there was a period of theological development and diversity between the life of Christ and when someone in the church started to write these things down. The discovery of earlier and earlier manuscripts of NT portions, however, is placing this entire framework under increasing stress. That we have NT fragments from the early second century, and perhaps even from the first century, does not leave time for the incorporation of myths surrounding the life of Christ. No doubt there were competing teachings about Christ (e.g. the incipient gnosticism countered by Paul’s epistle to the Colossians), but there was a body of eyewitnesses and the first generation of their followers who knew what to keep and what to weed out.
The evidence is increasingly on the side of those of us who hold to the NT as originating with the apostles who were eyewitnesses of the events described, or from their associates, such as Luke. If this is so, then no one has an excuse to believe that the four gospels do not paint an accurate picture of what the apostles believed about the life and teachings of Christ, and the significance of his death and resurrection.
Grace and Peace