Macquarie University's latest papyrus fragments shed light on early Christianity

Macquarie University's latest papyrus fragments shed light on early Christianity

Peter Westmore

Macquarie University has recently acquired three internationally significant papyrus fragments from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, which are important records from the early years of Christianity.

Papyrus manuscripts, made from a reed grown in the Nile, were used throughout the Mediterranean world, but have only survived in significant quantities in Egypt, due to its hot, dry climate.

These documents also enhance our understanding of the early spread of Christianity. Over the past 100 years, the extensive study of these original ancient documents has confirmed that the texts Christians use today are the same as those read by Christians from the earliest times.

From the information they contain and the text style, a reasonably accurate estimate can be made of when the documents were written. There is now wide agreement on the dating of these texts.

Christianity rescued

The study of these ancient texts has rescued Christianity from anti-Christian writers who, from the 18th century, maintained that Christianity was merely a set of myths, based on manufactured texts, perpetrated by the Church to enhance its own power and prestige.

The earliest papyrus fragments of New Testament texts have been reliably dated by scholars to around 100AD. There are older Biblical fragments, such as Old Testament texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which go back to around 150-200BC.

These were preserved only because they had been stored inside earthenware vessels, in the very dry climate in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel.

The books of the New Testament were almost certainly originally written on scrolls. These scrolls were probably of papyrus, which was the cheapest and most important writing material in the ancient world.

Few papyrus documents have survived, because it is relatively fragile, can be easily torn, grows brittle with age and is ruined by damp.

Papyrus was not, however, the only writing material used in the ancient world.

Parchment - the carefully prepared skins of animals - was also available. It was, in fact, a better material, at once stronger, smoother (which made attractive writing easier), and more durable. But it was also much more expensive.

It was not until the Roman Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the fourth century that parchment came to be widely used for church writings.

The heyday of papyrus manuscripts was during the third and fourth centuries, but we have papyri from as late as the eighth century (by which time the Islamic conquest had largely suppressed Greek-speaking Christianity in Egypt).

The Macquarie papyri come from a collection discovered in Egypt in 1897, which date from the first-fifth centuries AD.

A Macquarie University project, titled Papyri from the Rise of Christianity in Egypt (PCE), aims, in the first instance, to publish texts which document the rise of Christianity in Egypt down to the victory of Constantine over Licinius in 324. This will be the first such collection published for around 80 years.

The project explicitly includes all papyrological material bearing on the question, that is, "literary texts" as well as documents.

The papyri are not collected simply for their own sake; that is, PCE is not only a collection of Christian papyri. Rather, the papyri "form the focus for a detailed study of the papyrological evidence for the spread of Christianity in Egypt."

The newly-acquired fragments give us some very interesting insights into early Christianity. The first of the three documents acquired by Macquarie is a fifth century letter, misspelled and crudely written, from a boy, Peter, to his mother, Maria.

The names are important, because the name Peter was originally given by Jesus to Simon: it had not previously been used as a personal name. It was, literally, a Christian name. The name Maria comes from that of the Virgin Mary.

Greg Welsh, from Macquarie University, said this letter from the boy Peter contained greetings to his brethren, and requested four articles of winter clothing and some rings.

The second of the Macquarie papyri is a fragment of a letter by a woman addressed to a person as her "father", which contains phrases appearing to allude to the Psalms and the New Testament, and is dated in the late third or early fourth century, when Christianity was still being persecuted in the Roman Empire.

The final papyrus is half of a fourth century personal letter from Boethus, son of Achillion, with greetings to his siblings and the offer to purchase a jar of olives.

Important documents

All the letters were written in Greek, and are recognised as important early documents referring to Christianity.

Macquarie's Museum of Ancient Cultures houses over 700 papyri fragments dating from the third century BC through to the sixth century AD, including personal letters, accounts and contracts, school and literary texts written mostly in Greek as well as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic, Coptic, Latin and Hebrew. In particular, Macquarie's Ancient History Documentary Research Centre scholars will benefit.

"These three Oxyrhynchus papyri show us the extent of the Christianisation of Egypt at this period of time and also give us an insight into the level of society to which Christianity had reached," says Macquarie papyrologist Dr Don Barker. "It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to buy some Oxyrhynchus papyri - I doubt it will ever happen again."

The study of these ancient documents gives not only an insight into the lives of the Greek-speaking Egyptians of the fourth century AD, but also of their beliefs.

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