Monday, November 30, 2015

New Papyrus (P134) of John: A Report from SBL

Here is a report from the session on Christian Apocrypha joint with Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds at SBL Atlanta on 21 November.

The first paper in this session was presented by Geoffrey Smith who always has very interesting presentations. Some years ago, he presented on a new amulet which contained Mark 1:1-2 (without "Son of God" to the great satisfaction of Peter Head who sat next to me; it was then I decided to write an article on that topic).

This time he presented a "Preliminary Report on the 'Willoughby Papyrus' of the Gospel of John and an unidentified Christian Text." Just before the SBL, the papyrus was featured in the New York Times (see blogpost here). We already knew that it was found in the possessions of the late Harold R. Willoughby, a well-known scholar and bibliophile (who was also involved in the purchase of Archaic Mark by the University of Chicago). Apparently, if I remember correctly,  a relative of Willoughby pulled out a drawer in a box on an attic, and the manuscript fell on the floor. There was also this small inventory list mentioning other MSS, which have not been found.

The fragment went up for sale on eBay as noted by Brice Jones who alerted the scholarly world via his blog. Smith contacted the seller and informed him about the MS with the result that the seller stopped the auction. Smith got permission to study and publish
the papyrus. He took images of the MS in March, which he showed in his presentation.

The fragment has now been registered as Gregory-Aland Papyrus 134. The MS was folded at least once in Antiquity, possibly it was folded twice. (However, as someone pointed out, the folds can simply be the result of the papyrus roll being pressed together.) The recto contains six fragmentary lines with text from John 1:49-2:1 (end of the calling of Nathanael, beginning of wedding in Cana). The lines are rather long (only about half of each line is extant, and in our reconstruction, we do not know to what extent lost letters came before or after the extant text). The verso is an unknown Christian text which is not reconstructable from any known text in the TLG database. There are nomina sacra on both sides. The same scribe seems to have copied both sides in an informal cursive hand. Smith dates it to 250-350.

In sum, there are notable (unusual) features with this MS: (1) God (θεος) in v. 49 is not abbreviated as a nomen sacrum; (2) The continuous text is written on the recto of a scroll; (3) The verso contains an apocryphal text.

In regard to nomina sacra, there are other examples of scribes who were inconsistent, e.g., πνευμα in P46 is not always abbreviated (as noted in a recent article in NTS). In regard to the unusual format, after John was copied, the MS was flipped and written on the other side. This text was written up-side-down, which is normal on a bookroll, if you want to read and unroll the second text after you have read the first text (as noted by Brent Nongbri in the Q/A; apparently, P. Oxy. 654 is an exception in this regard).

However, could the MS have been an amulet which was reused later? Both the dialouge with Natanael and the wedding at Cana hare texts attested in other amulets (P. Berlin 11710 and P. Vindob. G2312, respectively). But the presence of both texts in a continuous narrative makes Smith doubt this identification.  Could it be a hermeneia, or a writing exercice? We cannot know.

In the Q/A session, several things came up. For example, the fact that in the corpora we have from Oxyrhynchus of some 180 published ophistographs (reused rolls), a documentary roll is normally reused for a literary text, or, vice versa, a literary roll is used for documentary purpose. Only P. Oxy. 4667 (=P. Oxy. 657) is an exception with Livy in Latin and then reused for the Epistle to the Hebrews. What does it mean that the same hand seems to have copied both texts? Did it stay in the same context (library/household)?


  1. Nice write-up, Tommy. One minor additional note: the verso with the unknown text in the same hand does abbreviate θεον as θν so the copyist was knowledgeable of that particular use of nomen sacra.

  2. Thanks Jeff, yes I had noted that, but did not include the detail, sorry.

  3. As I've noted elsewhere, I'm not sure one should make much of the plene form for θεόϲ. Since it does happen sometimes due to scribal inconsistency, I think it's all that can be said about this fragment as well—especially if the text on the verso, where the contracted apparently occurs, is by the same scribe (which I can't verify).

  4. "The fragment has now been registered as Gregory-Aland Papyrus 134."
    Had a quick look at the INTF Liste to see what details are given there - but not yet listed. In looking at the list I noticed that there is nothing listed after P131 - anybody know what P132 and P133 might be?


    Matthew Hamilton

  5. What is the status on this great find? Chatter on it has seemed to have vanished. Any updates?

  6. It is quite normal that a new manuscript is presented at a conference, and in due course the editio princeps is published, as basis for further research - no reason to chatter much more now I suppose.

  7. This papyrus is on the home page of the SBL. Is that indication that publishing may be coming soon?

  8. Does anyone know if this will be published soon? Very exciting find and a picture of it adorns the home page of the Society for Biblical Literature.