Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Testament Papyri: Part One

A rather important definitional problem is hidden in the phrase ‘New Testament Papyri’. This phrase covers a multitude of generalisations. Initially, of course, it ought to be clear that the ‘New Testament Papyri’ are those manuscripts of the New Testament written on papyrus. This stage is straightforward, papyrus is a plant, technically Cyperus papyrus , which is a tall, marsh-loving sedge with triangular stalks up to 4 metres in height.[i]

In antiquity this triangular plant was cultivated, cut into strips and made into sheets of papyrus, a product that could be exported from Egypt throughout the Greco-Roman world. Of papyrus exported from Egypt Pliny could say that ‘on it human civilisation depends’. And early Christians used this in order to communicate in antiquity. And among the many thousands of papyrus documents excavated, discovered and published in the last hundred and fifty years or so (say 50,000 documents and 5,000 literary texts), something over one hundred represent texts of the Greek New Testament (incidentally, outnumbered by other literary texts like Homer, Euripides, Demosthenes).

A standard list of ‘New Testament Papyri’ exists which numbers identified portions of the New Testament on papyrus. These are the papyri referred to using a large (or Gothic) P and a number. Currently this list extends from P1 (P. Oxy 2 which was published in 1898) through to P124 (P. Oxy 4845 which was published in 2007). This list has its own history, originating with C.R. Gregory in 1908 and continuing with E. von Dobschütz, G. Maldfield, K. Aland, to the present-day up-dates issued by the Munster Institute.[ii] We can trace the development of this list as follows:[iii] (pity I can't get the table to work)

1908 (Gregory) P1 – P14
1912 (Gregory) P15 – P 19
1923 (von Dobschütz) P20 – P32
1924 (von Dobschütz) P33 – P36
1927 (von Dobschütz) P37 – P39
1928 (von Dobschütz) P40 – P41
1933 (von Dobschütz) P42 – P48
1949 (Maldfield) P1 – P62
1953 (Aland) P63
1954 (Aland) P64
1957 (Aland) P65 – P68
1963 (Aland, Kurzgefasste Liste) P1 – P76
1969 (Aland) P77 – P81
1974 (Münster, Bericht) P82, P86
1977 (Münster, Bericht) P85, P87 – P88
1979 (NA26) P1 – P88
1988 (Münster, Bericht) P89 – P96
1992 (Münster, Bericht) P97
1993 (NA27) P1 – P98
1994 (Aland, Kurz. Liste 2nd) P1 – P99
1998 (Münster, Bericht) P100 – P115
2001 (NA27 (3rd reprint)) P1 – P116
2003 (Münster, Bericht) P116
2008 (Münster, update to KL) P100 – P124

[i] Cf. Job 8.11-13: ‘Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh?’ For a picture and discussion see e.g. Hepper, 68. The plant, widely distributed in tropical Africa, grew wild and was later cultivated, on the Egyptian Nile. The starchy stem could be eaten, and various parts of the plant, including the outside rind, could be used to make boats (Job 9.26; Is 18.2); baskets and other woven products (perhaps Exod 2.3); cords and ropes (cf. John 2.15)
[ii] J.K. Elliott, A Bibliography of Greek New Testament Manuscripts. Second Edition (SNTSMS 109; Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 1 & 5-9 for bibliographical details.
[iii] Cf. also K. Aland, ‘The Significance of the Papyri for Progress in New Testament Research’ in The Bible in Modern Scholarship: Papers Read at the 100th Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, December 28–30, 1964 (ed. J. Philip Hyatt; Nashville: Abingdon, 1965), 325-346, esp. pp. 325-333 for developments between 1881 (Westcott and Hort) and 1964.


  1. Three "papyri anecdotes":

    (1) When I was in the botanic garden in Münster in 2000 I saw real papyrus plants and to my surprise there was an informative sign written by Kurt Aland.

    (2) My friend visited Egypt and he gave me a souvenir, it was some cheap offset print of an Egyptian motive, on a sheet of papyrus. Luckily there was a large area of empty space on the sheet, which I used to manufacture my own copy of P52 to be able to demonstrate for my students (which I have done many times since then). When I once showed it to my colleagues, I made a joke that I had borrowed it from Rylands Library. In astonishment, one of them asked me how on earth that was possible.

    (3) Last year I realized that there was a papyrus collection at Lund university. The largest MSS have been published as PLund. There are still ca. 800 unpublished fragmentary papyri. I was allowed to look at them. They lay in disorder in boxes, with scraps of papyri that had fell out of the glasses. There is now a project to restore them, and to make the all available in the APIS. They were acquired in the 30's and were a minor part of a lot, most of which ended up at the University of Michigan.

  2. Please refresh my memory. Whih of the NT papyri are not actually written on the papyri?

  3. Any of the PLund dealing with the NT?

  4. No NT texts among PLund (... yet)

  5. I was told that the department which teaches botany at University of Leipzig grows the papyrus plant specifically for the papyrological researchers at the university.

    The 2008 Coptic Papyrology Summer School at Leipzig had a session where we made papyrus.

    Let's see if I remember this rigth.... We were given a six inch piece of the triangular stalk which was about an inch thick. We stripped the green outer layer off. We then sliced into the length of the stalk about a millimeter or two, just enough to wedge a thin sharp knife or needle into it to begin unwrapping its layers, side by side. We unwrapped it until the entirety of the wedge could be lain flat on the table. We then took the second triangular stock and repeated the process.

    We then laid the two pieces on top of each other crossways, so that the grains went against each other. Then we hammered them together. This had a way of smashing the plants' micro-tubular fibre thingies into one another which created cohesion between the two papyrus plants.

    They sat overnight to dry. My piece is just a small piece--about 5" x 5", about the size of a post-it note.

  6. What would you do with P.Oxy 4010, a paternoster with introductory prayer? If the top portion had been lost it would hae been included as a P number. Also, what about the amulets which frequently attest only the first line of the gospels?

  7. This is a classification problem. A NT continuous-text mss can contain marginalia, canons and sections, even some lectionary notes, but still qualify as a NT ms. A patristic source, on the other hand, can contain extensive quotations of NT text--perhaps even an entire chapter--and not qualify. Unless, of course, the ms is so fragmentary that only the scripture-bearing portion is extant. Then it gets a Gregory number.