All that happens depends on divine Providence. The discoveries we are talking about are part of it: they are providential because they illustrate the faith and help unbelievers to have faith in the Bible and the Church. But some of them are obviously desired by God to encourage His faithful servants and to confuse His enemies: this is the case with the P52 papyrus.
What is a papyrus?
By “papyrus” we mean the material on which biblical text was written. In fact, before the use of parchment, which is much stronger and practical, antiquity used papyrus, a reed that grew abundantly in Egypt on the banks of the Nile. The manufacturing principle consists in superimposing thin slices cut from the pith from the stem of the plant, which are crisscrossed and pressed together during the drying process. But this material is fragile and does not age well. It is exceptional to discover something other than mere fragments.
Let us add that the papyrus may only consist of a single sheet, to record short texts, or many sheets sewn end to end and rolled to form a cylinder or roll. Then finally, but much later, there were sheets bound together to form a codex, the ancestor of our book.
The biblical papyri of the New Testament are classified in chronological order of discovery and noted by a P followed by an exponent. The P52 was acquired by the John Rylands Library in Manchester in 1920. It probably came from the famous Oxyrhynchus site that has delivered thousands of papyri.
The rationalist criticism
Since the mid-eighteenth century, Christian revelation and especially the Bible have been subjected to intense rationalist criticism. Regarding the Bible, rationalists have systematically refused to accept the traditional dates given by the Church for the writing of the Gospels. The main reason is the rejection of the supernatural and of miracles. For example, since the Synoptic gospels announced the destruction of Jerusalem, they could only have been written subsequent to that event. In general, rationalist critics placed their writing as having been in the second century of our era.
Unfortunately, it must be pointed out that today many Catholic exegetes and theologians have followed in the steps of the rationalists. It suffices, for example, to read how Walter Kasper, in his book Jesus, the Christ (1974), drastically reduces the miracles of the Gospel under the most curious pretexts. As for the exegetes, they have often adopted the rationalist dating.
This papyrus, about 9 cm by 6 cm (3.5 in. by 2.4 in.), is written on both sides, which indicates that it was very likely part of a codex. It contains a passage from the Gospel of St. John. But the most important question is: when is it dated?
For our critics, the Gospel of St. John could only be very late, because its theological elevation necessarily required development, which was spread out over a century or two. This is why they could not place it earlier than 250, or even looked toward placing it in the fourth century.
It is possible to date a papyrus: sometimes by the circumstances of its discovery, but especially by the paleographic method, i.e., by the type of writing studied. Indeed, the methods and requirements of materials or reading, vary with time. By making a comparison with other dated manuscripts, it is possible to obtain a reliable date.
Dr. Colin Roberts, in charge of this scientific work, was surprised to discover that the P52 dated from the first half of the second century. Various specialists also consulted announced the same result, a result that is widely accepted today. This made this papyrus the oldest manuscript of the New Testament ever discovered. Dr. Roberts published his work in 1936.
There was beautiful astonishment among heterodox writers. A few square centimeters, a few grams of papyrus were right for entire libraries. The discovery fully justified the traditional date of the composition of the fourth gospel—towards the end of the first century.
The contents of P52
But what is the passage recorded on P52? It is (Jn. 18:31-33) on the front and (Jn. 18:37-38) on the back: the gospel of Christ the King! It is by this passage that Providence has conquered error. It cannot be the effect of chance.
A comparison will well illustrate it. In 1858, the Most Blessed Virgin appeared in Lourdes to St. Bernadette as the Immaculate Conception in order to spread the divine benefits to souls and bodies. This is clearly a reward given to the faith of the militant Church for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, four years earlier.
In 1936, Christ the King swept away rationalist criticisms of the authenticity of the Gospel of St. John. It is like a reward given to His earthly children for the proclamation of the dogma of Christ the King by Pope Pius XI on December 11, 1925, in the encyclical Quas Primas. Here is one more reason to be attached to this dogma which has almost disappeared from ecclesial life today.
Christus vincit ! Christus regnat ! Christus imperat !