How We Got The Bible – Part 5; Earliest Fragments and Manuscripts




How We Got the Bible


I’d like to show you an article from a website called “Bible Archeology Report”.  And this article is focused on the earliest known fragments of the written scriptures.  And I’m just going to go ahead and copy and paste the article here, so that you can read it for yourself.


The Earliest New Testament Manuscripts

All of the books of the New Testament were written within a lifetime of the death of Jesus of Nazareth.  Not so the so-called “other gospels,” which were pseudepigraphical Gnostic works written 100-300 years later.  To date we have over 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, with an astounding 2.6 million pages of biblical text. While some of these manuscripts are small and fragmentary, the average size of a New Testament manuscript is 450 pages.2 Add to this the ancient manuscripts in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, etc. which number in the tens of thousands,3 and you realize that there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to New Testament manuscripts.  No other ancient text can compare with the New Testament when it comes to the sheer volume of manuscripts, nor when we consider how close the earliest manuscripts are to the originals.

So what are the earliest known fragments of the New Testament scriptures?


Papayri P90 and P104

P90 (P. Oxy. 3523) comes from an ancient codex of the gospel of John and dates to the second century. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society (London) and the Oxyrhynchus Imaging Project (Oxford). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Housed in the Sackler Library Papyrology Room at the University of Oxford, England are two of the earliest New Testament manuscripts.

  • P90 (P. Oxy. 3523), is a small fragment of papyrus with portions of the Gospel of  John 18:36 thru 19:7, on both sides in Greek.  It has been dated paleographically to the second century A.D.4    This text is part of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, a group of  manuscripts discovered in the ancient garbage dump near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.
  • Papayrus P104 (P. Oxy. 4404) is a second-century papyrus fragment that contains  Matt. 21:34-37  on the front, and traces of  verses 43 and 45  on the back.5   This manuscript is 6.35 cm by 9.5cm in size.   (1 cen = .39 in)

Scholars date the writing of Matthew’s gospel to the late 50’s or early 60’s in the first century.  This is due in part to a comment by the church father Irenaeus (E-ra-na’-us)  that “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.”6



Now I want to say something about this comment by Irenaeus.  The Catholics regard Irenaeus as a very respected “church father”.   And of course they consider several other early Christian writers to be just as respected, and absolutely integral to the Catholic faith.  And this is because, as the Catholics believe and embrace and teach, that what they call “church tradition” is equal to, if not stronger than the scriptures.  And if you were to suggest to a Catholic, that it is ONLY the scriptures that we are to adhere to, they will call you a heretic, and denounce anything that you say.  And so when a Catholic reads the words of someone like Irena’us, they consider that to be a binding teaching just like scrpiture.

And so one of the things that Catholic tradition teaches, and something that is integral to the entire Catholic religion, is that it was the joint  decision of Peter and Paul, to move the “headquarters” of the church, from Jerusalem to Rome.  Now that statement from Irenaeus doesn’t actually say, that Peter and Paul made Rome, the “headquarters” for the church.  All the statement really says is that Peter and Paul were “laying the foundations of the Church.”   And the fact is, WHEREVER the apostles went and preached the gospel, they were “laying the foundation” for the church.  They laid the foundation in Jerusalem first, then in all Judea, and in Samaria, Damascus, and in Antioch, and Ephesus, and Galatia, and Thessalonica, and everywhere they went.  And so simply stating that the apostles were “laying the foundation for the assembly of the saved, has nothing to do with making one city or another, a “headquarters” for Christianity.


Now, as anyone who is knowledgeable about the bible should know, the bible NEVER speaks of a “headquarters” for the kingdom of Christ.  There is no “headquarters” for the “church”, on this earth.

While it is a fact that some of the apostles came together for a special meeting in Jerusalem, (and this is commonly referred to as  “The council at Jerusalem”, and it’s recorded in  Acts chapter 15), the purpose being to make certain decisions pertaining to what was required of Gentile converts, in order to be considered “God’s children”, there is absolutely no mention nor indication, that Jerusalem or anywhere else was ever considered to be a “headquarters” for the such meetings, or for Christianity in general, or for the “church”.  The gospel was first preached at Jerusalem, because it was prophesied that salvation would come from Zion.  And Zion of course refers to Jerusalem.

For example,  Isaiah 46:13  says;  “I bring near my righteousness;  It is not far off, and My salvation will not delay;  I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.”     And so while salvation through Christ, and thus Christianity, came from Jerusalem, God in His word never makes the claim that Jerusalem was ordained to be a “headquarters” of Christianity.

As a matter of fact, the questions that were being considered at that meeting, were questions and differences that had come to a head, among the Christians in the city of Antioch, which had become one of the largest centers for Christianity, with one of the largest concentrations of Christians anywhere at that time.  And the reason for that, is because Antioch had the largest concentration of Jews living there, of any of the surrounding areas, and so it was only natural that a lot of evangelical efforts were conducted in Antioch, resulting in the conversion of such a high number of Jews to Christianity.  But of course with that strong Jewish influence, it’s not surprising that many of the Jewish converts had a tendency to still rely heavily on the law of Moses, not quite understanding, that it was the new covenant alone, which now governed all people, Jew or Gentile.  Therefore, to claim that Peter and Paul together decided to change the “headquarters” from Jerusalem to Rome, I believe is preposterous, no matter what any un-inspired writer may have thought, even if he lived in the second century.


Jesus Christ is the “head” of the body of Christians.  Colossians 1:18   says;  “And He is the head of the body, the ekklesia..”    And Jesus Christ is the king of His kingdom.   Revelation 19:16  says;  “On His robe and on His thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”   But His kingdom does NOT have an earthly headquarters.    Jesus said in   John 18:36;  “My kingdom is not of this world..  My kingdom is not of this realm.”   And since His kingdom is not even OF this world, why on earth would anyone think that such a kingdom would have an earthly headquarters?  It doesn’t even make any sense!

So then where does Christ the King reign from?   Well obviously, He reigns from heaven!   Jesus told His apostles, in  John 14, verse 12;  “..I go unto my Father.   Acts 1, verse 9  tells us;  “And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight.”  Jesus ascended back to heaven.  

And  Romans 8:34  says;  “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, (that means He is the power of God)  who indeed is interceding for us.”   Jesus Christ reigns from heaven, and so you could say that  heaven, is the “headquarters” for all of Christianity.   But once again, there simply is no headquarters anywhere on this earth!


Back to the article.. 

John’s gospel is dated to the late first century, after the composition of the other gospels.  Again, Irenaeus, writing near the end of the second century states, “Afterward, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”7 Early church history records that John lived the final years of his life in Ephesus, dying as an old man sometime near the end of the first century.  This means that these two manuscripts date to within 100-150 years of the original autographs.

For comparison, Pliny the Elder wrote his encyclopedia, called “Natural History”, in the first century (about 77 AD is the estimated year)  and the earliest manuscript we have, is from the 5th century – a gap of about 400 years.8    

(And in case you’re curious, the full name of Pliny the elder, was Gaius Plinius Secundus.  And the the word “elder” is simply used to differentiate this man from his younger nephew who was also named Plinius.  Pliny was not a Christian, but was a Roman author/historian, and a naturalist, and a philosopher, and a Roman navy and army commander.  And he is said to have died in the year 79 AD, at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in southern Italy.)


Papyrus P98

Papyrus P98 comes from an ancient scroll and contains the earliest manuscript of the book of Revelation. 

Papyrus P98 (P. IFAO inv. 237b [+a]) is a manuscript fragment that contains verses from the first chapter of the book of Revelation.  It was copied circa A.D. 100-200, likely in Egypt.9   The manuscript was first published by Guy Wagner in 1971, who dated it to the second century.  He did not recognize that it was a biblical text, however, and it wasn’t until 20 years later that Dieter Hagedorn identified it as coming from  Rev. 1:13-20.   The manuscript is in the collection of  L’Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Cairo, Egypt.

In about A.D. 185, Irenaus wrote that the book of revelation was composed, “almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.”10 Domitian reigned from A.D. 81-96, which is one of the reasons many scholars believe the book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John sometime in the 90’s.  Thus, P98 was likely copied within about 100 years of the original autograph.


Papyrus P52

The John Rylands Library Papyrus P52 (recto) contains parts of John 18:31-33.  It is the earliest New Testament manuscript discovered to date.  Photo Credit: JRUL / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The earliest and most famous Greek New Testament manuscript is the Ryland Papyrus P52, currently on display at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, UK.  It was purchased in 1920 by Bernard Grenfell on the Egyptian antiquities market.  However, it wasn’t really “discovered” until 1934 when it was translated by C. H. Roberts.  Three of the leading papyrologists in Europe to whom Roberts sent photos of the fragment to, dated it from A.D. 100-150, although most scholars today would use a wider date range of the second century in general.  P52 comes from a codex (ie. book form, not a scroll)  (And I might add that a lot of people don’t think that the scriptures were put together in “book form”, until maybe centuries later.  But here we have fragment from an actual book, dated somewhere in the second century..)   It contains parts of seven lines from  John 18:31–33  on the front, and parts of seven lines from verses 37–38 on the back.


the Jews, “For us it is not permitted to kill
anyone,” so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he sp-
oke signifying what kind of death he was going to
die. Entered therefore again into the Praeto-
rium Pilate and summoned Jesus
and said to him, “Thou art king of the


a King I am. For this I have been born
and (for this) I have come into the world so that I would
testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth
hears of me my voice.” Said to him
Pilate, “What is truth?” and this
having said, again he went out unto the Jews
and said to them, “I find not one
fault in him.”11

As mentioned above, the Apostle John likely wrote his gospel sometime late in the first century.  This means that P52, the earliest New Testament manuscript, was likely copied within 100 years or so of the original.  Moreover, since the manuscript was discovered in Egypt, a significant distance away from Ephesus where the gospel was originally written, we can see that the text of the Bible was being copied and widely circulated already in the second century A.D.


Other Possible Second Century Manuscripts

In addition to the above four manuscripts which were copied sometime between A.D. 100-200, there are another group of manuscripts that may date to the second century as well (usually listed as dating from the 2nd – 3rd centuries).  These are led by the recently published Papyrus P137 (P. Oxy. 5345), the manuscript formerly known as “First-century Mark.”  After six years of rumors, it was finally published in 2018 by Oxford papyrologists Daniela Colomo and Dirk Obbink, who dated it paleographically to A.D. 150-250.12  While not the first-century manuscript that some were anticipating, it is nonetheless the earliest copy of the gospel of Mark in existence.

According to the database maintained by the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (, there are six other manuscripts that are also dated to the 2nd or 3rd centuries.


Manuscript Contents Language Date
Papyrus P32 Titus Greek 2nd-3rd Century
Papyrus P46 Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews Greek 2nd-early 3rd Century
Papyrus P66 Gospel of John Greek 2nd-3rd Century
Papyrus P77 Gospel of Matthew Greek 2nd-3rd Century
Papyrus P103 Gospel of Matthew Greek 2nd-3rd Century
Majuscule GA0189 Acts of the Apostles Greek 2nd-3rd Century


This brings the total number of possible second-century New Testament manuscripts to 11.  These 11 manuscripts, and in particular, the four that are securely dated to the second century, are important links in chain connecting the Bible we read today to the original text of the New Testament.









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