Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Which ancient papyri are being carbon dated?

It appears as if there may be some movement in the story that Dan Wallace mentioned last year (in his debate with Bart Ehrman) about "the discovery of several New Testament papyri". As was noted in earlier reports, "the results of this study were to be published in a forthcoming book from E.J. Brill Publishing (notorious for publishing only top-quality scholarly works that none of us can afford)".

Now Larry Hurtado is reporting that he has recently returned from "an invitational conference in Oklahoma City on dating papyri (sponsored by the Green Scholars Initiative, hereafter GSI)". (It was "the Green Scholars Initiative" who had possession of these reportedly early papyri.)

Out of respect for the presenters of papers, I won’t pre-empt publication by giving details. But I can say that I found the presentations on Carbon-dating especially informative and also of some significant import.

Essentially the GSI has access to the Green Collection of manuscripts & Bibles, and several papyri were chosen for rigorous Carbon-dating. The papyri in question had been dated first palaeographically, and then very small snippets were submitted to three respected laboratories in the USA for independent dating by Carbon-14 processes....

To summarize results of the tests reported on in Oklahoma City, the results from the three labs were basically/broadly in agreement, which gives some assurance about the reliability of the process. But also, these results were broadly in agreement with the prior/independent palaeographical dating of these items. And this (as I see it) is the really larger import. It means ..., that palaeographical dating (using today’s standards and practices) by competent palaeographers can be treated as broadly reliable.

And that means that collections that don’t allow Carbon-dating can take some further basis for confidence in the practice of palaeographical dating of their items as well.

Now, you must understand that Carbon-dating can, at best, offer a date-span of X plus/minus 50 years or so, e.g., X dated ca. 150-250 CE. That’s no more narrow than responsible palaeographers would date an item. But, as I say, the Green Collection’s tests do give us a second basis for some confidence in palaeographical dating practice.

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