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Don Stewart :: What Is the Earliest Part of the Old Testament That Still Exists? What Is the Earliest New Testament Manuscript That Still Exists?

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What Is the Earliest Part of the Old Testament That Still Exists? What Is the Earliest New Testament Manuscript That Still Exists?

The Words of the Bible – Question 5

The originals of the Book of Scripture do not exist any longer. What we have left are copies of the originals. It is often asked about the identity of the earliest copies of an Old Testament text and a New Testament text. Are the earliest writings from the testaments found in manuscripts or are they contained on something else?

The Earliest Part of the Old Testament Manuscript That Still Exists Is Not a Manuscript

Curiously, the oldest part of the Old Testament that still exists is not found in a document. In 1985, some ancient silver amulets were discovered in the old city of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay. It seems they would have been worn either around the neck or as bracelets. These amulets have been dated from between the sixth and the seventh century B.C. They contain a passage of Scripture from the Book of Numbers (Numbers 6:22-27).

The text of the amulet is very close to the Masoretic, or traditional text, of the Old Testament. It reads as follows:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord turn his face toward you and grant you peace.

The oldest manuscript that still exists from the Old Testament is a series of fragments from the Book of Leviticus. These fragments go back about four centuries before Christ. They were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The oldest complete manuscript we have of a biblical book is also from the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah which is dated about 100 years before the time of Christ. The oldest complete copy of the entire Old Testament that still exists comes from about A.D. 1100.

The Oldest New Testament Manuscript That Still Exists—P52

As far as the New Testament is concerned, the oldest manuscript whose date is unquestioned is the John Rylands fragment. It is called P52. This means it is the 52nd papyrus document of the New Testament that was catalogued. This manuscript is housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England.

P52 is a very small fragment, 6cm x 8.9cm, or 2 ½ inches x 3 ½ inches. It consists of one leaf (page) that has writing on both sides. It contains John 18:31-34 on the front (called the recto) and John 18:37-38 on the back (the verso). P52 has been variously dated from A.D. 110-140. However, it could have been written as early as A.D. 100, or even shortly before. If this early date is correct, then it is possible that it was copied just a few short years after the Gospel of John was composed.

The oldest complete copy of the New Testament is Codex Sinaiticus. It was copied about A.D. 350. It also contains the entire Old Testament in Greek.

Codex Vaticanus is a near complete copy of the New Testament. It was written a little earlier than Codex Sinaiticus (about A.D. 325). It contains the entire New Testament to Hebrews 9:14. The letters of Paul to Philemon, Timothy and Titus, along with the Book of Revelation are missing from this manuscript.

Earlier Dates Are Claimed for Three Other Manuscripts

While P52 has the early uncontested date for a New Testament manuscript, there have been claims by various scholars that three other texts are actually earlier. They are 7Q5 from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the papyrus fragment labeled P64 and the Chester Beatty papyri P46.


The Dead Sea Scrolls is the name given to thousands of manuscripts that were found in caves alongside the Dead Sea in 1947. These manuscripts found were mostly written in Hebrew. Many of them contained copies of Old Testament books. In fact, there are copies of parts of every Old Testament book except Esther.

However, one entire cave, Cave 7, contained fragments written in Greek. At first, one particular fragment in Cave 7, called 7Q5, had not been identified with any known writing. In 1972, a Spanish scholar named Jose O’Callaghan claimed that this tiny fragment was actually from the Gospel of Mark. 7Q5 has been dated at A.D. 50. This would mean that a copy of Mark’s gospel was already made less than 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is no doubt about the early date of this fragment, what is in doubt is its identification with the New Testament. While a source of controversy among textual scholars, it is possible that 7Q5 is actually a fragment from the Gospel of Mark.

P64/P67 (P4)

P64, the 64th papyrus manuscript of the New Testament that was catalogued, is usually dated about A.D. 200. However in 1994, a German scholar named Carsten Peter Thiede, contended that this small fragment from Matthew’s gospel should be dated in the first century—possibly as early as A.D. 66. If true, this would clearly mean that the gospel of Matthew was written at an early date when eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus were still around.

It has been discovered that P64 is part of the same manuscript as another papyrus fragment, P67. In addition, some think that P4, a different papyrus document, was also originally part of that same manuscript.

P46 - the Chester Beatty Papyri II

P46, part of the collection of Chester Beatty papyri, contains all of Paul’s letters except First and Second Timothy and Titus. The usual date for this manuscript is around A.D. 200. However, in 1988, a scholar named Young K. Kim dated them in the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian, A.D. 81-96 of the first century. If his dating is correct, then we have a copy of Paul’s letters which were written less than thirty years after his death.

Not All Agree with These Dates or Identifications

However, there has been no consensus among scholars as to these early dates for P46 and P64 or for the identification of 7Q5 with the Gospel of Mark. To the contrary, those advocating the early dates are in the minority, as well as those who argue that 7Q5 is actually a fragment from Mark’s gospel.

Of course, that does not make these scholars incorrect in their claims. It is only that the majority of scholars in the field do not accept their claims as true. Yet, we certainly cannot and should not rule out the possibility that any or all of them may be correct in their assessment of these writings.

Summary – Question 5
What Is the Earliest Part of the Old Testament That Still Exists? What Is the Earliest New Testament Manuscript That Still Exists?

The oldest written portions of the Old Testament that still exist are a number of silver amulets dating from the sixth to the seventh century B.C. The oldest fragment from a manuscript that still exists is from the Book of Leviticus. It could be dated as early as four centuries before the time of Christ. The earliest complete copy of an Old Testament book is the Isaiah scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was copied some one hundred years before the time of Christ.

The oldest undisputed fragment of the New Testament that has survived is known as P52. It contains a small portion of the Gospel of John. It has been dated from A.D. 110 -140 but could be even earlier. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament is Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from around A.D. 325-350.

There are three other writings that have had earlier dates claimed from them. Fragment 7Q5 from the Dead Sea Scrolls has been identified by some as coming from the Gospel of Mark. P64 is claimed to have been composed in the first century A.D. Claims have also been that the Chester Beatty manuscript, P46, was actually written late in the first century. The claims concerning these three documents have not convinced a majority of scholars.

Why Don’t We Possess Any of the Original Manuscripts of the Books of the Bible? ← Prior Section
Upon What Materials Were the Books of the Bible Originally Written? Next Section →
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