In this series we are tracing the history of Christianity in 25 objects, 25 relics of the past that survive today. Having visited the Vatican Museum to look at Augustus of Prima Porta, we travel now to England, to the University of Manchester, to peer at a tiny fragment of papyrus. Carefully encased within a climate-controlled cabinet in the John Rylands Library is Rylands Library Papyrus P52, the St. John’s fragment. Measuring only 8.9 by 6 centimeters at its widest points (3.5 by 2.5 inches), this is just the smallest fragment of a long-lost codex. But why would 53 square centimeters of papyrus merit such a display and a position in this list of 25 objects?
Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is a fragment of a single page from a codex that once contained the gospel of John. It is the oldest New Testament manuscript ever discovered.
The Christian faith is utterly and unapologetically dependent upon God’s revelation of himself. We believe that the New Testament Scriptures were given by God as he spoke to his apostles and that they faithfully recorded his every word. Some wrote a biography of Jesus or a history of the early church, but most wrote letters directed to a specific audience. It was only natural that after these Scriptures were recorded, they would be shared with others. A young pastor like Timothy, the recipient of two letters from his mentor Paul, would wish to share Paul’s wisdom with other pastors; a church like the one at Ephesus, also the recipient of a letter from Paul, would wish to share that letter with other nearby churches. Those who wanted to know about the life of Jesus would be drawn to the account written by his friend Matthew or the account penned by Luke, the early church’s foremost historian. As the Christian faith grew and spread there was ever-greater demand for copies of the Scriptures. This in turn brought about a proliferation of manuscripts.
Yet with the proliferation of manuscripts came a significant problem. In these years before movable type or photocopiers, every word had to be hand-copied and when the books were copied, differences would inevitably begin to appear. The majority of such changes were unintentional—a skipped letter, a missed word, a repeated line. Some changes were intentional but meant to be helpful. A scribe might substitute on obscure word with a common one or he might add words or phrases he believed would help clarify the text. After the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) became known, scribes might spot the differences between them and attempt to harmonize them by changing the wording of one to match another.
In the church’s earliest days the copies could be verified against the original manuscripts, but over time those originals disappeared so that only the hand-written copies remained. Eventually even those first copies were lost. Of the manuscripts that remain to us today, no two are exactly the same.
How then can we have confidence that the Bible we possess today is the Bible as God inspired and intended it? This is where we are grateful for the discipline of textual criticism. Textual critics are scholars who examine and evaluate all the surviving manuscripts in order to accurately reproduce the original text. And here we begin to see the importance of this little fragment of papyrus encased in glass in John Rylands Library.
In 1920 Dr. B.P. Grenfell was traveling through Egypt and purchased a collection of ancient papyri on behalf of the Library. These fragments were numbered and added to the library’s collection, but soon set aside and nearly forgotten. It was not until 1934 that Colin H. Roberts, Fellow of St. John’s College in Oxford, spotted the fragment numbered 52. He studied and translated it, and immediately recognized its historical significance. Based on the style of the script, he dated the fragment to the first half of the second century. Most current scholars believe it was written between 125 and 150 A.D., making it the oldest surviving copy of any portion of the New Testament. This little scrap of papyrus is our oldest historical link to the New Testament Scriptures. It represents the thousands of manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts that have survived the centuries.
P52 contains words from the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, John 18:31-33 on the front and John 18:37-38 on the back. The Greek characters in bold are those that survive; they are followed by the English translation.
ΟΙ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΟΙ ΗΜΙΝ ΟΥΚ ΕΞΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΠΟΚΤΕΙΝΑΙ
OYΔΕΝΑ ΙΝΑ Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΙΗΣΟΥ ΠΛΗΡΩΘΗ ΟΝ ΕΙ-
ΠΕΝ ΣHΜΑΙΝΩΝ ΠΟΙΩ ΘΑΝΑΤΩ ΗΜΕΛΛΕΝ ΑΠΟ-
ΘΝHΣΚΕΙΝ ΕΙΣΗΛΘΕΝ ΟΥΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΡΑΙΤΩ-
ΡΙΟΝ Ο ΠIΛΑΤΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΦΩΝΗΣΕΝ ΤΟΝ ΙΗΣΟΥΝ
ΚΑΙ ΕΙΠΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΣΥ ΕΙ O ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥ-
the Jews, “For us it is not permitted to kill
anyone,” so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he sp-
oke signifying what kind of death he was going to
die. Entered therefore again into the Praeto-
rium Pilate and summoned Jesus
and said to him, “Thou art king of the
ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΕΙΜΙ ΕΓΩ ΕΙΣ TOΥΤΟ ΓΕΓΕΝΝΗΜΑΙ
ΚΑΙ (ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ) ΕΛΗΛΥΘΑ ΕΙΣ ΤΟΝ ΚΟΣΜΟΝ ΙΝΑ ΜΑΡΤY-
ΡΗΣΩ ΤΗ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΠΑΣ Ο ΩΝ EΚ ΤΗΣ ΑΛΗΘΕI-
ΑΣ ΑΚΟΥΕΙ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΣ ΦΩΝΗΣ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ
Ο ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ ΤΙ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΚAΙ ΤΟΥΤO
ΕΙΠΩΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΞΗΛΘΕΝ ΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΙΟΥ-
ΔΑΙΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ ΕΓΩ ΟΥΔEΜΙΑΝ
ΕΥΡΙΣΚΩ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΑΙΤΙΑΝ
a King I am. For this I have been born
and (for this) I have come into the world so that I would
testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth
hears of me my voice.” Said to him
Pilate, “What is truth?” and this
having said, again he went out unto the Jews
and said to them, “I find not one
fault in him.”
Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is an important link between the Bible we read today and the Bible as it was first recorded nearly two thousand years ago. This little manuscript, the oldest of the thousands in existence, reminds us that the Bible as we know it today—a thousand pieces of finely-printed paper stitched between two covers—is not the way it has always been. It reminds us that the Bible was first written by hand, that it was painstakingly copied one character at a time, that Christians carried it with them wherever they went, and that all the while it was protected and preserved by the hand of God.
It is also an important link between today’s Christians and our ancient predecessors. Princeton Theological Seminary’s Bruce Metzger, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent scholars of New Testament Textual Criticism, described its importance in this way: “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).” The Word of God spread far from its source and it spread quickly. From this fragment we know that already in the first half of the second century there were Christians along the Nile and these Christians were reading the very same words of God that we read today. Just as we value those words and pore over them to promote both understanding and application, so too did our brothers and sisters from the earliest days. We can easily picture a Christian in ancient Egypt reading this account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, marveling at God’s grace, and praying that Christ would soon return.
P52 may not be the most important of the ancient manuscripts, and certainly it is not the one most critical to assembling the original text of the Bible. Yet it is a significant link to the past, an object we can look at and as we look, see the providence of God in preserving his words. If faith comes through hearing and hearing through the Word of God (Romans 10:17), you and I are Christians today only because God has preserved his Word, the Bible. He has preserved his Word through even small fragments of papyrus like this one.
For our next entry in this series we will travel back to Italy, back to the city of Rome. We will look at a curious little piece of graffiti and ask what it tells us about some of the early church’s most significant struggles.
Note: In 2012 Daniel Wallace announced the discovery of a manuscript fragment from the book of Mark that he confidently dates from the first century. However, this manuscript has not yet been fully analyzed and is not yet on public display.