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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: How Is the Age of an Ancient Manuscript Determined?

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How Is the Age of an Ancient Manuscript Determined?

The Words of the Bible – Question 8

Most ancient writings are undated; there is nothing in the text that specifically states when it was written. This is also true for the copies of the biblical manuscripts. The earliest New Testament manuscript that has a date in it comes from the 9th century A.D. Consequently, scholars must use a variety of methods to determine the age of a manuscript. They include the following:

1. The Materials upon Which the Work Is Written

One way that the age of a manuscript can be determined is by the materials upon which the document was written. The earliest writings of humans were preserved in stone. As time progressed, the materials changed. Leather scrolls were used prior to the use of papyrus codices (books). When the ancient document is found, the materials are an important key in dating the work because of the different historical periods when these surfaces were in use.

2. Letter Formation - Paleography

Paleography is the science of the study of ancient writing. It examines the way scribes formed their letters when they were writing or copying something.

As writing progressed, the way in which the various letters and combinations of letters were formed or changed somewhat. By closely observing the changes, paleographers can provide a basic time frame for when the document was written.

For example, the earliest Hebrew characters resembled pronged-shape Phoenician script. This is known as paleo-Hebrew. After 400 B.C. the letters were written in more a square shape.

In addition, the size and shape of letters changed as writing evolved. Certain letters were formed differently during history. Sometimes a document can be dated almost precisely, due to the way some of the letters were formed.

To determine the various handwriting styles during different times in history, it is necessary to have documents that contain some type of date in them. Fortunately, there are a number of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic documents that do indeed have dates.

For example, there are Aramaic texts from an ancient Jewish military colony in Egypt that contain dates in the reign of King Darius II of Persia. We know that he ruled from 423-404 B.C. Consequently, scholars can use these documents to determine the way letters were formed during that time. More and more ancient documents are being discovered with dates in them. This allows scholars to observe how the formation of letters changed over time.

When one discovers an ancient text without a date, the handwriting is compared to a dated text which is similar in style. Since most of the documents in the ancient world were written by professional scribes, they tended to look relatively similar for a given period of time. Gradual changes would enter and these changes can be readily observed. Since more and more of these dated ancient documents are being discovered, scholars can be more precise in their dating of documents that have no date contained in the manuscripts.

However, the science of paleography can only give general dates to manuscripts—not exact dates.

In the New Testament period, documents were first written in large letters known as uncial script. There also was no space between the words. About the ninth century, New Testament manuscripts began to be written in a different style known as “minuscule” writing. This form of writing became popular and eventually all manuscripts were copied in this style. Therefore, we know the general periods when scribes used uncial writing and when it changed to the minuscule style.

3. The Color of Ink

Later, New Testament manuscripts were written in colored ink and were lavishly adorned by scribes. This is particularly true with Latin manuscripts. When we find a manuscript written in such a manner, we can give an approximate date to it based upon this practice.

4. The Language in Which It Was Written

When we find copies of the New Testament written in languages other than Greek, we can place them into a general time frame. This is because we know approximately when these translations were first made. Consequently, we know that the manuscript could not have been copied before a certain date.

5. Carbon 14

The carbon-14 dating method was discovered in 1947. It is possible that the process of carbon dating can also be applied to date the existing biblical manuscripts. However, to do this, part of the manuscript must be destroyed. In the early years, none of the Dead Sea Scrolls were subjected to carbon 14 dating. Too large of a portion of these brittle manuscripts would have had to have been destroyed to get a precise date.

6. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS)

Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) is a recent innovation. It is a refinement of the carbon-14 dating method. AMS can test documents by using only a fraction of the material that was needed for carbon-14 dating. Eight manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls were tested with the AMS method. In all but one instance, they confirmed the date that had been given to them by paleographers.

7. Punctuation

The earliest New Testament manuscripts contained no breaks between the words. About the sixth century A.D. punctuation marks began to be used. By the eighth century many different punctuation marks such as commas, colons and periods (full stops), as well as spaces between words, were used. Since the employment of punctuation was a gradual process, it helps determine the period during which a manuscript was written.

8. Other Documents Found with the Manuscript

If there were dated documents found with the manuscript, this would help with approximate dates. For example, biblical manuscripts have been found that have been wrapped inside other documents. Some of these documents have a date on them. This gives us a general idea of the time they were written.

These Factors Help Give Approximate Ages to Ancient Documents

These factors, along with some others, help scholars determine the approximate time a manuscript was composed. However, unless there is a date written on the manuscript, we can only approximate when it was actually written.

Summary – Question 8
How Is the Age of an Ancient Manuscript Determined?

There are a number of factors that go into determining the age of an ancient manuscript. This includes the material upon which it was written, letter formation, color of ink, the language in which it was written and punctuation. Tests such as carbon-14 and the new technique, AMS, can also give fairly precise dates to ancient documents.

Finally, certain biblical documents have been found wrapped inside dated documents. This also gives scholars a general idea as to when the document was written.

In What Form Were the Biblical Books Originally Written? ← Prior Section
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