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{{New Testament manuscript infobox
form = Papyrus
number = \mathfrak{P}52
image =
isize =
name =
text = John 18:31–33, 37–38
script = Greek
date = c. 125
found = Egyptmarker
now at = John Rylands Librarymarker
cite = C. H. Roberts, "An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library" (Manchester, 1935)
size = fragment
type = not ascertainable
cat = I
hand =
note =}}

John Rylands Library Papyrus P52, recto
John Rylands Library Papyrus P52, verso
The Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St John's fragment, is a fragment from a papyrus codex, measuring only 3.5 by 2.5 inches (8.9 by 6 cm) at its widest; and conserved with the Rylands Papyri at the John Rylands University Librarymarker (Gr. P. 457), Manchestermarker, UKmarker. The front (recto) contains lines from the Gospel of John 18:31–33, in Greek, and the back (verso) contains lines from verses 37–38. Since 2007, the papyrus has been on permanent display in the library'smarker Deansgate building.

Although Rylands \mathfrak{P}52 is generally accepted as the earliest extant record of a canonical New Testament text, the dating of the papyrus is by no means the subject of consensus among critical scholars. The style of the script is strongly Hadrianic, which would suggest a most probable date somewhere between 117 CE and 138 CE. But the difficulty of fixing the date of a fragment based solely on paleographic evidence allows a much wider range, potentially extending from before 100 CE past 150 CE.

The fragment of papyrus was among a group acquired on the Egyptian market in 1920 by Bernard Grenfell. The original transcription and translation of the fragment of text was not done until 1934, by Colin H. Roberts. Roberts found comparator hands in papyri then dated between the mid first and mid second centuries, with the closest match of Hadrianic date. Since this gospel text would be unlikely to have reached Egypt before circa 100 CE he proposed a date in the first half of the second century. Over the 70 years since Roberts' essay, the estimated ages of his comparator literary hands have been revised (in common with most other undated antique papyri) towards dates a couple of decades older; while other comparator hands have subsequently been discovered with possible dates ranging into the second half of the second century.

Greek text

The papyrus is written on both sides, and the surviving portion also includes part of the top and inner margins of the page. The characters in bold style are the ones that can be seen in Papyrus \mathfrak{P}52.

Gospel of John 18:31-33 (recto)

Gospel of John 18:37-38 (verso)

There appears insufficient room for the repeated phrase (ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ) in the second line of the verso, and it is suggested that these words were inadvertently dropped through haplography.

The writing is generously scaled – letter forms vary between 0.3 and 0.4 cm in height, lines are spaced approximately 0.5 cm apart, and there is a margin of 2 cm at the top. C.H. Roberts commented; ".. to judge from the spacing and the size of the text, it is unlikely that the format was affected by considerations of economy". This is consistent with the manuscript being intended for public reading. If the original codex did indeed contain the entire text of the canonical Gospel of John, it would have constituted a single quire book of around 130 pages (i.e. 33 large folded papyrus sheets written on both sides); measuring approximately 21 by 20 cm when closed. Roberts noted a glued vertical join in the papyrus slightly inside the inner margin and visible on the verso, indicating that the large sheets used for the codex were likely to have been specially prepared for the purpose, each having been constructed from two standard sized sheets measuring approximately 21 cm by 16 cm, with a central narrower sheet approximately 21 cm by 8 cm constituting the spine. Roberts describes the handwriting as "heavy, rounded and rather elaborate", but nevertheless not the work of "a practised scribe" (i.e. not a professional bookhand). Roberts notes comments that had recently been made by the editors of the Egerton Gospel; and says similarly it could be said of \mathfrak{P}52 that it "has a somewhat informal air about it and with no claims to fine writing is yet a careful piece of work".

A total of 112 legible letters are visible on the two sides of the fragment, representing 18 out of the 24 letters of the Greek Alphabet; beta, zeta, xi, phi, chi, and psi being missing. Roberts noted that the writing is painstaking and rather laboured, with individual letters apparently inked twice (e.g. sigma at line 3 of the recto); and that several letters are inclined to stray away from the notional upper and lower writing lines. One peculiarity is that there are two distinct forms of the letter alpha; most being formed from a separate diagonal stroke and loop, but on the fourth line of the verso, there is an alpha formed by single spiralling loop. These observations support the supposition that the scribe was an educated person writing carefully, rather than a professional scribe writing to order.

In 1977, Roberts surveyed fourteen Christian papyri, comprising all the Christian manuscripts then commonly assessed as possibly having a second century date - and including \mathfrak{P}52. He considered only three of these texts to have a calligraphic bookhand, such as was then standard in formal manuscripts of Greek literature, or in most Graeco-Jewish biblical scrolls. Of the other eleven, including \mathfrak{P}52, he states that their scribes were:

It may be added that the codex of \mathfrak{P}52, with its good quality papyrus, wide margins, large clear upright letters, short lines, and bilinear writing, would have presented an overall appearance not far from that of professionally written books such as \mathfrak{P}64 or \mathfrak{P}77, even though its actual letter forms are not as fine, and are closer to documentary exemplars.


The significance of \mathfrak{P}52 rests both upon its proposed early dating and upon its geographic dispersal from the presumed site of authorship; traditionally thought to have been Ephesusmarker. As the fragment is removed from the autograph by at least one step of transmission, the date of authorship for the Gospel of John must be at least a few years prior to the dating of \mathfrak{P}52. The location of the fragment in Egypt extends that time even further, allowing for the dispersal of the documents from the point of authorship and transmission to the point of discovery. The Gospel of John is perhaps quoted by Justin Martyr, and hence is highly likely to have been written before circa 160 CE; but many New Testament scholars have argued from the proposed dating of \mathfrak{P}52 prior to this, that this Gospel must have been written earlier still – indeed not much later than the traditionally accepted date of circa 90 CE, or even before that.

Skepticism about the use of \mathfrak{P}52 to date the Gospel of John (not about the fragment's authenticity) is based on two issues. First, the papyrus has been rather narrowly dated based on the handwriting alone, without the support of textual evidence. Secondly, in common with every other surviving early Gospel manuscript, this fragment is not from a scroll but from a codex; a sewn and folded book not a roll. If it dates to the first half of the second century, this fragment would be amongst the earlier surviving examples of a literary codex (around 90 CE, Martial circulated his poems in codex form, presenting this as a novelty). The year before Roberts published \mathfrak{P}52, the British Museummarker library had acquired papyrus fragments of the Egerton Gospel (also a codex), and these were published in 1935. Since the text of \mathfrak{P}52 is that of the canonical Gospel of John, whereas the Egerton Gospel is not, there was considerable interest amongst biblical scholars as to whether \mathfrak{P}52 could be dated as the earlier of the two papyri.

\mathfrak{P}52 is a literary text and, in common with almost all such papyri, has no explicit indicator of date. Proposing a date for it, required comparison with dated texts; which tend to be documentary (contracts, petitions, letters) and, unlike \mathfrak{P}52, are often the work of professional scribes. Roberts proposed four dated papyri as close comparitors: Abb 34 (ca. 110-117 CE), P. Fayum 110 (94 CE), P. London 2078 (81-96 CE), and P. Oslo 22 (127 CE). Of these, P. Fayum 110 is the only one that shares the characteristic dual form of alpha found in \mathfrak{P}52; while P. Oslo 22 is most similar in some of the more distinctive letter forms, e.g. eta, mu and iota. Roberts also suggested two literary texts as comparitors; P. Berol. 6845 (a fragment of the Iliad estimated to date around 100 CE) which he suggested that, other than in the form of the letter alpha, was "the closest parallel to our text that I have been able to find"; and the Egerton Gospel itself (then estimated to date around 150 CE), which he stated had "most of the characteristics of our hand.. though in a less accentuated form". Roberts circulated his assessment to three fellow paleographers; Frederic G. Kenyon, W. Shubart and HI Bell; who all concurred with his dating of \mathfrak{P}52 in the first half of the second century. Kenyon suggested another dated comparitor in P. Flor I (153 CE); but Roberts did not consider the similarity to be very close, other than for particular letters, as the overall style of that hand was cursive. In the same year 1935, Roberts assessment of date was supported by the independent studies of A, Deissmann, who, while producing no actual evidence, suggested a date in the reigns of Trajan (98-117) or Hadrian (117-138) ; and in 1936 this dating was supported by Ulrich Wilcken, on the basis of a comparison between the hand of P52 and those of papyri in the extensive Apollonius archive (dated 113-120).

Subsequently, a number of other comparitor papyri have been suggested, notably P.Oxy. 2533, where a literary text dated to the early 2nd century in a hand very close to \mathfrak{P}52, has been written on the back of a re-used document in a late 1st century business hand. In addition, the discovery of several other papyrus codices of the early 2nd century, suggested that this form of book was less unusual for literary texts at this date than had previously been assumed. Consequently, until the 1990s, the tendency was to suggest a date for \mathfrak{P}52 towards the earlier half of the range suggested by Roberts and his correspondents. However, a cautionary note was raised by the discovery that a papyrus fragment in Cologne constitutes part of the Egerton Gospel. In this fragment the letters gamma and kappa are separated by an apostrophe, a feature very rare in dated 2nd century papyri; which accordingly implies a date for the Egerton Gospel closer to 200 CE - and indicates the perils of ascribing a date for a papyrus text, of which only a small part of two pages survives.

In recent years the early date for \mathfrak{P}52 favoured by many New Testament scholars has been challenged by Andreas Schmidt, who favours a date around 170 AD, plus or minus twenty-five years; on the basis of a comparison with Chester Beatty Papyrus X and with the redated Egerton Gospel. Brent Nongbri has criticized all attempts to establish a paleographic date for papyri like \mathfrak{P}52 within such narrow ranges. Nongbri collected and published a wide range of dated comparitor manuscripts; demonstrating that, although there are plentiful examples of hands similar to that of \mathfrak{P}52 in the early 2nd century, two later dated papyri also had similar hands (P. Mich. inv. 5336, dated to 152 CE; and P.Amh. 2.78, an example first suggested by E.G. Turner, that dates to 184 CE). Nongbri suggested that this implied that older styles of handwriting might persist much longer than some scholars had assumed, and that a prudent margin of error must allow a still wider range of possible dates for the papyrus:

{{quote|What emerges from this survey is nothing surprising to papyrologists: paleography is not the most effective method for dating texts, particularly those written in a literary hand. Roberts himself noted this point in his edition of \mathfrak{P}52. The real problem is the way scholars of the New Testament have used and abused papyrological evidence. I have not radically revised Roberts's work. I have not provided any third-century documentary papyri that are absolute "dead ringers" for the handwriting of \mathfrak{P}52, and even had I done so, that would not force us to date P52 at some exact point in the third century. Paleographic evidence does not work that way. What I have done is to show that any serious consideration of the window of possible dates for P52 must include dates in the later second and early third centuries. Thus, P52 cannot be used as evidence to silence other debates about the existence (or non-existence) of the Gospel of John in the first half of the second century. Only a papyrus containing an explicit date or one found in a clear archaeological stratigraphic context could do the work scholars want P52 to do. As it stands now, the papyrological evidence should take a second place to other forms of evidence in addressing debates about the dating of the Fourth Gospel.}}

Nevertheless, most biblical scholars continue to favour the earlier dating notwithstanding Nongbri's caution, even though the possibility of a later date cannot be entirely discounted; such that John Rylands Library continue to maintain Roberts's assessment of the date of \mathfrak{P}52, that it "may with some confidence be dated in the first half of the second century A.D.", and the date is given as c. 125 in standard reference works.

Text Critical Significance

If the early dating of the papyrus is in fact correct, then the fact that the fragment is from a codex rather than a scroll would testify to the very early adoption of this mode of writing amongst Christians, in stark contrast to the invariable practice of contemporary Judaism. Furthermore, an assessment of the length of 'missing' text between the recto and verso readings corresponds with that in the counterpart canonical Gospel of John; and hence confirms that there are unlikely to have been substantial additions or deletions in this whole portion. Other than in the possible omission of the second ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ from line 2 of the verso, \mathfrak{P}52 agrees with the known text. In lines 4 and 5 of the recto the reconstructed text reads ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΡΑΙΤΩΡΙΟΝ in agreement with \mathfrak{P}66 and with the Codex Vaticanus whereas the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus and the Majority Text all have the alternative word order; ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΡΑΙΤΩΡΙΟΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ, but this is scarcely a significant variant. Since this fragment is small – about nine by six centimeters – it cannot be stated that it comes from a full copy of the John that we know; but it may be presumed that the original text must have been of near full gospel length to be worth the extra care and time required in writing in codex form.

\mathfrak{P}52 is small, and although a plausible reconstruction can be attempted for most of the fourteen lines represented, nevertheless the proportion of the text of the Gospel of John for which it provides a direct witness is necessarily limited, so it is rarely cited in textual debate. There has however, been some contention as to whether the name ΙΗΣΟΥ (Jesus) in the 'missing' portions of recto lines 2 and 5 was originally written as nomina sacra; and hence contracted to ΙΣ or ΙΗΣ in accordance with otherwise universal Christian practice in surviving early Gospel manuscripts, including the Egerton Gospel. Roberts originally considered that the divine name was more likely to have been spelled out in full; but later changed his mind, and this is also the view of Larry. W. Hurtado; with C.M. Tuckett maintaining Roberts' original opinion. The verses included in \mathfrak{P}52 are also witnessed in Bodmer Papyrus \mathfrak{P}66 – usually dated to the beginning of the 3rd century CE – but, in the amount of text preserved, it has not proved possible to determine whether \mathfrak{P}52 represents an example of the same proto-Alexandrian text-type. Aland described it as a "Normal text", and placed it in Category I (because of its age).

See also


  1. Kurt und Barbara Aland, Der Text des Neuen Testaments. Einführung in die wissenschaftlichen Ausgaben sowie in Theorie und Praxis der modernen Textkritik. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart 1989, S. 109. ISBN 3-438-06011-6
  2. See 7Q5 for an alternate candidate.
  3. The papyrus may have come surreptitiously from Oxyrhyncus.
  4. Roberts, “An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library XX, 1936:45-55.
  5. For the date of the text, see Gospel of John.
  6. Deissmann, Adolf. "Ein Evangelienblatt aus den Tagen Hadrians." Deutsche allgemeine Zeitung 564
  7. A. Schmidt, "Zwei Anmerkungen zu P. Ryl. III 457," Archiv für Papyrusforschung 35 (1989:11–12).
  8. Nongbri, p. 48.
  9. John Rylands Library
  10. Tuckett 2001:544; New Testaments Manuscripts: Papyri; "The oldest New Testament: P52".


  • Hurtado, Larry W. (2003) "P52 (P.Rylands Gr 457) and the Nomina Sacra; Method and Probability." Tynedale Bulletin 54.1.
  • Nongbri, Brent (2005) "The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel." Harvard Theological Review 98:23-52.
  • Roberts, C. H. (1936) "An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 20:45-55.
  • Roberts, C. H. (1979) Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt, OUP.
  • Schnelle, Udo (1998) The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings.
  • Tuckett, Christopher M. (2001) "P52 and Nomina Sacra." New Testament Studies 47:544-48.

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