I know we have various Greek papyri fragments of the NT all over the place. But my question is, what is the latest one that we have – latest as in late and we have no other earlier manuscript to base that portion of the New Testament on?
I think you will find the info you seek in the Wikipedia article on Biblical Manuscript in the section on Earliest Extant Manuscripts. If I understand your question correctly and am reading the table in the Wikipedia article correctly, for 1 & 2 Timothy and 2 & 3 John it is Codex Sinaiticus, written about 350.
Judging by the last part, I think you mean “earliest/oldest”. As Todd977 says, the Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest complete NT, and I believe that the oldest fragments are some of the Rylands collection, dating from the first half of the C2nd. In addition to manuscripts, though, we have “witnesses”, i.e. other early texts which quote from NT texts, and Ignatius of Antioch’s letters (up to AD 107) do this quite a lot.
If the basis of your question is “How sure can we be that we have the original form of the text?”, the answer is “Much more certain than with any other text of a similar age, and even more certain than for many very recent ones”. It has been studied more than any other text.
If you mean the most recently discovered and oldest, there is news of two manuscript fragments–one of Mark and the other of Matthew.
It will likely be a year or two more before we have reliable and confirmed data, but the early word is that they do appear to be older and earlier than the Rylands fragment. The publication of the fragments will await confirmation by several scholars, but dates as early as 40 - 60 CE are being discussed.
The Marcan fragment shows that the text has remained intact over the centuries. The reports I have about Matthew are a little confusing. Most reports are somewhat silent, but one implied a possible link with Q or the original Aramaic collection of oracles transliterated via Hebrew characters.
It should be noted that scholars can sometimes be over-excited and make conclusions that are premature and almost fanciful when it comes to newly discovered texts, but the early dating seems to be agreed upon.
A side note:
So there is no confusion, I don’t personally have an opinion regarding the dating of the newly discovered fragments. Personally I find the 40 CE date quite astonishing if not controversial but one has to keep an open mind while having a healthy amount of skepticism regarding some claims.
Do we have any fragments or parts of the NT dating from the 4th or 5th century but no earlier?
What I meant by my original question was is there any part of the NT that can’t be dated past a certain late date, and that we rely on it’s authenticity because its only found in one late (4rth or 5th century) fragment or codex. Or is it the case that every verse and passage of the NT is pretty much attested to by other fragments (albeit with minor variations) that date from the 2nd to 3rd century? (Hope I clarified what I’m asking :D)
The answer is no.
The New Testament canon came into its accepted form by the 4th century. Books and epistles were selected on the basis of several criteria, one of which was use in liturgy and by the Church Fathers in their writings since the apostolic era. Therefore a writing of a late date that could not be traced back in this manner could not have even been considered since the canon came to be settled by the third and fourth centuries.
In other words the canonization process was one in which the Church was taking a look back in order to come to a conclusion, so it wouldn’t make sense that manuscripts that suddenly came on the scene at the same time the canon was settled would have been considered.
The question being settled was one raised by Marcion of Sinope regarding books and writings that could be traced back to the first century. He was attempting to use these as proof texts to promote Gnostic thought during the 2nd century when Marcion himself was alive. Books of a later date and thus not possible to be known to Marcion were not up for consideration.
Even the book of Revelation (which was somewhat unknown among some Christians for the first two centuries) is alluded to as early as the beginning of the second century by reliable testimony. Taking into consideration the John Rylands fragment, evidence for textual conformity goes back as far as the late first century.
One of the criteria demands for NT canonization was that the writings could be traced back to an apostle or someone who worked closely with them. Therefore textual evidence used to reach this conclusion is far much earlier than the third and fourth centuries.