The Oldest Known Fragments of Matthew

'The world of New Testament scholarship is facing its most serious challenge since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At issue is a reassessment for the date of the Gospel of Matthew, based on five tiny papyrus fragments.

'Earlier this year (1995) Dr. Carsten Thiede published a reassessment of three papyrus fragments from the library at Magdalen College in Oxford, England. His article appeared in German in the scholarly journal Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 105 (1995) and was subsequently reprinted in English in the Tyndale Bulletin 46.1 (1995). Thiede, a papyrologist and practicing Anglican, has marshalled some impressive arguments which are challenging long-held scholarly and theological beliefs.

'His conclusions are summarized as follows:

1. The three papyrus fragments from the Magdalen College library (P-64) are from the same manuscript as two other fragments at the Fundacion San Lucas in Barcelona, Spain (P-67). All are from the Gospel of Matthew.

2. All five scraps of papyrus, based on comparative epigraphy, should be dated to the SECOND HALF OF THE FIRST CENTURY AD. That suggests a copy of the Gospel of Matthew was in circulation in Egypt roughly one generation after the crucifixion. Accordingly, this is the earliest date for any known New Testament text and is much earlier than the majority of scholars had previously believed. The standard scholarly date for the original Gospel of Matthew's composition has been AD 80.

3. All five fragments are written on both sides, indicating they were sheets in a book and not sections of a scroll. That manuscript would also be the earliest known bound Christian book. Thiede suggests it may even signify a change in strategy among Christians. Changing from scroll to book might indicate a changed focus of missionary activity away from Jews.

4. The use of abbreviations for divine names (nomen sacrum), like the tetragrammaton (YHWH) for the name of God, had previously been the privilege of Jewish scribes. According to Thiede, such a palaeographic decision was clearly designed to put Jesus on par with YHWH.

'A final note from Thiede's article. He noted a number of errors by scholars in identification and labeling of these fragments. In addition, his examination of the scraps, which had not been done for 40 years, also led to further points of interest previously overlooked.

'This demonstrates the fallibility of even the most careful and respected of scholars. While these mistakes would be described as minutia, it should be remembered that many scholarly decisions are often dogmatically made on the slimmest information. The need for Thiede to correct scholar's mistakes is a reminder of the fallibility of scholarly research. Their decisions are not absolute, although they often think they are. We who read their conclusions must constantly keep that in mind.

-- Bible and Spade, Autumn 1995.


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