For years the answer to the question, “What is the oldest New Testament manuscript?” was easy: P52, a manuscript identified and housed in Manchester, handsomely dated to the early 2nd century. C.H. Roberts wrote in the original publication of this fragment
‘On the whole we may accept with some confidence the first half of the second century as the period in which P. Ryl. Gk. 457 was most probably written—a judgment I should be much more loth to pronounce were it not supported by Sir Frederic Kenyon, Dr. W. Schubart and Dr. H. I. Bell who have seen photographs of the text and whose experience and authority in these matters are unrivalled’ (C.H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1935], 16).
Advancements over the last eighty years in the field of Greek paleography (the study of ancient and historical handwriting) coupled with the increase in readily available collections of digital images and refined classification would lead one to assume that the experts would be able to form an even more comprehensive opinion than they were able to form in the 1930s. In 2012, Pasquale Orsini & Willy Clarysse published “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography.” Orsini and Clarysse provides exactly this re-evaluation. With solid methodology and an impeccable track record, their conclusions are difficult to argue with, their evaluation of the date is not far off from what Roberts came up with in giving the range 125-175 for P52. So is P52 still the earliest fragment of the New Testament?
Looking through the results presented by Orsini and Clarysse there is another candidate, P104, an interesting fragment of Matthew 21, published in 1997. This papyrus receives a date 100-200. Some particular scripts are easier to pin down than others and that is why P104 has a span of a century, whilst P52 only half a century. So we have P52 and P104 both dated by a range that has its median in the middle of the second century (it may be earlier, it may be later).
According to professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, Daniel Wallace, a recent manuscript “was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers,” who said he was “certain” that it was from the first century. If that paleographer is right, the recently discovered fragment from Mark’s gospel would be the oldest existing manuscript of the New Testament.