The Value of the Nash Papyrus
HOW do you accurately date an old Hebrew Bible manuscript? That was the problem facing Dr. John C. Trever in 1948 when he first saw the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah. The form of the Hebrew letters intrigued him. He knew the letters held the key to its age, but with what could he compare them? Correctly, he concluded: Only with the script of the Nash Papyrus. Why? What is this manuscript, and where did it come from?
The Nash Papyrus consists of merely four fragments of 24 lines of Hebrew text, measuring some three by five inches [7.5 by 12.5 cm]. It was named after W. L. Nash, the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, who acquired it from an Egyptian dealer in 1902. It was published by S. A. Cooke in the following year in that society’s Proceedings and was presented to Cambridge University Library, England, where it has remained. The value of this papyrus fragment rests with its age. Scholars dated it to the second or first century B.C.E., so it was the earliest Hebrew manuscript leaf ever found.
When Dr. Trever compared a color slide of the Nash Papyrus with the scroll before him, he looked meticulously at the form and shapes of individual letters. Without a doubt, they were very similar. Even so, it seemed incredible to him that the large, newly discovered manuscript could possibly be as early in date as the Nash Papyrus. In time, however, his line of reasoning proved to be correct. The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah belonged to the second century B.C.E.!
The Contents of the Nash Papyrus
An analysis of the Nash Papyrus text reveals that all of its 24 lines are incomplete, with a word or letters missing at both ends. It contains parts of the Ten Commandments from Exodus chapter 20, along with some verses from Deuteronomy chapters 5 and 6. So this was not a regular Bible manuscript but a mixed text with a special purpose. It was evidently part of an instructional collection to remind a Jew of his duty to God. A section of scripture commencing with Deuteronomy 6:4, called the Shema, was frequently repeated. That verse reads: “Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.”
The Tetragrammaton, YHWH, “Jehovah,” in this verse is visible twice on the last line of the papyrus, and it occurs in five other places. It also appears once with its first letter missing.
The Shema in particular was meant to emphasize “the single personality of God.” According to the Jewish Talmud (Berakoth 19a), the concluding word, ʼE·chadhʹ (“One”), “should be specially emphasized while it was being enunciated by holding out each syllable.” (W. O. E. Oesterley and G. H. Box) In reference to God, this lengthened ʼE·chadhʹ also proclaimed his uniqueness.
Today, the Nash Papyrus has many peers, especially among scrolls found in caves along the shores of the Dead Sea close to Qumran. Detailed analysis has confirmed that many of these manuscripts date to the first and second centuries B.C.E.* Although it is no longer the earliest-known Hebrew manuscript, the Nash Papyrus is still of great interest. It remains the only Hebrew Bible manuscript of such early date discovered in Egypt.