On 1 February 2012, I debated Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill on whether we have the wording of the original New Testament today. This was our third such debate, and it was before a crowd of more than 1000 people. I mentioned that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered—six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. These fragments will be published in about a year.Very interesting, although as others have already pointed out, paleographic analysis generally can't pinpoint a date more precisely than about a fifty-year range at best. That means that if we start with the generally accepted date of composition for Mark of 70 CE, we would be hard-pressed to distinguish a late first century script from one from the early second century, especially if the sample is small. Which, of course, would be impressive enough.
These fragments now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, more than 43% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. But the most interesting thing is the first-century fragment.
It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934.
Not only this, but the first-century fragment is from Mark’s Gospel. Before the discovery of this fragment, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. AD 200–250). This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years.
But I maintain an open mind about the precision of the dating until the manuscript is published and numerous Greek paleographers have been able to evaluate it. Meanwhile, I am still baffled as to why "one of the world’s leading paleographers" would be happy to have his "certain" paleographic judgment made public, but would be unwilling to attach his name to it. Come on, who is he? I double dare him to come forward.
(Via John Byron's The Biblical World blog.)
Background here and links.
UPDATE (13 February): Peter Williams has a post on this new information at ETC: First century Mark fragment and extensive papyrus/i? And a number of textual critics weigh in with comments.