One of the most significant biblical manuscripts is but a fragment measuring only 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches, and containing only a few verses from John (18:31-33, 37-38). It is the oldest known copy of any portion of the New Testament, dating back to Hadrian’s reign (AD 117-138). Biblical scholar and textual expert Bruce M. Metzger (deceased, 2007) wrote:
Although it had been acquired in Egypt by Bernard P. Grenfell as long ago as 1920, it remained unnoticed among hundreds of similar shreds of papyri until 1934. In that year C. H. Roberts, Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford, while sorting over the unpublished papyri belonging to the John Rylands Library at Manchester, recognized that this scrap preserves several sentences from John’s Gospel. Without waiting to edit the fragment along with others of a miscellaneous nature, he immediately published a booklet setting forth a description of the fragment,its text, and a discussion of its significance.
On the basis of the style of the script, Roberts dated the fragment in the first half of the second century. Though not all scholars are convinced that it can be dated within so narrow a range, such eminent palaeographers as Sir Frederic G Kenyon, W. Schubart, Sir Harold I. Bell, Adolf Deissmann, Ulrich Wilcken, and W. H. P. Hatch have expressed themselves as being in agreement with Roberts’s judgment.
Although the extent of the verses preserved is so slight, in one respect this tiny scrap of papyrus possesses quite as much evidential value as would be the complete codes. Just as Robinson Crusoe, seeing but a single footprint in the sand, concluded that another human being, with two feet, was present on the island with him, so p52 proves the existence and use of the fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a provincial town along the Nile, far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor). Had this little fragment been known during the middle of the past century, that school of New Testament criticism which was inspired by the brilliant Tubingen professor, Ferdinand Christian Baur, could not have argued that the Fourth Gospel was not composed until about the year 160. (The Text of the New Testament, 3rd edition, pp. 38-39).
As stated above, the fragment p52 is in Manchester, England, encased in a climate controlled cabinet.