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P52: The Earliest Piece of the NT
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 John.
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. So the scenario becomes this: The Gospel of John was written in Ephesus in the 90s. Copies were made and spread across the Roman Empire, but the first place these copies would have gone were to other parts of present-day Turkey and present-day Greece (Corinth, Thessalonica), then to Rome and other places like present-day Lebanon and Israel (which had strong Christian communities). A copy (or copies) eventually made its way to Egypt, since Christians lived there also.
Therefore, P52 could have been a copy from the original Gospel which worked its way down to Egypt. Or it could be a copy of a copy from the original John. You see how this works. But it is exciting to imagine that it could be a copy from the original Gospel of John, which means that whoever copied it would have had the original copy made by 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.
From John 18:31-33: said to him the Jews, “To us it is lawful to kill no one,” so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he said signifying by what sort of death he was about to die. He entered again into the Praetorium Pilate and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you king of the Jews?”
From John 18:36-38: a king I am. I for this have been born and I have come into the world so that I should testify to the truth. Everyone being of the truth hears my voice. Says to him Pilate, “What is truth?” and this saying, again he went out to the Jews and says to them, “I nothing find in him a case.”
©2009 Mark Nickens
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