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Palaeography Palaeography, the analysis of handwriting, is, for better or worse, the main way that we assign dates to undated ancient manuscripts.This method can work reasonably well when you have lots of examples with exact dates—you can make informed comparisons of undated samples of handwriting with dated samples.But it’s important to remember that the dated documents in such a mix give us what’s called a material in the find. Even in these circumstances, then, you’re not going to end up with a really narrow date for any undated literary manuscript that turns up.
And finally, ancient scribes were perfectly capable of writing in different styles that we associate with different time periods (for detailed evidence of these claims, you can see a recent article of mine on the topic here).
Among other things Brent is one of the most knowledgeable and productive scholars working in the field of palaeography – the discipline that deals with the dating of ancient manuscripts.
He has been following this discussion of a possible first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark, and to my great appreciation has agreed to do a GUEST POST for us all, on an area many of us are very interested in.
Let’s say such a mask is taken apart, and it contains a bunch of documents (letters, receipts, tax records, etc.) that all date within a given period, say from the years 220-100 BC (most mummy masks made with waste papyri are Ptolemaic, not Roman).
If any undated literary fragments are found together with those documents, it’s a safe bet that the literary pieces probably date to roughly the same period.