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P52: The earliest piece of the New Testament that has been discovered

While the New Testament contains writings from the Apostles, we do not have original writings of any of the 27 books. What we do have are copies of the original books. Or, I should say, copies of copies of the originals. After the original books were written, copies were made and spread around. Then people made copies of the copies and spread them around even more. And copies were made of those copies of copies, and the pattern continued. Scholars and libraries and universities have hundreds if not thousands of these multiple copies: translators compare all these multiple copies and so can ensure that a mistake in copying in one is noticed because it does not line up with the other copies.

That being said, one scrap of paper, or I should say papyrus, exists which may be a copy of an original NT book. It is known as P52 and has a portion of John 18:31-33 on one side and a portion of John 18:37, 38 on the other side. It is written in Greek, as were all the New Testament books.

P52 is dated by most scholars to around 125-150, so about a hundred years after Jesus. But it contains a portion of the Gospel of John, which itself was not written until the 90s. That means that P52 was written maybe 30 years after the original Gospel of John was written.

Most scholars agree that John was written in Ephesus, which is in present-day Turkey. But P52 was discovered in Egypt, across the Mediterranean Sea. This is probaby what happened: The Gospel of John was written in Ephesus in the 90s. Copies were made and spread across the Roman Empire. A copy (or copies) eventually made its way to Egypt, since many Christians lived there also.

Therefore, P52 could have been a copy from the original Gospel of John that ended up in Egypt. This is exciting because it means that whoever copied it would have had the original Gospel of John in front of him. So we might have a writing made by someone who knew the Apostle John.

Now for P52 itself, but an explanation first. The underlined parts are those found in P52. To make sense of how the papyrus looks, imagine the underlined parts lined up underneath each other. In other words, imagine a page from the Gospel of John having the right and left parts of the page torn off, leaving the middle part. That is what the translators had to work with. To see a picture of P52, go to Wikipedia and type in P52.

The following verses do not come from a popular translation but are translations directly from the Greek into English without attempting to “smooth out” the translation; therefore they sound a bit awkward. Also, the boldface parts are what can be read from the scrap of papyrus.

One side: From John 18:31-33:
the Jews, “To us it is lawful to kill no
one,” so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he sp
oke signifying by what sort of death he was about to
die. Entered he again into the Praeto
rium Pilate and called Jesus
and said to him, “Are you king of the
Jews?

Opposite side: From John 18:36-38:
        a king I am. For this I have been born
and I have come into the world so that I should test
 ify to the truth. Everyone being of the truth
              hears my voice. Said to him
Pilate, “What is truth?” and this
saying, again he went out to the Jews
and says to them, “I find not one fault.”

©2009 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved