Treasure From Egyptian Garbage Heaps
WOULD you expect to find precious Bible manuscripts in a heap of garbage? Amid the sands of Egypt, at the end of the last century, that is just what happened. How?
Beginning in 1778 and continuing to the end of the 19th century, a number of papyrus texts were accidentally discovered in Egypt. There was, however, very little systematic search until one hundred years ago. By then a steady stream of ancient documents was being found by native fellahin, and the British-sponsored Egypt Exploration Fund realized the need to send out an expedition before it was too late. They chose two Oxford scholars, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, who received permission to search the area south of the farming region in the Faiyūm district (shown above).
A site called Behnesa sounded promising to Grenfell because of its ancient Greek name, Oxyrhynchus. A center of Egyptian Christianity, Oxyrhynchus was an important place during the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. Many early monasteries had been located nearby, and the ruins of this provincial town were extensive. Grenfell hoped to find fragments of Christian literature there, but a search of the graveyards and the ruined houses yielded nothing. Only the town’s garbage heaps remained, some standing 30 feet [9 m] high. To dig for papyri there seemed almost an admission of defeat; yet the explorers decided to try.
A Treasure Trove
In January 1897 a trial trench was dug, and within hours ancient papyrus materials were found. They included letters, contracts, and official documents. Windblown sand had covered them, and the dry climate had preserved them for nearly 2,000 years.
In just over three months, almost two tons of papyri were recovered from Oxyrhynchus. Twenty-five large cases were filled and shipped back to England. And every winter for the next ten years, these two intrepid scholars returned to Egypt to increase their collection.
On one occasion, while excavating a cemetery at Tebtunis, they unearthed nothing but mummies of crocodiles. A workman in his frustration smashed one to pieces. To his amazement, he found that it was wrapped in sheets of papyrus. Other crocodiles, they discovered, had been similarly treated, and some also had papyrus rolls stuffed down their throats. Fragments of ancient classical writing came to light, along with royal ordinances and contracts mixed in with business accounts and private letters.
Of what value were all these documents? They proved to be of great interest, for most had been written by ordinary people in Koine, the common Greek of the day. Since many of the words they used also appear in the Bible’s Greek Scriptures, the “New Testament,” it suddenly became apparent that the language in the Scriptures was not a special Biblical Greek, as some scholars had suggested, but it was the ordinary language of the man on the street. So by comparing the way words were used in everyday situations, a clearer understanding emerged of their meanings in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
Fragments of Bible manuscripts were also recovered, and these, often written in a rough script without much ornamentation and on poor-quality material, represented the Bible of the ordinary man. Let us examine some of the findings.
Hunt discovered a copy of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Mt 1 verses 1 to 9, 12, and Mt 1 verses 14 to 20, written in the third century C.E. in uncial (capital) letters. It was to become P1, the first item in a catalog of papyrus texts from various places, now running to almost a hundred manuscripts or parts of manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Of what use were the few verses that Hunt found? The character of the writing clearly dated it to the third century C.E., and a check of its readings showed that it agreed with the then quite recent text drawn up by Westcott and Hort. P1 is now in the University Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
A papyrus sheet from one codex, or book, has on the left-hand leaf parts of John chapter 1 and on the right-hand leaf parts of John chapter 20. A reconstruction of the missing parts suggests that there were originally 25 sheets for the whole Gospel, and from the earliest time, these must have included Joh chapter 21. It was numbered P5, dated to the third century C.E., and is now in the British Library in London, England.
A fragment containing Romans 1:1-7 is written in such large, rough letters that some scholars have thought it was perhaps a schoolboy’s exercise. It is now numbered as P10 and is dated from the fourth century C.E.
A much larger find contains about one third of the letter to the Hebrews. It was copied on the back of a roll having classical writings of the Roman historian Livy on the front. Why such different material on the front and back? In those days the scarcity and cost of writing materials meant that old papyri could not be wasted. Now listed as P13, it is dated to the third or fourth century C.E.
A papyrus leaf containing parts of Romans chapters 8 and 9, written in very small characters, came from a book that was about four-and-a-half inches [11.5 cm] in height and only two inches [5 cm] wide. It would seem, then, that pocket-size editions of the Scriptures existed in the third century C.E. This one became P27 and generally agrees with the Codex Vaticanus.
Parts of four leaves from a Greek Septuagint codex contain portions of six chapters of Genesis. This codex is important because of its dating to the second or third century C.E. and because these chapters are lacking in the Codex Vaticanus and are defective in the Codex Sinaiticus. Numbered as Papyrus 656, these leaves are now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
All these fragments show no major variations from our existing early manuscripts, so they confirm that the Bible text was in circulation at that early time among ordinary people in a remote part of Egypt. They also confirm our faith in the reliability and accuracy of God’s Word.
[Picture on page 27]
Papyri from Faiyūm containing portions of John, chapter 1
By permission of the British Library
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.