Tag Archives: Gospel of John

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.