The historical credibility of the Gospel of John

Over at Parchment and Pen, Dan Wallace has written on “The Gospel of John and Historical Realibility – Part 1. Already I am looking forward to Part 2+. Wallace says,

In 1844, the Tübinger Jahrbuch published an essay by F. C. Baur to the effect that John’s Gospel should be dated no earlier than AD 160, and probably closer to 170.

Everyone who has studied New Testament introduction knows that this view was dominant for nearly a century. Wallace tells what rocked Baur’s view:

Ninety years after Baur first published his thesis on John, a young doctoral student studying at Manchester University came across a scrap of papyrus in the John Rylands Library. Colin H. Roberts was intrigued by the papyrus fragment, which had been excavated decades earlier from rubbish heaps in Egypt. It was only 2 & ½ inches by 3 & ½ inches, but its importance far outweighed its size. Roberts immediately recognized it as a fragment of John’s Gospel—chapter 18, verses 31 to 33 on one side, and chapter 18, verses 37 and 38 on the other, to be exact. He sent the photographs of the fragment to three of the leading papyrologists in Europe. Each one reported independently that this fragment should be dated, on paleographical grounds, between AD 100 and AD 150. A fourth scholar disagreed, arguing that the fragment should be dated in the 90s of the first century!

This tiny fragment of John’s Gospel rocked the scholarly near-consensus on the date of John, for it is impossible for a copy to be written before the original text is produced. It effectively sent two tons of German scholarship to the flames. As one wag put it, “This manuscript must have been written when the ink on the original text was barely dry.”

A number of years ago, while leading a tour of the British Isles, I called the Rylands Library at the University of Manchester to ask if I could see the Rylands Fragment. After being assured that I could, I took the train from York to Manchester. At the time, the little fragment was between two pieces of glass taped around the edge. There is only one piece of the fragment, but the image below (from a library slide) shows both sides.

We think the Gospel of John was written by John in Ephesus sometime during the 80s, but this manuscript is thought to have originated in Egypt between A.D. 100 and 150 (or earlier?). This is a small illustration of the rapid spread and copying of the Gospel.

The John Rylands Library has a page devoted to the fragment here.

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3 responses to “The historical credibility of the Gospel of John

  1. brucehudson

    Thanks for your excellent blog. I just recently visited The John Rylands University Library a couple of weeks ago. I thought I might tell of my visit for the benefit of others who may also want to visit. There is a train that leaves the airport that will take you right to Deansgate in about 15-20 minutes. I think it was about $3.00 for a round-trip ticket. The library is about a 15-minute walk and is located on the left side of the street. One should keep in mind that this area is not great to be walking around as the sun descends. It was late afternoon when I left the library and stopped at Subway for a sandwich. I could already see various gangs of young boys walking around, acting up and being loud. Later, I heard on the radio of two people being stabbed to death on Deansgate!

    The Gothic-style building looks so much older than it really is, having been built in 1899. They have recently refurbished a new entrance wing which is very nice. There is no charge to visit the library. It has a small café and various items and souvenirs to purchase. The library is filled with a large collection of rare books as well as a large variety of ancient manuscripts, Egyptian funerary documents, and Akkadian and Sumerian clay tablets.

    The small NT fragment of John 18 is suspended in air between two large panes of glass. You can walk around on both sides to see the writing. I was surprised to learn that the fragment has never been carbon dated. It is dated solely on the style of writing. They also have on display what seems to be the oldest copy of the Scriptures in Greek (portions of Deuteronomy 23-28). There are eight small fragments which are dated to the second century BC, again by the writing style. This means that these fragments date to within a century of the Septuagint. Unfortunately, they do not allow any photography of any displays at all. I enjoyed my visit there and recommend it to others.

  2. Thanks, Bruce, for the helpful info. My recollection about the neighborhood is not good, and I was there in the middle of the day.

    When I saw the fragment it was not on display. The staff brought it out to me and I was able to hold the glass in my hands.

  3. Pingback: Be sure to read… « Ferrell’s Travel Blog

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