Posted by: BibleScienceGuy | March 5, 2008

2. Early Date for Matthew

Magdalen Papyrus Fragments

Magdalen Papyrus Fragments
Front and back views.
From Magdalen College, Oxford

Why do 2000-year-old papyrus fragments rank among the most important documents in the world? It is because they show a very early date for the Gospel of Matthew!

This continues the story of the Magdalen Papyrus and its significance for the authenticity of the Gospel of Matthew that was begun in the previous post 1. Eyewitness to Jesus.

I have long been convinced that Matthew was the first gospel written. This accords with the universal belief of the church in the primacy of Matthew prior to the ascendancy of form criticism in the 19th-century.

Today most scholars disagree that Matthew was first, but one important indicator is that the early church placed Matthew first in the New Testament canon.

A second crucial clue is the testimony of church fathers Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome that Matthew wrote his gospel first. They say he wrote it in Hebrew (Aramaic) before translating it into Greek.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Magdalen College

Eyewitness to Jesus convincingly argues for a very early date for Matthew. Thiede’s and D’Ancona’s captivating book details the discovery, study, and significance of three small fragments of Matthew — what is now called the Magdalen Papyrus.

The Magdalen Papyrus supports the historical tradition of the early church that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew himself within a generation of Jesus’ death. The authors of Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin of the Gospels argue that Matthew is the earliest Gospel, an eyewitness account of Jesus’ life written by one of his disciples.

British papyrologist Arthur S. Hunt

Arthur Hunt

Charles Huleatt (1863-1908) purchased the three small fragments of Matthew pictured above in 1901 in the Egyptian antiquities market in Luxor. He donated them to his alma mater, Magdalen College of Oxford University. Huleatt was a British scholar and evangelical missionary to Egypt who died with his family in the Messina, Italy, earthquake of 1908.

At the time they were donated by Huleatt, the manuscript fragments were dated to the 4th century by Oxford scholars Arthur Hunt and Bernard Grenfell. Their basis for the 4th century date was the observation that the 3 fragments had writing on both sides and were therefore from a codex instead of from a scroll. (A codex is a book style manuscript.)

British egyptologist Bernard P. Grenfell

Bernard Grenfell

It was erroneously believed at that time (1901) that codices did not come into use until at least the 3rd and more likely the 4th century AD. Thereafter the fragments lay in obscurity in a library display case where they were mostly ignored for nearly a century.

In 1953 the Magdalen Papyrus fragments were briefly analyzed and re-dated to the late 2nd century by British papyrologist Colin Roberts. He based his conclusion on comparison with other papyri collections. This conclusion was at best relative, since these other collections were themselves not definitively dated.

Would you like to make liberal critics of the New Testament wake up at night in a cold sweat? This is what Dr. Carsten Peter Thiede did. In 1994 he spotted these papyri fragments in a butterfly display case at Magdalen College while on vacation. He immediately dived into a thorough investigation. His study led him to re-date the Magdalen Papyrus to around 60 AD.

Soli Deo Gloria.

This is the second blog post of the Eyewitness to Jesus series explaining Thiede’s argument that the Madgalen Papyrus shows the Gospel of Matthew is an eyewitness account.
Read the prequel:
1. Eyewitness to Jesus

What was the key to re-dating the fragments? This is what I’ll look at in the next post of this series.
Read the sequel:
3. Forensic Evidence

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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Wednesday March 5, 2008 A.D.

For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
(2 Peter 1:16)


  1. Although it would be great if this was true, biblical scholarship has generally disagreed with Thiede. Here is an article that deals with this issue:


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