Kenyon on the Papyri

Review of: Sir F. Kenyon, The Bible and Modern Scholarship, (1948)

Page Index

Prologue: - Introduction to Sir Frederic Kenyon

Review: - Kenyon on the Papyri: their impact on NT studies
    Discovery of the Papyri
    The Chester Beatty Papyri
       Old Testament Finds:
       New Testament Finds:
    The Rylands Fragments
    The Egerton Fragments
    1st Century Date for John's Gospel
    General Conclusions

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Sir Frederic George Kenyon GBE KCB TD FBA FSA (15 January 1863–23 August 1952) was a British paleographer, biblical and classical scholar. He was the director of the British Museum. He was also the president of the British Academy from 1917 to 1921, and from 1918 to 1952 he was Gentleman Usher of the Purple Rod in the Order of the British Empire.

Kenyon was born in London, the son of John Robert Kenyon, Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford. Educated at Oxford, he joined the British Museum in 1889 and rose to be its Director and Head Librarian by 1909. He was knighted for his services in 1912.

In 1891, Kenyon edited the editio princeps of the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens. In 1920, he was appointed president of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. He spent most of his retirement researching and publishing ancient papyri. He died on 23 August 1952.

Kenyon was a noted scholar of ancient languages, and made a life-long study of the Bible, especially the New Testament as an historical text. His book Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (1895) showed how Egyptian papyri and other evidence from archeology can corroborate the narrative of historical events in the Gospel.

- NationMaster Encyclopedia online

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Kenyon on the Papyri

Excerpted from:
Sir Frederic Kenyon,
Director, and Principal Librarian of the British Museum
The Bible and Modern Scholarship (1949)


When we turn to the New Testament the field is narrower in point of time and the subject is mainly the dates and trustworthiness of the books included in it. But here again the general effect of modern criticism and discovery is the same, the refutation of extravagant

Anti-traditional speculations and the re-establishment of the main lines of the tradition with fuller knowledge and on a securer basis. We are concerned more with manuscripts and textural theories than with archaeology, though it should be observed that in many small details, especially in respect of the narrative of St. Pauls’ journey in Acts, modern discovery has again and again established the authors accuracy where critics had been inclined to question it.

Discovery of the NT Papyrii

The main advance has been due to the discovery in Egypt of portions, sometimes small and sometimes substantial, of papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament earlier than those previously known. When the Revised Version of the New Testament was published in 1881, simultaneously with the revised Greek text edited by Westcott and Hort, both were based in the Main on the two great 4th century manuscripts, the Vaticanus (Codex B) and the Sinaiticus (Codex Aleph), of which the latter had been discovered and the former more adequately made known by Tischendorf within the previous twenty years. These manuscripts dated from the very beginning of the period when vellum was adopted as the principal material of book production.

Before that there was a gap, which seemed unlikely to be filled, owing to the perish ability of papyrus, the book material in general use through the Graeco-Roman World.

The Discovery of theChester Beatty papyri:

This gap has been to a great measure filled by discoveries within the present century. Papyrus manuscripts containing documents and literary works in the Greek language first came to light so far back as 1778 but for a century from that date the discoveries were few and sporadic, and (with the exception of thirty two leaves of Psalter written in the 7th century, and therefore of minor importance) had no bearing on the Bible.

It was not until 1877 that any large quantity of documents were brought to light, and it is only since 1891 that a rich supply of works of literature as well as thousands of non-literary documents, began to flow from Egypt to the Libraries and Museums of Europe and America.

Even so there was at first little of Biblical interest. There were portions of Genesis and the Psalter, of the fourth century, and of Zephaniah and Malachi, of the seventh, but of the New Testament nothing but a considerable part of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in a hand of the late third or early fourth century, written on the back of a roll containing an Epitome of Livy. More interesting than this were two fragments, one a leaf from a codex, the other a portion of a roll (both of the third century) of a collection of Sayings of out Lord.

Some of these repeat in varying forms words known to us in the canonical Gospels; one is quoted by Clement of Alexandria as from the Gospel according to the Hebrews; others are new, and generally have a somewhat mystical character, similar to some which are found in early Christian writings, but of which the genuineness can be neither proved nor disproved. They have, however, no bearing on the authenticity or text of the New Testament books.

The first really important discovery of Biblical manuscripts did not appear till 1931. This was a group consisting of portions (sometimes substantial, sometimes small)of eleven codices (i.e. in leaves like a modern book, not rolls) ranging in date from the second to the fourth century and therefore for the most part older then the great vellum codices, the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, which up to then were the oldest extant authorities for the text of the Greek Bible.

The greater part of the find was acquired by Mr. A. Chester Beatty, and they are therefore generally known as the Chester Beatty papyri: but substantial portions also went to the universities of Michigan and Princeton.

The Old Testament Finds:

Of these eleven manuscripts, seven contained portions of Septuagint Version of the Old Testament:

- two of Genesis, one of the third century and the other of the fourth, containing between them the greater part of the book, and all the more valuable because the book is almost wholly lacking in the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus MSS.;

- one with large portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy, of the first half of the second century;

- one of Isaiah, comprising fragments of 33 leaves in a large and fine hand of the third century;

- two small portions of Jeremiah, of the end of the second century;

- fifty leaves (out of a probable total of 1818) of a codex of the first half of the third century, the first half of which contained the book of Ezekiel, and the second (in a different hand) those of Daniel and Esther, the Daniel being particularly important because it contains the original Septuagint text, otherwise known only from one Greek and one Syriac manuscript, the Septuagint translation having been superseded in general use by that of Theodotion;

- and a leaf and a half of a fourth-century codex of Ecclesiasticus.

The New Testament Finds:

Three manuscripts are of the New Testament, among which nearly every book is represented;

- one having originally contained the four Gospels and Acts in a hand which may be assigned to the first half of the third century;

-one contains nearly the whole of the Pauline Epistles (86 leaves out of 104, of which the last five were probably blank), written about A.D. 200;

-and one with the middle third of Revelation of the third century.

-The remaining manuscript in the collection is a non-canonical, containing the latter part of the book of Enoch and a homily by Melito, bishop of Sardis in the second half of the second century, on the Passion.

It will be seen that these manuscripts between them carry back the textual tradition of the New Testament for a full century.

The Gospels and Acts manuscript is very imperfect, consisting of thirty leaves, nearly all incomplete, out of a probable total of 110; but the handwriting is very small, so that, except in the case of St. Matthew, enough is preserved to show clearly the character of the text. This character is highly interesting and important. It is not identical with any of the main families, the Alexandrian (the ‘Neutral’ of Westcott and Hort) or the Western, into which the manuscript evidence has been classified by modern scholars. In Mark it clearly belongs rather to the family which Streeter identified as what used by Origen during his later years at Caesarea, and which is consequently named ‘Caesarean’, though this manuscript strengthens the probability that the origin of this family was in Egypt, whence it may have been carried by Origen himself to Caesarea. In Luke and John the Caesarean text has not been identified, but the Chester Beatty manuscript corresponds to its general character, being intermediate between the Alexandrian and Western types of text, but slightly nearer to the former. In Acts it is distinctly of the Alexandrian type, having a few of the minor variants so noticeable in that book.

In the Pauline Epistles the differences between the two families are less important, but the Chester Beatty MS. Is again definitely, but not invariably, on the Alexandrian side. It is noteworthy that the Epistle to the Hebrews is plainly accepted as Pauline, being placed immediately after Romans, One notable variant is that the doxology to Romans (xvi. 25-27), which in the earlier manuscripts stands at the end of chapter xvi and in the great mass of later manuscripts at the end of chapter xiv, is here placed at the end of chapter xv. It is probable that the manuscripts did not include the Pastoral Epistles, since the five leaves missing at the end would not have sufficed to hold them.

The Revelation papyrus agrees more with the four earliest of the vellum manuscripts than with the later ones, but is not closely attached to any of them.

Significance of the Finds:

The net result of this discovery – by far the most important since the discovery of the Siniaticus – is, in fact, to reduce the gap between the earlier manuscripts and the traditional dates of the New Testament books so far that it becomes negligible in any discussion of their authenticity. No other ancient book has anything like such early and plentiful testimony to its text, and no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound, On the other hand, it is evident that by the end of the second century variants in the minor details of the text were plentiful and widely diffused. It is clear that in the second century there was no general control of the text of the books, which were gradually coming to be recognised as canonical. Manuscripts were copied in all parts of the world without comparison with one another, and often, no doubt, by untrained scribes. Hence mistakes and small variants easily arose and were repeated, and it was only gradually that they were submitted to control and revision. We must therefore accept minor uncertainties as to the details of the text, without pinning our faith wholly to any one of the recognised families; but we have every right to be satisfied of its general integrity and its faithfulness as the record of the earliest Christian writings.

The Chester Beatty papyri have therefore strengthened very materially the basis – already very strong – of our confidence in the text of the New Testament as it has come down to us.

The Rylands Fragments

For the dates and authenticity of the Gospels (a more important point for my present purpose) evidence of an even more striking character has been acquired within the last thirteen years. This is chiefly from a small scrap of papyrus received by the John Rylands Library from Professor Grenfell in 1920, but first identified and published by Mr. C. H. Roberts in 1935.

It is a tiny fragment, measuring only about 3 ½ by 2 ¼ inches, bearing on both sides of it portions of a few verses of the Fourth Gospel, ch. xviii. 31-33, 37, 38; but its importance lies in the fact that papyrological experts agree in assigning the date of its writing to the first half of the second century.

Small therefore as it is, suffices to prove that a manuscript of this Gospel was circulating, presumably in provincial Egypt where it was found, about the period A.D. 130-150. Allowing even a minimum time for the circulation of the work from its place of origin, this would throw back the date of composition so near to the traditional date in the last decade of the first century that there is no longer any reason to question the validity of the tradition.

The Egerton Fragments

And this evidence does not stand alone. In the same year, 1935, Dr. (now Sir) H. I. Bell and Mr,. T. C. Skeat, of the British Museum, published some fragments, purchased the previous year for the Museum, of the three leaves of a papyrus codex, the writing of which can also be ascribed to the first half of the second century. They contain records of incidents in our Lord’s life, apparently forming portions of a Gospel differing from the four canonical books though with strong signs of relation to them. The style is simple and straightforward, without any of the exaggerations or tendentious doctrinal character of the later apocryphal gospels; and its date of origin must be assigned to the first century. The fragments include records of four incidents in our Lord’s life. One of these is otherwise unknown: it is apparently a miracle wrought on the banks of the Jordan, but unfortunately the papyrus is so much mutilated that its exact character is uncertain. Two others report incidents also recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, one being the healing f the leper recorded in Mark i. 40-42, Matthew viii. 2-3, Luke v. 12-13; the other is the testing of our Lord with regard to the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar (Mark xii. 14-15, Matthew xxii. 17-18, Luke xxii. 21-15), but incorporating also Mark vii. 6-7, and Matthew xv. 7-9: “why call ye me with your mouth Master, when ye hear not what I say? Well Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrine the commandments of men.” The language of the Synoptic Gospels is evident here; but in the fourth incident the language of the Fourth Gospel is equally clear. It records a discussion with the rulers of the people, and runs as follows:

“Turning to the rulers of the people he spake this saying: Search (or ye search) the Scriptures, in which ye think that ye have life; these are they which bear witness to me, Think not that I came to accuse you to my Father; there is only that accuseth you, even Moses, on whom ye have set your hope. And when they said, we know well that God spake unto Moses, but as for thee we know not whence thou art, Jesus answered and said unto them, Now is your unbelief accused… And the rulers laid their hands on him that they might take him and hand him over to the multitude: and they could not take him because the hour of his betrayal was not yet come. But he himself, even the Lord, going forth out of their hands, departed from them.”

This is not a continuous excerpt from the Fourth Gospel but it contains phrases from John v. 39, 45, ix. 29, vii. 30, x. 39, in the unmistakable style of that Gospel. It is evident therefore that the writer of this “new Gospel” was aquainted not only with the Synoptic Gospels but with St. John: for the only alternative, that he was using material which was afterwards incorporated in the Fourth Gospel, is highly improbable in view of the very individual style of that Gospel. There is no evidence or probability of a school of “Johannine” writers earlier than the Gospel itself.

Here, therefore, is confirmatory evidence of the existence of the Fourth Gospel by about the end of the first century; and the implications of this evidence are of the first importance. If the Gospel was written before the end of the first century, as seems now to be irrefragably proved, not only are the contentions of Baur, van Manen, and all that school shattered to pieces, but the probability of the authorship of the Apostle St. John seems to be enormously strengthened.

Corroborating Evidence from John

At the end of that Gospel is a certificate (xxi. 24) written evidently by some persons who claimed to speak with authority: “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true”; and this disciple is identified above (verse 20) as “the disciple whom Jesus loved, which also leaned on his heart at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee”. The beloved disciple can only be St. John; for only the Twelve were present on that occasion (Mark xiv. 17), and of the Twelve the three closest to our Lord were Peter, James, and John, and of these three Peter was the interlocutor with the beloved disciple, and James was dead long before the Gospel was written.

Now if the Gospel had been written after the middle of the second century, such a certificate might perhaps be explained away as a forger’s attempt to authenticate his work, comparable with the first-person expressions which appear to identify the apocryphal Gospel of Peter as the work of that Apostle; but if it was written at the end of the first century, When many persons were alive who could confirm or contradict it, such an explanation is impossible.

To say, as Bishop Barnes does in a book which will be mentioned below, that this chapter is a latter addition, is wholly unjustifiable. There is no scrap of evidence to support such an assertion, which assumes that after the book had been circulating for sixty or seventy years, far from the place of its origin, and was already approaching or had already achieved (as we know it had by the time of Irenaeus at latest) general acceptance, some group of men thought it necessary to append to it their certificate of authorship, and succeeded in superseding and causing a complete obliteration of the book as it had been current for two generations. Such a claim, which invents evidence that does not exist and is contrary to obvious probabilities, is surely negligible.

If, then, the Apostle St. John was indeed the author, how much fruitless controversy is cut away! Indeed, one cannot see what interest the hostile critic has in denying the authorship of St. John, when the only alternative is that it is the work of some one else who lived at the same time and was recognised by his contemporaries as having had similar opportunities. Scholars must make their account with the fact that we have in the Fourth Gospel the reminiscences by an eye-witness of facts and discourages, often of a more imitate and private character than the public utterances recorded by the Synoptics which formed the staple material of Christian missionaries, expressed very probably in a style acquired by the evangelist over his length of years, but reflecting a direct knowledge which none of the Synoptics could claim.

Detailed Evidence from the Content of John

On this view the numerous phrases which imply the presence of an eye-witness fall into place, such as the mentions of the names of the speakers in conversation with out Lord. This in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand, where the Synoptics speak of “They” or “The disciples”, the Fourth Gospel specifies “Phillip answered him”, and “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him” (vi. 7, 8). Similarly Simon Peter is named in vi. 69, Thomas in xi. 16, Phillip and Andrew in xii. 21, 22; in the long discourse in chapters xiii – xvi. Peter, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (if this were not the writer, why is he not named?), Peter again, Thomas, Phillip and Judas are mentioned by name; and after the Resurection Thomas, Peter, Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee, the beloved disciple, and again Peter.

Are these to be regarded as attempted dramatisation on the part of a writer in the middle of the second century? Is it not more reasonable to take them at their face value as the recollections of an eye-witness, who has probably often repeated these stories to his hearers? So also with the frequent topographical details: “Bethany beyond Jordan” (i.28), “Aenon near to Salim” (iii. 23), Jacob’s well at Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph (iv, 5), the pool of Bethesda (v. 2), the boats from Tiberias (vi. 23), Solomon’s porch (x. 40), Bethany about fifteen furlongs from Jerusalem (xi. 18), the city called Ephraim in the county near to the wilderness (xi. 54), the brook Cendron (xviii. 1), the place called the Pavement (xix. 13). All this is surely more natural as coming from the personal reminiscences of the writer than as an invention of over a century later and some eighty years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the practical evacuation of Palestine by the Jewish community.

First Century Date for John's Gospel

Whatever may be thought of the argument in respect of the authorship, the combined evidence of the Rylands and New Gospel papyri seems to establish beyond reasonable doubt the first century date of the Fourth Gospel, which carries with it dates farther back in that century for the Synoptic Gospels. This, if recognised, must become a cardinal point in the external history of the earliest Christian documents and the Apostolic Age, the importance of which will become still clearer in the following section. ..."

Conclusion (p. 48)

The present generation is, to a greater extent than is often realised, better placed than its predecessors for applying a sane citicism to the study of the Bible.

It is free alike from the conventional assumptions of the pre-critical age and from the anti-traditional assumptions of the ultra-skeptical school which exhausted itself in the latter part of the 19th century.

It can strike a balance between these extremes. It is in no way bound to assume that the tradition wihch satisfied uncritical generations is exempt from criticism, nor, on the other hand, that the anti-traditional is always to be preferred, even though the bulk of the evidence is on the other side.

Such a view is not merely a reaction against a period of excessive skepticism. It is ballasted by a considerable mass of ascertained fact, the result of archaeological and literary research during the past fifty years. It can therefore approach the evidence from a new and firmer standpoint. It can give tradition its due weight.

It is less free than it was to spin cobwebs out of its own inner consciousness; it has more facts to check them by, and has to form its theories under the salutary consciousness that more facts may at any time come to light to test them.

The attitude of the scholar to tradition has to be rectified. It is not only in the field of Biblical study that the value of tradition has been vindicated in recent years. Classical studies, ...have [also] gone through a phase of exaggerated skepticism, which infected even the naturally more conservative British scholars, and have gradually come back to a healthier estimate of the value of tradition and a saner weighing of probabilities.

Tradition is a bad master, but it is a useful guide, and the scholar must teach himself not to be afraid of it. It is by no means always to be accepted, but it should always be scrutinized with respect; and it should be realised that the early Christian centuries were not wholly credulous, nor deficient in critical ability."

- Sir Frederic Kenyon,
The Bible and Modern Scholarship

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