Dr. Dan Wallace, writing at Parchment and Pen, tells the fascinating story of how this small, ancient piece of paper known as P52-- found in a trash heap in Egypt and stored unnoticed for years at the John Rylands Library in England-- has changed our understanding about the Gospel of John.
In the mid 19th century, the influential scholar F.C. Baur proposed that the Gospel of John was written late in the 2nd century. This theory gained considerable influence and consequently the historical reliability of this Gospel fell into serious doubt. But then, in 1934, Wallace writes:
... a young doctoral student studying at Manchester University came across a scrap of papyrus in the John Rylands Library. Colin H. Roberts was intrigued by the papyrus fragment, which had been excavated decades earlier from rubbish heaps in Egypt. It was only 2 & ½ inches by 3 & ½ inches, but its importance far outweighed its size. Roberts immediately recognized it as a fragment of John’s Gospel—chapter 18, verses 31 to 33 on one side, and chapter 18, verses 37 and 38 on the other, to be exact. He sent the photographs of the fragment to three of the leading papyrologists in Europe. Each one reported independently that this fragment should be dated, on paleographical grounds, between AD 100 and AD 150. A fourth scholar disagreed, arguing that the fragment should be dated in the 90s of the first century!While Baur's late dating of John remains influential, biblical scholars like Richard Bauckman-- and his books, "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses," and "The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple" are demonstrating that John is a historically faithful witness of Jesus.
This tiny fragment of John’s Gospel rocked the scholarly near-consensus on the date of John, for it is impossible for a copy to be written before the original text is produced. It effectively sent two tons of German scholarship to the flames. As one wag put it, "This manuscript must have been written when the ink on the original text was barely dry."
The discovery and publication of P52, the papyrus discovered by Roberts, conjure up aphoristic ditties that are almost proverbial in their staying power and application—such as, "An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption."