It is strange to find myself ranged against a scholar whose work I so admire. You are one of a handful of academics who have brought to life the complex subject of the historic Jesus and made it accessible to laymen such as myself. But on the significance of the Magdalen fragments -the three papyrus fragments of St Matthew’s Gospel owned by Magdalen College, Oxford-we find ourselves at odds.
Let me set out the story so far, as I see it. In December 1994, I wrote a story in The Times about the fragments which had been spectacularly re-dated to the third quarter of the 1st century AD by Carsten Thiede, the distinguished German papyrologist (with whom I have since written a book on the subject). The three scraps, which bear a handful of verses from chapter 26 of the Gospel, had previously been dated to the 2nd century. But fresh analysis of the handwriting suggested they are old enough to have been handled by one of the “500 brothers and sisters” who saw the resurrected Christ.
The implications of this are awe-inspiring. St Matthew is generally believed to have been written late in the 1st century and to be the folkloric creation of early Christians. It is thought to proclaim a “kerygma” or theological message, not an historical one. But if (as we claim) a copy of St Matthew was already circulating by the mid-60s AD, this view will have to be revised.
The idea that the Gospel according to St Matthew was a personal recollection, written by a contemporary or near contemporary of Jesus, can no longer be dismissed as fundamentalist nonsense. It can no longer be taken for granted that the Gospels are merely a collection of stylised myths compiled to suit the needs of the primitive church.
There are two aspects to this debate. First, there is the technical argument. Could Christians have adopted the codex (book) format, of which the Magdalen papyrus is an early example, in preference to the scroll, before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70? You find this unlikely, in spite of evidence from the Roman poet Martial that the codex was circulating by this time.
Second, there is the broader question about the manner in which 20th century critics have approached the Gospels and the suspicion with which they have treated these books as…