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s it, as some claim the most important breakthrough in biblical research since the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Or is it hyped thesis, unsupported by solid evidence? These questions swirl about three tiny fragments of papyrus at Oxford University known collectively as the Magdalen Papyrus. Ragged-edged and dun-colored, they contain snippets of three passages from Chapter 26 of St. Matthew's Gospel in Greek script. for more than 90 years, the papyrus scraps had been housed at the library of Magdalen College, the gift of an obscure British chaplain who bought them at an antiquities market in Luxor, Egypt.
Specialists had long assumed that the Magdalen Papyrus was written sometime in the mid-to-late 2nd century A.D. Now, however, German papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede has startled the rarified world of biblical scholarship by arguing that the papyruses are actually the oldest extant fragments of the New Testament, dating from about A.D. 70. Thiede's thesis, if correct means St Matthew's Gospel, as well as Mark's(on which it is based, in part), is not the second hand account of Evangelists who were separated by decades from the Jesus of history. Instead, it reflects eyewitness testimony by near contemporaries of the carpenter of Nazareth.
Amplifying a learned article that he published in 1995, Thiede has marshaled his arguments in a new book called Eyewitness to Jesus (Doubleday; 206 pages), written with Matthew d'Ancona, a deputy editor and political columnist at London's Sunday Telegraph. As evidence of the fragments' early origins, Thiede notes that the handwriting on the Magdalen Papyrus is in style known as uncial, which began to die out in the middle 1st century. A second clue to the manuscript's origins is it's format. The three fragments are from a codex, a primitive kind of book in which writing was found on both side of the papyrus.(On a scroll, by contrast , only one side is used.) Thiede argues that the codices were widely used by 1st century Christians, since they were easier to handle than the scrolls.
One of Thiede's findings has intriguing implications. In three places on the Magdalen Papyrus, the name of Jesus is written as KS, an abbreviation of the Greek word Kyrios, or Lord. Thiede contends that this shorthand is proof that early Christians considered Jesus a nomen sacrum (sacred name), much the way devout Jews emphasized the holiness of God's name by shortening it to the tetragrammaton YHWH. Thus the perception of Jesus as divine was not a later development of Christian faith but a firm belief of the early church.
New papyrus discoveries, Thiede believes, will eventually prove that all four Gospels, even the problematic one ascribed to John, were written before A.D. 80 rather than during the mid-2nd century. He argues that a scroll fragment unearthed at the Essene community of Qumran in 1972 almost certainly contains a passage from Mark's Gospel and can be accurately dated to A.D. 68. In Theide's opinion, recent research of Luke in a Paris library was written between A.D. 63 and A.D. 67.
To Thiede, any evidence that the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony matters a great deal. As he writes, if the Gospels are more authentic than we thought, then perhaps the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is not as great as academics have claimed and Christians feared.