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NT Papyri as Artifacts of Early Christianity

July 12, 2014

I devoted this past week heavily to carrying out a fresh and more thorough analysis of “P22”, remnants of a papyrus copy of the Gospel of John likely from sometime in the 3rd century.  “P22” (or P.Oxyrhynchus 1228) is two fragments of this manuscript, housed in the Glasgow University Library.  It’s reasonably well known among NT textual critics, I suppose, included in lists of early NT papyri, and its readings cited in critical apparatuses.  But, to my knowledge, there has not been a detailed autopsy analysis of the papyrus for a long time, perhaps not since Grenfell and Hunt published the papyrus in 1914 (in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume X).  Indeed, I rather suspect that all subsequent references to P22 have been based on Grenfell & Hunt’s publication, and particularly their transcription of its text.

P22 is unusual because it appears to be remnants of a copy of GJohn on a roll, not from a codex.  In P22, however,  the text of GJohn is written across the papyrus fibres, i.e., on what would have been the outer side of the papyrus roll.  So, it is commonly thought that GJohn was written on a re-used roll, some other/previous text on the inner side.  This isn’t all that unusual in ancient manuscripts.  People re-used rolls, likely because it was cheaper than acquiring a fresh roll.  Indeed, one might have been able to acquire a previously-used roll for free.

The anomaly/mystery about P22, however, is that on the opposite side of the papyrus material there is no text evident.  That is, we appear to have portions of GJohn written on the outer surface of part of a roll with nothing written on the inner surface.  Why?  Well, the best scholarly proposal (guess!) was given by Kurt Aland, who suggested that what we have is a portion of the re-used roll that happens to have been originally the protective portion/sheets on the end of the roll.  These were left blank and served simply to protect the roll when it was rolled up.  I have no other suggestion to offer.

Re-used rolls typically also signal a copy for someone’s personal reading/usage.  So, not a copy prepared for public reading and formal usage, but instead for someone’s own reading, pondering, study.  This seems confirmed by the informal nature of the script typical of re-used rolls.

In the main, P22 has been referred to in regard to questions about the transmission of the text of GJohn, and how to reconstruct as early a text of GJohn as we can.  But my own emphasis for a number of years now has been on expanding what we do with ancient manuscripts, widening the questions that we ask, treating them as physical artifacts and not as “dis-embodied” texts.  I laid out this emphasis programmatically in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

I’ve been interested in having a “go” at P22 for a couple of years now, and so it was a personal pleasure at last to find a space in my list of commitments to be able to tackle the papyrus.  My aims were to prepare and present a more detailed analysis than currently available, and to explore what P22 might tell us about its originally intended usage, and wider matters.

As new information, I measured the size of the letters.  I made detailed notes on the ways they were formed,  and other features of the copyist’s “hand” (including in particular the numerous “ligatures,” i.e., letters connected in a cursive-like fashion).  I made my own fresh transcription (and it seems that either there has been some serious further deterioration in the ink at some points or else Grenfell and Hunt were a bit more confident in seeing letters than I am).

As to its text, well, we have only a small amount of it to go on:  one fragment has bits of John 15:25–16:2 and the other has bits of John 16:21-32.  But, having examined the variation-units where P22 is extant, in general it bears a text that is very close to that preferred in the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (which its editors offer as their best judgement about the earliest recoverable text).  That is, P22 seems to reflect a concern for faithful copying of the text, with scant indication of efforts to “smooth” the text or “improve” it stylistically or otherwise.

As indicated, that it is a re-used roll means that P22 was likely copied for (perhaps by) someone who wanted his/her own personal copy of GJohn for reading, perhaps for study and/or devotional usage.  Moreover, this plus the highly informal nature of the “hand” of the copyist combine to suggest that the intended user was from the “sub-elite” levels of Roman-era society, i.e., someone who couldn’t acquire (perhaps couldn’t afford) a more elegant copy.

And that in itself is interesting.  It means that in P22 we have an artifact of such a reader, such a Christian (probably) of the 3rd century, someone who wasn’t of elite status, probably someone who had to work for his/her living (not landed gentry), probably someone of modest educational attainment, but someone who nevertheless wanted a copy of GJohn for his/her own personal reading.

In an essay arising from my analysis of P22 I probe these and other matters a bit farther.  I’ll present the paper in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November (in San Diego), and it is to be published in a multi-author volume in honor of a fellow NT scholar.

My main point here is to illustrate how much there is yet to learn from a patient and close analysis of early Christian papyri, even ones that have been known for a long time.  For they have rarely been studied as artifacts, their physical and visual features probed with the right questions in mind.  Not simply the readings that they contain, but what they tell us as physical copies of texts, about how these texts were regarded, when/how they were read, the kinds of people involved (e.g., their social, economic and educational levels), etc.

I hope that the younger/emergent generation of scholars in NT/Christian origins will include some who will find this sort of investigation as fascinating as I do.

Excellent images of P22 are available from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts here.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Are there instances of nomina sacra/ anything interesting to report in that regard? I think I see “father” contracted.

    • There are nomina sacra forms of “pater” (father), “anthropos” (man), and “Iesous” (Jesus”.

  2. Thanks, Larry, for your study. I do find such artifacts fascinating, thanks to your interest imparted to us! Can’t wait to see the whole thing in November!

  3. I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear the perspective of these texts as artifacts from a real world, something beyond just the words on the papyrus. I do have a question, though – how was it decided that this came from a roll, rather than a codex?

    • In the case of fragments such as P22, if we have writing of the same text on both sides, it likely is from a codex leaf. P22 has writing on only one side, so it is presumed to have come from a roll. But because the writing is on the side with vertical fibres, it is thought to come from a re-used roll.

  4. A profile of Papyrus 22, including an analysis of its text, is among the files that can be downloaded at the NT Textual Criticism group at Facebook.

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