EYEWITNESSES TO JESUS?

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IS IT, AS SOME CLAIM, THE most important breakthrough in biblical research since the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Or is it merely a scholar's overhyped 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 rarefied 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 secondhand account of Evangelists who were separated by decades from the Jesus of history. Instead, it reflects eyewitness testimony by near contemporaries of the carpenter from Nazareth.

Inevitably, Thiede's thesis has been sharply criticized by other experts who question both his credentials as a papyrologist and his methodology. Says Klaus Wachtel of the Institute for New Testament Exegesis at the University of Munster: "Thiede's paleographic arguments for an early dating are demonstrably untenable." The British scholar Graham Stanton insists that "the case for a first-century date does not stand up to scrutiny."

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; $23.95), 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 a style known as uncial, which began to die out in the middle of the 1st century. A second clue to the manuscript's origins is its format. The three fragments are from a codex, a primitive kind of book in which writing is found on both sides of the papyrus. (On a scroll, by contrast, only one side is used.) Contrary to the views of most biblical scholars, Thiede argues that codices were widely used by 1st century Christians, since they were easier to handle than 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 Thiede's opinion, recent research has established that a papyrus fragment of Luke in a Paris library was written between A.D. 63 and A.D. 67.

Thiede believes his early dating thesis will force New Testament scholars to re-examine their assumptions about the Gospels. Instead of being theological constructs about the Christ of Faith, written long after the events they record, the Evangels need to be seen as authentic biographies, based on eyewitness accounts. "For nonbelievers, [the early dating theory] may mean nothing," says Thiede, who is an observant Anglican. "Certainly these findings are not going to force anybody to become a Christian. But the testimony of eyewitnesses of Jesus' generation does make [the Gospel] more credible, at least as a historical account."

Critics respond that Thiede has vastly exaggerated the significance of his early dating theory. Since some, although not all, scholars believe Matthew may have been written around A.D. 80, what real difference does a marginally earlier date make? As for the accuracy of eyewitnesses,

J. Keith Lincoln of Leeds University points out, "Just because the [writers] are bystanders and observers doesn't mean they are getting the correct view. In some cases, a period of reflection and discussion might end up with a better and more historical document."

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." Apparently the age-old battle over the truth of Scripture, far from being over, has just begun.