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The “Willoughby Papyrus” (P134)

December 18, 2018

In the latest issue of Journal of Biblical Literature Geoffrey Smith offers an in-depth discussion of an interesting papyrus that has a few verses of John on one side and what appears to be remnants of an otherwise unknown Christian text on the other side of the writing material: Geoffrey Smith, “The Willoughby Papyrus: A New Fragment of John 1:492:1 (P134) and an Unidentified Christian Text,” JBL 137.4 (2018): 935-58.

The item was acquired by Professor Harold Willoughby (University of Chicago) at some point earlier than the early 1950s, when it shows up in a hand-written list of such items among Willoughby’s large personal collection of books and manuscripts.  But Willoughby never published the item.  Instead, at his death it went into a suitcase and was stored in an attic, until one of his descendents discovered it.  Initially, it was put on e-Bay for sale, but when Brice Jones noticed it and blogged about it (here), the e-Bay listing was cancelled.  The item remains in the possession of the Willoughby relative (who wishes to remain anonymous).  But Smith was permitted to make an autopsy examination and to make his own photo-images, on the basis of which he offers his newly published study.

There are some noteworthy features of the item.  First, it is not apparently a portion of a leaf of a codex, for the two sides have two different texts (whereas in a codex the text continues from one side to the other).  It is possibly a fragment of an isolated sheet, perhaps even an amulet, or (Smith’s favored suggestion) perhaps a remnant of a book-roll initially used for a copy of the Gospel of John and then re-used for the other early Christian text.  If this last option is the correct one, then P134 would be the first instance of a copy of a Gospel copied in an unused bookroll (all other known Gospels papyri are codices or a few re-used rolls).   I don’t find it surprising that we might find copies of Gospels (or other texts that became part of the NT) in a bookroll format.  What is surprising (and in my view indicative of something significant) is that there aren’t more examples.

Another interesting (and somewhat irregular) feature is that, although the copyist knew and used the early Christian copyist practice called nomina sacra, in the verses of John there is an instance of an uncontracted form of θεος (theos).  Again, this isn’t exceptional, but it is unusual and noteworthy.  What it indicates (in my view) along with some other related data is that the nomina sacra represent a Christian copyist convention, and, as with other human conventions, there were irregularities in observance of the practice.

Smith openly admits that his own aim is to blur the distinction between how the texts than came to form the NT were regarded in the third century and those other early Christian texts that are now “non-canonical.”  If we imagine some uniformity in third-century Christian attitudes, then Smith’s line of argument is an “easy goal.”  But, if we don’t imagine a uniform and rigidly enforced set of practices and attitudes in the second and third centuries (and how could there have been such then?), data such as the Willoughby Papyrus simply comprise examples that show both a dominant set of practices and some diversity, with the papyrus being one of a few other “outrider” items.

In any case, Smith’s study is exemplary in thoroughness, even-handed treatment of opinions and possibilities, and an appropriately cautious advancing of his preferred views.  And we should all be grateful to the owner for permitting Smith to have access to the item and to bring it before the scholarly guild.

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5 Comments
  1. Tom Hennell permalink

    Is it the case that the nomina sacra convention is found on the non-biblical text side, but not observed on the biblical text side? Obviously, we cannot generalise from such a small sample; but that might be a contra-indication of the proposition that the nomina sacra convention was seen as more appropriate for canonical texts at this date.

    • No, Tom, nomina sacra appear on both sides of the item, in the John text and the unidentified text. Also, it’s judged to date ca. 250-350 CE, well after the nomina sacra convention was established. The nomina sacra appear in non-biblical Christian texts (e.g., letters) as well as in biblical texts, although it appears to have been more consistently followed in the case of texts serving as scripture.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Sorry to pester on this; but this is fascinating.

        One suggestion for the biblical text (John 1:50 – 2:1 ) not being in codex form, is that it was an amulet. But would an amulet have linked across two narratives in this way?

      • Smith discusses this and other matters in the article. Yes, there are a couple of analogous examples of amulets using such texts.

  2. Tom Hennell permalink

    Tommy Wasserman discussed this papyrus (including an image of the bibilical text) in the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog for November 21st 2015

    http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2015/11/a-new-papyrus-of-gospel-of-john.html

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