College of Liberal Arts

Early Christianity Scholar Discovers Ancient Papyrus Fragment on eBay

Mon, Nov 30, 2015
The fragment’s front side reads John 1.49-2.1, the final portion of the calling of Nathaniel and the beginning of the Wedding at Cana. Photo by Geoffrey Smith.
The fragment’s front side reads John 1.49-2.1, the final portion of the calling of Nathaniel and the beginning of the Wedding at Cana. Photo by Geoffrey Smith.

A fourth-century papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, one of about 130 Greek New Testament papyri known to survive today, made its serendipitous debut in an online auction earlier this year — with a starting bid of less than $100.

Prior to that, the fragment had been stashed away in a suitcase in an attic for 25 years, only to be discovered by the owner, who said “I recently took time to go through [the suitcase] and [the papyrus] fell out from a stack of letters and papers.” Unaware of what he’d found, the finder put it on eBay.

“It took about ten email exchanges before I finally got him on the phone,” said Geoffrey Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies at UT Austin who, upon discovery of the eBay listing, urged the seller to stop the sale and allow him to research it.

“I didn’t want it to disappear into a private collection, where scholars and the public are unable to learn from the piece,” said Smith, who persuaded the anonymous seller to allow him to visit and take a closer look at the piece.

The papyrus is unassumingly small, with the largest piece measuring 7 cm wide by 4.5 cm tall, or about the size of a credit card. Per Smith’s analysis, the fragment is from an unused scroll, with the front side containing lines from John 1.49-2.1 and an unidentified Christian text written upside down on the backside. 

The idea that the fragment originated from a scroll may perplex some scholars initially. But the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany has recognized Smith’s defensible analysis; and the fragment has received Gregory-Aland designation P134 — a registration code referencing the oldest, surviving traces of Christian scripture.

In order to register the fragment, Smith had to defend its authenticity and prove that it was part of a continuous text, rather than a non-continuous text such as an amulet or writing exercise.

Before landing in the hands of the anonymous seller, the fragment belonged to the late biblical scholar Harold Willoughby, formerly a professor of Early Christian Origins at the University of Chicago. The fragment was listed in both his estate inventory and a hand written inventory of his personal manuscript collection.

“I compared the handwriting on his personal inventory to his signed passport to verify that the fragment belonged in Willoughby’s collection prior to his death in 1962,” Smith said.

Though Smith cannot determine how Willoughby acquired the piece, the fragment is not subjected to repatriation claims — set forth by the Unesco convention, which decided that artifacts discovered after 1970 should remain in their place of origin.

“The fragment is authentic and rightfully owned. There’s no doubt about it,” Smith said.

It is the first example of a Greek New Testament written on the front side of an unused scroll, Smith explained. Until now, the only Greek New Testaments to appear on scrolls were written on the back of previously used scrolls — much like the unidentified Christian text is on this example.

“The fact that it’s written on the front of a scroll, rather than a codex like the majority of New Testament papyri, complicates earlier theories on when and how the codex became popular,” Smith said. Until now, it was believed that Christians used codices, or what evolved into books, while Jews and non-Christian Romans preferred scrolls.

At first glance, the fragment could be mistaken as an amulet, or some other sort of non-continuous text. But further analysis showed that due to the sequential order of the passages, the way the papyrus was flipped and rotated to copy another text on the backside, and the lack of evidence of ‘interruption’ in the text, the Gospel of John fragment originated from a continuous copy of the Fourth Gospel on a scroll.

“The format of the text has implications for how seriously scholars will take the Willoughby fragment as a textual witness to the Greek New Testament," Smith said. "Non-continuous texts generally don’t receive P inventory numbers, and perhaps somewhat unfairly, are considered to be less important textual witnesses. Continuous Greek texts on papyrus, however, receive Gregory Aland numbers and are held in highest regard by scholars who work to establish the earliest attainable Greek text of the New Testament.”

As for the unidentified Christian text on the back, it’s too fragmented to identify exactly what it could be; but Smith invites his colleagues to “debate for decades to come.”

These are some of the findings Smith presented to the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on Nov. 21. 

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