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Egypt played a significant role in early Christianity. Not only was there a longstanding Jewish population in Egypt but early Christianity saw a significant number of Christians as well. Moreover, a family of Greek New Testament manuscripts came from Egypt as well, known as the Alexandrian family. These are the earliest known manuscripts and the most trustworthy as well. The earliest sources for the Greek New Testament are the papyri in codex (book-like) form. Of course, this designation came from the medium on which they were inscribed. At present, there have been over one hundred of these discovered, with sixty-two of these manuscripts dating between 100 – 300 C.E. These biblical papyri range from a very small fragment to codices, which may be incomplete, but still, contain large portions of several New Testament books. They are noted in literature with the Black letter character also known as Gothic script 𝔓, or by an upper- or lowercase “P” followed by a superscript Arabic number. (e.g., 𝔓52, 𝔓66, and 𝔓75).
NOTE: B.C.E. means “before the Common Era,” which is more accurate than B.C. (“before Christ”). C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”
P75 dating to about 175-225 C.E. is Alexandrian text-type and the Alands have it as Category I, strict text. The text is closer to Codex Vaticanus than to Codex Sinaiticus. It agrees with P111 (200-250). P75 (c.175–225) contains most of Luke and John and has vindicated Westcott and Hort for their choice of Vaticanus as the premium manuscript for establishing the original text. After careful study of P75 against Vaticanus, scholars found that they are just short of being identical. In his introduction to the Greek text, Hort argued that Vaticanus is a “very pure line of very ancient text.” Of course, Westcott and Hort were not aware of P75 that would be published in 1961, about 80 years later.
The discovery of P75 proved to be the catalyst for correcting the misconception that early copyists were predominately unskilled. As we elsewhere on our blog earlier, either literate or semi-professional copyist produced the vast majority of the early papyri, and some copied by professionals. The few poorly copied manuscripts simply became known first, giving an impression that was difficult for some to discard when the enormous amount of evidence surfaced that showed just the opposite. Of course, the discovery of P75 has also had a profound effect on New Testament textual criticism because of its striking agreement with Codex Vaticanus.
Manuscripts Saved from Egyptian Garbage Heaps
Beginning in 1778 and continuing to the end of the 19th century, many papyrus texts were accidentally discovered in Egypt that dated from 300 B.C.E. to 500 C.E., almost 500 million documents in all. About 130 years ago, there began a systematic search. At that time, a continuous flow of ancient texts was being found by the native fellahin, and the Egypt Exploration Society, a British non-profit organization, founded in 1882, realized that they needed to send out an expedition team before it was too late. They sent two Oxford scholars, Bernard P. Grenfell, and Arthur S. Hunt, who received permission to search the area south of the farming region in the Faiyūm district. Grenfell chose a site called Behnesa because of its ancient Greek name, Oxyrhynchus. A search of the graveyards and the ruined houses produced nothing. The only place left to search was the town’s garbage dumps, which were some 30 feet [9 m] high. It seems to Grenfell and Hunt that all was lost but they decided to try.
In January of 1897, a trial trench (excavation or depression in the ground) was dug, and it only took a few hours before ancient papyrus materials were found. These included letters, contracts, and official documents. The sand had blown over them, covering them, and for nearly 2,000 years, the dry climate had served as a protection for them.
It took only a mere three months to pull out and recover almost two tons of papyri from Oxyrhynchus. They shipped twenty-five large cases back to England. Over the next ten years, these two courageous scholars returned each and every winter, to grow their collection. They discovered ancient classical writing, along with royal ordinances and contracts mixed in with business accounts private letters, some from Christians, shipping lists, as well as fragments of many New Testament manuscripts.
The Basel Papyrus Collection
In 1900, the University of Basel was one of the first German-speaking universities and the first in German-speaking Switzerland to procure a papyrus collection. At that time, papyrology was booming – people hoped to discover more about the development of early Christendom and to rediscover works of ancient authors believed to be lost. The Voluntary Museum Association of Basel provided CHF 500 to purchase the papyri, an amount equivalent to around CHF 5,000 today.
The Basel collection contains 65 documents in five languages from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods and late antiquity. Most of the collection is made up of documentary papyri, which are primarily of social, cultural and religious historical interest as they record the daily life of ordinary people 2,000 years ago. Most of the Basel papyri have not been published and remained largely ignored by research until now. The three-year editorial project led by Prof. Huebner was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and carried out in collaboration with the Digital Humanities Lab of the University of Basel.
Earliest Known Christian Letter
It has been announced that the earliest known Christian letter has been discovered, which was written in Roman Egypt in the 230s C.E. The letter sheds some light on the early followers of Jesus Christ. According to Sabine R. Huebner’s new book Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament, the letter gives us an interesting insight into the day-to-day lives of some of the earliest followers to Christianity. According to Phys.org “Most of the Basel papyri have not been published and remained largely ignored by research until now.” However, Professor Sabine Huebner of the University of Basel started to study some of the papyri collection and made a striking discovery.
“The significance of this papyrus lies in the fact that it is the oldest authentic handwriting of a Christian, an original from 1800 years ago,” Huebner told Newsweek. “We have, of course, the letters of the apostle Paul from the first century A.D. and other writings from church fathers of the second century, but here we don’t have the originals, just later copies. This Basel letter is the first handwriting of a Christian.”
The letter is about 50 years earlier than all of the other known Christian documentary letters outside the Bible. It was written by a man named “Arrianus,” who was addressing his brother, “Paulus,” which was an uncommon name of the time. He was likely named after the Apostle Paul who penned fourteen letters of the New Testament. The letter dates back to the 230s C.E. Within the letter (See below), Arrianus discusses faith, local politics, and food under the Roman-Egyptian Empire. The University of Basel site observes, “The earliest Christians in the Roman Empire are usually portrayed as eccentrics [unconventional and slightly strange] who withdrew from the world and were threatened by persecution. This is countered by the contents of the Basel papyrus letter P.Bas. 2.43. The letter contains indications that in the early third century, Christians were living outside the cities in the Egyptian hinterland, where they held political leadership positions and did not differ from their pagan environment in their everyday lives.” I think that we should not get ahead of ourselves over a fragment that says very little. Early Christians took to heart Jesus’ words to be no part of the world (John 15:19; 17:14-16), so they did not go to the bathhouses where homosexuality was prevalent, or to the gladiatorial games, not take part in pagan worship, so they were viewed as traitors of the Roman Empire and often blamed for any catastrophe, being persecuted much in early Christianity.
The papyrus P.Bas. 2.43 has been in the possession of the University of Basel for over 100 years. It is a letter from a man named Arrianus to his brother Paulus. The document stands out from the mass of preserved letters of Greco-Roman Egypt by its concluding greeting formula: After reporting on day-to-day family matters and asking for the best fish sauce as a souvenir, the letter writer uses the last line to express his wish that his brother will prosper “in the Lord.” The author uses the abbreviated form of the Christian phrase “I pray that you fare well ‘in the Lord’.”
“The use of this abbreviation – known as a nomen sacrum in this context – leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer,” says Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.” The name of the brother is also revealing, Huebner goes on to explain: “Paulus was an extremely rare name at that time and we may deduce that the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 AD.”
The Nomina Sacra (Sacred Names)
Nomina Sacra (singular: nomen sacrum from Latin sacred name): In early Christian scribal practices, there was the abbreviation of several frequently occurring divine names or titles within the Greek manuscripts.
In the above is an image of five Nomina Sacra, the first four being divine names and the first four of the fifteen known. Nomina Sacra (Sacred Names): Various contractions and abbreviations that are found in our earliest manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The type that is most important to this discussion is what has become known as the sacred names, or nomina sacra (nomen scrum, singular), such as Lord. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14:2 as a quick example.
The use of the article with divine names in Greek is rather irregular. The nomina sacra were not used in every instance by the copyist in the same way. The θ̅ω̅ of 1 Corinthians 14:2 is referring to “God” the Father. If we argue that the definite article must be present every time theos is used so it can be distinguished as God, what would you do with John 1:1. (και θεος ην ο λογος) Would you render it “and the word was a god” as is the case with the New World Translation?
NOTE: No Greek grammar rule is absolute, it is usually a general rule. The definite article that is often used to point out a distinction between let’s say “the man” and “a man” or “the God” and “a god” or “the Spirit” and “a spirit” is often omitted for no reason at all. Grammar rules and scribal practices have no absolutes. This is NOT TO SAY that everything is helter-skelter, that is, disorderly, in haste, or confusion. There is evidence that many more professional scribes worked on the early papyri than was previously thought. Moreover, the nomen sacrum θ̅ω̅ served a purpose.
A scribe making a nomen sacrum could differentiate between “the Lord” and “lord”/“sir”/“master” by writing ΚΣ or κυριος, and “Spirit” (the divine Spirit) and “spirit” (the human spirit). The fact that a scribe for 1 Corinthians 14:2 uses a nomen sacrum on θ̅ω̅ is a scribe helping the reader differentiate between “God” the father and “god.” It is “God.” Moreover, notice that we have “spirit” (πνεύματι/π̅ν̅ι) with no definite article but it is written in the nomen sacrum π̅ν̅ι. Again, the scribe is helping the reader differentiate between “in or by the Spirit” and maybe “in his spirit.”
ΠΡΟΣ ΚΟΡΙΝΘΙΟΥΣ Α΄ 14:2 1881 Westcott-Hort New Testament (WHNU)
2 ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ οὐκ ἀνθρώποις λαλεῖ ἀλλὰ θ̅ω̅, οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἀκούει, π̅ν̅ι̅ δὲ λαλεῖ μυστήρια·
- ESV: in the Spirit
- LEB: by the Spirit
- CSB: in the Spirit
- NASB: in his spirit
These sacred names are abbreviated or contracted by keeping the first letter or two and the last letter. Another important feature is the horizontal bar placed over these letters [ι̅υ̅ χ̅υ̅ υ̅υ̅] to help the reader know that they are dealing with a contraction. The early Christian writers had three different ways that they would pen a sacred name: (1) suspension, (2) contraction, and (3)longer contraction. The suspension is accomplished by writing only the first two letters of such sacred names as Jesus (ιησους) = (ι̅η̅) and suspending the remaining letters (σους). The contraction is accomplished by writing only the first and last letter of say Jesus (ιησους) = (ι̅ς̅) and removing the remaining letters (ησου).
The longer contraction would simply keep the first two letters instead of just one, as well as the last letter (ιης). After penning the suspension or contraction, the scribe would place a bar over the name. This practice of place a bar over the name was likely a carried over from the common practice of scribes placing bars above contractions, especially numbers, which were represented by letters, ΙΑ = eleven.
These nomina sacra are found only in Christian manuscripts. This is not to say other non-Christians did not use abbreviations and contractions, as they did. However, they served a purpose of saving space in their manuscripts (in other words no specific words), and the horizontal bar was used in their abbreviations as well, especially numbers. The Christian abbreviations while are an appropriate description of their form, it is inaccurate to function, as they served as sacred names.
According to Huebner.
“The provenance of the papyrus was unknown until recently, but thanks to extensive analysis I was able to assign the papyrus to Theadelphia, a Roman village in central Egypt,” Huebner told Newsweek. “The backside of the papyrus letter gave the clue, since the business note scribbled on it showed us that it belongded to the largest papyrus archive of Roman times—the so-called Heroninus archive that comprises more than 1,000 documents and deals with the management of an enormous estate.”
“The persons named in the Basel letter—Arrianus, Paulus, and Herakleides—also show up in other papyri from the Heroninus archive, and from one of these documents we learn than Herakleides was a high priest of his city and member of the city council in 239 A.D.,” she said. “That can only mean that the Basel letter was written well before 239 A.D., since Arrianus says in this letter that Herakleides was just nominated to the city council.”
The letter (papyrus P.Bas. 2.43) is more evidence that the Christians of early Christianity, such as Arrianus and Paulus were educated. They were sons of a member of the local elite, all of this giving us more insight into the early Christians in 230s of the Roman-Egyptian Empire. See THE READING CULTURE OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY: The Production, Publication, Circulation, and Use of Books in the Early Christian Church by Edward D. Andrews
Heubner goes on,
“[The letter] tells us that Christianity had spread to the Egyptian hinterland by the 230s or even well before—since already the brothers’ parents seem to have been Christians because they named one of their sons Paulus. But [it also tells us] that ordinary Christians managed to combine their faith with the life of a member of the local gentry, with political offices—where they surely came into contact with the imperial [pagan] cult—and with the management of large estates, etc.”
The Full Transcript of the Letter
“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus. I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as well as possible in your life.
“[Since] Menibios was going to you, I thought it necessary to salute you as well as our lord father. Now, I remind you about the gymnasiarchy, so that we are not troubled here. For Heracleides would be unable to take care of it: he has been named to the city council. Find thus an opportunity that you buy the two [–] arouras.
“But send me the fish liver sauce too, whichever you think is good. Our lady mother is well and salutes you as well as your wives and sweetest children and our brothers and all our people. Salute our brothers [-]genes and Xydes. All our people salute you.
“I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”
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