Friday, August 3, 2018

The Hazards of Paleographic Dating

I have an article in press with Textus on the dating of the charred En-Gedi Leviticus scroll (EGLev), which I suggest should probably be dated to the 3rd-4th centuries CE. One comparandum I intentionally did not include was Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Heb. d.89 (P) i, a small Hebrew Exodus fragment from Oxyrhynchus, because uncertainties about its date made it an unreliable anchor for the typology. Yardeni dated it to the 2nd-3rd centuries, but in the Textus article I suggest it could also be dated later (maybe as late as the 4th-5th centuries) based on comparison with EGLev and the archeological context (most Greek papyri found alongside the Oxford fragment were from the 3rd-5th centuries). I recently reread Engel's paleographic analysis of the London-Ashkar Exodus manuscript (7th-8th centuries) and realized that I failed to note in my article that Engel dates the Oxford fragment to the 7th-8th centuries on the basis of similarities with London-Ashkar! Thus, this rare Exodus fragment is dated variously from the 2nd-8th centuries by the foremost specialists in the field. If that doesn't make you skeptical of overly-precise paleographic dating, I don't know what will. :) In the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I have even seen proposed paleographic date ranges narrower than 20 years...

Photo credits: EGLev courtesy of Brent Seales; Oxf d.89 (P) i from Engel and Mishor, "An Ancient Scroll of the Book of Exodus"; London-Ashkar courtesy of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, Brooklyn, New York.


  1. I don't know how anyone can rely on flimsy "science" like paleography when they can use REAL science like radiocarbon-dating.

  2. There certainly are real developments in handwriting over time, but we have to be realistic about how precisely we can trace them and date manuscripts. Both paleography and radiocarbon dating have their contributions and limitations, so putting both in conversation is important.


  3. Have you been able to determine within which stratum within the "long mound" the Hebrew fragments (MS.Heb.d.89[P]i as comparative example) at Oxyrhynchus were found?

    Matthew Hamilton

  4. Hi Matthew,

    Good question. In my article I cite:

    Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, “D. Graeco-Roman Branch,” in
    Archaeological Report (Egypt Exploration Fund) (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1904– 1905): 13–17, esp. 13.

    You may have already looked this up, but just in case...

    They seem to imply that the Hebrew fragments were found in the northern portion of the mound. In this part, the surface strata had papyri from the 4th-5th century, and the deeper strata 2nd-3rd century. The only thing they say explicitly about the Hebrew fragments is that they are no later than the 5th century, which could (maybe?) imply they were found closer to the surface... Unfortunately, I don't know of any more published information about their provenance, and I haven't followed up with anyone in Oxford (or elsewhere) about it. If you find out anything more, let me know. :)