Thursday, January 18, 2018

Justified Commitment Issues in Dating P.Egerton 2 + P.Köln VI 255 (and Other Literary Papyri)

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P.Köln VI 255 (inv. 608) →
(Image courtesy of the Kölner Papyrussammlung website
One of the helpful trends in more recent palaeography has been marked by a more explicit recognition of virtually impossibility to assign narrow, ‘precise’ dates to undated literary manuscripts, lest one runs the risks of arbitrariness. As a result, scholars have preferred to assign broader date ranges, spanning hardly ever less than 100 years. I say ‘more explicit’ recognition, because there have always been voices that called for greater caution such as E. G. Turner or after him P. J. Parsons, but the problem does seem to be recognised much more widely nowadays (with Comfort’s problematic undertakings in this area being something of an exception). In my view a less helpful trend amongst recent scholarship has been an abandonment of classic palaeographical method, which is characterised by the comparative analysis of graphic background, style, and typology. For this reason (and despite occasional minor disagreements), I’ve found particularly the work of Pasquale Orsini to be of great pedagogical value. (N.B. Orsini is a pupil of Guglielmo Cavallo’s, probably the most important living palaeographer.) For methodological purposes, I’d recommend especially the article he co-wrote with Willy Clarysse (ETL 88 [2012] 443–74), which deals specifically with the palaeographical problems pertaining to the NT MSS. The comparative method they follow is neatly summarised in the following quote from the said piece:
Palaeographical comparison may lead to chronological results when an undated manuscript is compared to an explicitly dated or to a datable one ... Such parallels may lead to different results. They may: 1. connect an undated script with the same general graphic background to one or more dated and/or datable examples; 2. bring an undated manuscript into the context of a “stylistic class,” whose chronological range can be reconstructed thanks to various dated manuscripts; 3. link an undated script to a “style,” whose history and main distinctive aspects can be reconstructed thanks to dated and undated manuscripts; 4. connect an undated script with a “canonical” or “normative script” for which a system of internal rules and a history can be reconstructed; 5. attribute an undated manuscript to the hand of a scribe, known by other manuscripts, dated or undated. (p. 448)
I utilised a similar method in my work on P47, and assigned a date in 250–325 CE. (Incidentally, the range could be extended as far as to 350, if I allowed for a Coptic comparandum [P.Lond. VI 1920 (TM 44659)]). 

Especially owing to the prolific output of Brent Nongbri, a number of other NT MSS have received fresh scrutiny, often resulting in later assignments. On the one hand, I’ve not been inclined to agree with Nongbri’s take on P66 and P75: I think both articles begin to lose force precisely when he undertakes to suggest alternative (in some cases graphically inappropriate) parallel scripts with later dates. In general, however, I’ve found Nongbri’s call for caution—reflected in his broader (and typically later) suggested datings—helpful. 

So much for the NT MSS. But what about other early Christian papyri? For quite some time, I was bothered by how texts, particularly the Egerton Gospel (P.Egerton 2 + P. Köln VI 255 [LDAB 4736]), were repeatedly invoked as instances of ‘earliest’ Christian literature, all the while ignoring the same palaeographical difficulties loom large over them as well. So I took a closer look at the Egerton papyrus and became quite dissatisfied with its traditional dating (early second century, based solely on palaeography), while not being particularly impressed by the rationale for the alternative suggestion (early third century, based on the presence of apostrophe). As one does, I then spilled out my frustration in a Facebook status, upon which Lorne Zelyck PM-ed me (being more sensible, I reckon) expressing his own misgivings. Long story short, we then concocted an article (ZPE 204 [2017] 55–71), where we survey the history of the debate (there’s a good measure of nonsense involved, especially in the recent years) and suggest that, at the very least, the possible date should be extended to 150–250 CE. Interestingly, the closest parallels, in fact, come from the turn of the third century, hence it is plausible that our papyrus is of the early-third century date. But since that palaeographical inquiry cannot yield very narrow results, keeping the assigned dating broad seems the best way forward.

Moral of the story, then: When dating literary manuscripts, it is too firm a commitment that may be an issue.

[UPDATE:] I'm very pleased that Brent came across this post and swiftly wrote, as one might expect, a most eloquent response. In particular, he called for clarification on my own part concerning my specific objections to some of the comparanda he adduced in re-dating P66 and P75. This I did in a comment under this post as well as under his (in a slightly revised form). Brent then wrote another post where he clarified the differences between his argument in P66 and P75, which I found very helpful. We still disagree about the applicability of his comparandum in P66 and the nature of typological classification in the case of P75, but we are also very much on the same page concerning the need for caution in dating manuscripts palaeographically as well as the limits of such undertaking. Above all, it was so refreshing to have such an amicable back-and-forth whose outcome is, as it seems to me, greater clarity and understanding of each other's views. Thanks very much, Brent!

19 comments :

  1. I appreciate your comments, Peter. They articulate a concern that I have felt ever since Brent Nongbri's work began to come out. I have heard comments at SBL, etc, like, "Now that we are dating P75 to the 4th century..." If I understand the data correctly, it is not forcing a conclusion that P75 (or whatever papyrus you are dating) MUST be 4th c. It's just that the possible date spectrum is a longer period of time than had been thought.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Amy.As for P75, yes, that's true. Though the fourth-century comparanda adduced are, to my eyes at least, not very impressive. I'd def. go for 200-300 with P75, but probably not much later.

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    2. Amy, Nongbri also uses other non-palaeographical arguments to tentatively conclude that both P66 and P75 are infact 4th century. Though, as you said above, he does use palaeographical arguments to widen the possible dates.

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    3. That's true and I think one of big Brent's contributions is that he points out the 'limits' of traditional palaeographical method and the need to supplement it with further sets of evidence.

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    4. Larry Hurtado just posted recently on the topic of a broader range for dating as well. He also questioned some of the later dating, particularly P66. He has more recently posted on his list of 2nd/3rd Century Manuscripts, see the sidebar here.

      Tim

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  2. Dear Peter (if I may), I share your sentiment about this issue and appreciated your ZPE-article. When dating palaegraphically, we should always want to consider issues of precision (reasonable date range - often far too narrow), relativity (what other dated and undated MSS are being considered as palaeographically close?), and certainty (how much weight can the hypothesis carry?). Too often given dates are relied on in order to make a historical point without consideration of the issues and arguments involved.

    In any case, I would like to draw attention to a forthcoming (probably by the end of the month) article on this very topic by Clarysse and Orsini (who you recommended in your post):
    Clarysse, Willy/Orsini, Pasquale: Christian Manuscripts from Egypt to the Times of Constantine, in: Jan Heilmann/Matthias Klinghardt (ed.), Der Text des Neuen Testaments im 2. Jahrhundert (TANZ 61), Tübingen 2017, 21–56. Would love to hear what you ETC authors think about the dates and arguments presented in this article.

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    1. Thanks very much for this reference, Juan. Feel free to shoot me a PDF if you'd like.

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  4. But P52 was still written in 125, right? *I kid*

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    1. Somebody finally got the point of the article! *shakes his head with signs of extremely serious displeasure*

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    2. Right we need to make that a range: 75-175. (Peter continues to shake his head;).

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  5. Hi Pete,
    I of course agree on the need to extend the range of possible dates in cases like that of the Egerton papyrus, in which palaeography is the only criteria for dating. I'm curious about your use of the term "inappropriate" to describe some of the comparanda I've suggested. I pose the question at greater length here: https://brentnongbri.com/2018/01/19/palaeographic-methodology/

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    1. Hi Brent, thanks so much for reading this blogpost and even more so for your comment! And thanks for the pointer to your blogpost. For starters, I don't think P.Bodmer XX is a parallel hand to P.Bodmer II. Whereas the former is a more 'angular' script influenced by the biblical majuscule (admittedly, there's a mixture of elements), the latter is a clear example of the round chancery-like 'Alexandrian stylistic' class. I agree that the second-century dating for P.Bodmer II is unconvincing, but I have yet to see a fitting fourth-century comparandum. That'd be one example. Another is P.Herm. 4&5 adduced in discussing the date of P.Bodmer XIV–XV. As to P.Hermas 4&5, the hand is (in my view and, if my memory doesn't fail me, before by Cavallo and Orsini, among others) not reflective of 'severe style' but rather an early specimen of the sloping ogival majuscule. Looking at a handful of test-letters won't do; it's the script as a whole that seems different (starts to include slight roundels at the end of certain strokes, is more compressed [the contrast b/w broad and narrow letters is much less pronounced], etc.). Of course, on the Italian narrative the script attested in P.Hermas 4&5 developed from that used in P.Bodmer XIV-XV, so they are related. By the way, a comparable hand to that of P.Hermas 4&5 is in P.Oxy. VIII 1080 (LDAB 2793). Thanks again for interaction, Brent, and I hope your take-away from the above is that I do appreciate your emphasis on caution in the thorny business of palaeographical dating. I am more optimistic, perhaps, provided that we use the right materials and method and in the absence of the former rather withhold judgement, let alone too strong an opinion.

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    2. Thanks for the clarification, Pete. Yes, we're on the same page with the need for caution. I've tried to tease out the meaning of "(in)appropriate" a bit more with regard to these examples in another post: https://brentnongbri.com/2018/01/19/palaeographic-methodology/

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    3. Excellent post, Brent. Thanks!

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  6. Peter, you and Lorne Zelyck have done a fantastic job on the article. It is very helpful in that you both clearly draw the reader step-by-step in your comparisons between the scripts of the comparanda and the Egerton Gospel.

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    1. Thanks, Timothy, you're too kind!

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