A huge trove of papyri were excavated in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus in the period from 1898 through 1914. From time to time new batches of these precious artifacts are presented by the team that is inspecting, cleaning, photographing, transcribing and translating this hoard. There is much work remaining to do, and unknown discoveries lie ahead.
Most of these papyri are small scraps that require translating and then deciphering and reconstruction. Most are mundane records, including deeds, letters, shopping lists, horoscopes, recipes and other jetsam of daily life of the day, during the time from the third century BC to shortly after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640 AD. Of particular value are two histories and some literary works, plays and poetry that had been thought lost to history. Of even greater value are pieces of the New Testament. The custodian for most of these bits is the EES:
The Egypt Exploration Society is the custodian of the largest collection of ancient papyri in the world. Housed at the University of Oxford, the collection comprises over 500,000 fragments of literary and documentary texts dating from the third century BC to the seventh century AD. The texts are written in Greek, ancient Egyptian (hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic), Coptic, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Pahlavi.
Since 1898 academics have puzzled together and transcribed over 5000 documents from what were originally hundreds of boxes of papyrus fragments the size of large cornflakes. This is thought to represent only 1 to 2 percent of what is estimated to be at least half a million papyri still remaining to be conserved, transcribed, deciphered and catalogued.
It took a century to publish two percent of this hoard. Wow.
It is one of the world’s biggest puzzles. Half a million pieces. Some are parts of scrolls, some are parts of books or ledgers, and most are just little pieces. They probably resolve into the remnants of more than a hundred thousand documents.
Oxyrhynchus restores to us authors famous in classical times, who went under in the Middle Ages: the songs of Sappho, the sitcom of Menander, the elegant and learned elegies of Callimachus that Roman poets liked to boast of imitating. These Egyptian Greeks read Greek tragedies that to us had just been names — and the satyr plays that went with them.
Also, there is one of the oldest diagrams from Euclid’s Elements of Geometry:
Here is a complete list of the Egypt Exploration Society report volumes. About half of these are available; for the rest I think you might have to go to Oxford.
63 fragments of New Testament books have been identified so far from Oxyrhynchus. A handful are dated to mid-third century or earlier. A small number are dated to the mid-second century, and these have received great scrutiny.
These fragments generally confirm that the text of the New Testament books was very stable from early times.
Yes; I know everyone has heard all about the thousands and thousands of variances between the five thousand manuscripts of the New Testament. That amounts to a lot of hand-waving about meaningless trivia. (That topic deserves a post of its own; if anyone wants to take it on, shoot me a note and we can collaborate.)
There are at least ten fragments from the Shepherd of Hermas, with several dozen other fragments from other orthodox Christian works.
This picture is from the volume that was published in 1997. It shows Papyrus Oxyrhynchus Volume 64, number 4406 (P.Oxy. LXIV 4406). It has part of Matthew 27:62-64 on one side, and part of Matthew 28:2-5 on the other side. I am really impressed at this; someone at the EES workshop at Oxford had to be extremely familiar with Matthew in Greek in order to recognize this fragment for what it is.
The Rylands Fragment
The most famous scrap from Oxyrhynchus is a little piece of the Gospel of John. It has an “official” date range from late first century to late second century, but the scholarly consensus places it in the early second century, with the most commonly cited date range being 130 – 150 AD. That makes it the leading candidate as the earliest physical piece of the New Testament. It is called the “Rylands Fragment” because it is housed at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester.
Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyons, who wrote eight works of general interest to Christians, none of which we have in their entirety. We do have most of a major work he wrote to defend orthodoxy against a variety of false teachings. Of particular interest in the current context is something we learn from a scrap of his writings that was found at Oxyrhynchus. Here is a note from a blog post by historian Larry Hurtado:
Indicative of interest in his works, we have a scrap of Against Heresies (in Greek) found at Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy 405) that is dated palaeograghically to the late second century. If correct, this would mean that the work had reached Egypt within only a few years after its composition (ca. 180 CE).
Even though Christianity was an outlaw religion at the time, there was an amazing network of active Christian communications and active Christian scribes.
There are three famous fragments from the Gospel of Thomas. They indicate far less stability of text when compared to any New Testament book.
There are at least a half-dozen fragments from other Gnostic writings.
After the Muslims conquered Egypt, canal maintenance ended. After river barges could no longer get to Oxyrhynchus, what had been a thriving district center for a thousand years dwindled to a very small town. Descriptions tell us of great Ptolemaic and Roman ruins that were visible there just a century ago, but most of that is gone as trophy-hunters and local builders carted off all the stones.
Grenfell and Hunt
The dump at Oxyrhynchus was first recognized as significant by two young Oxford students who were working as part of the British archaeological survey of Egypt. Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt published their first volume in 1898. Here is a link to that original 1898 paper by Grenfell and Hunt:
It is really interesting. The first item they present is a scrap with sayings of Jesus. It is P. Oxy. 1.
Subsequent scholarship identified it as a version of the Gospel of Thomas and dates it to early middle third century. Grenfell and Hart were unaware that it was a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas. They called it “Sayings of Jesus.” It was found on the second day of their formal dig.
Bernard Grenfell became a professor at Oxford and continued working on the collection, but he became ill. His widowed mother, Alice, moved in to care for him. She became interested in Egyptian scarabs. She learned hieroglyphics and published papers of her own. Alice died in 1917 and Bernard Grenfell died in 1926.
Arthur Surridge Hunt lived until 1934, and spent most of his life sifting, cleaning, translating, cataloging, describing and publishing the findings from the excavations of 1896 through 1914. Oxford has put a bunch of his handwritten memos and descriptions on the internet. Hunt’s notes are hard to read because of his idiosyncratic cursive writing. Also, he was prone to drop Greek or even Coptic words and phrases into his notes about the papyri.
So-called “First-century Mark”
There is a scrap in the collection with Mark 1:7-9 and 1:16-18. This may be referred to as P137 or as P.Oxy. LXXXIII 5345 (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus Volume 83, number 5345) This is an Oxyrhynchus fragment that caused a lot of excitement when it was announced in 2011 with a speculative date of late first century. It was finally published in 2019 with an estimated date of late second/early third century. Somebody had been saying it was for sale, but the owners, Egypt Exploration Society, later said it never was for sale. The announced first-century date was undoubtedly a planted rumor to spark interest and raise the prospective price. Professor Dan Wallace was part of the intrigue, because some shyster made him sign a nondisclosure agreement in order to have a look at photos of it in 2013. Evidently that was part of a ruse intended to “sell” it to the Green family.
In the fall of 2019, Oxford suspended professor Dirk Obbink, who is alleged to have tried to sell this manuscript to the Green family (owners of Hobby Lobby) for their Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
Here is an excerpt from the volume entry, using P137 as an example of the sort of examination that is conducted:
The lines … have c.28 letters: on this basis, and taking as standard the text as printed in Nestle–Aland28, we can calculate that about 20 lines are lost before the first preserved line of ↓, and another 20 between the last preserved line of ↓ and the first preserved line of →. This would suggest a single-column codex with about 25 lines per column, and a written area estimated at 9.4 × 12 cm.
“Nestle-Aland28” is the 28th Edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. → refers to the “recto” side of the papyrus sheet (fibers running side to side), and ↓ refers to the “verso” side (with fibers running top to bottom).
Egypt Exploration Society