Papyrus Rylands 458: The Oldest Copy of the Greek Septuagint

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Papyrus Rylands 458 (TM 62298LDAB 3459) is a copy of the Pentateuch[1] in a Greek[2] version of the Hebrew Bible[3] known as the Septuagint.[4] It is a papyrus manuscript[5] in roll form. The manuscript has been assigned palaeographically[6] toward the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E. (That is, 150 B.C.E.},[7] and before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls[8] it was the oldest known manuscript of the Greek Bible. The manuscript has survived in a very fragmentary condition.

The text was written on papyrus[9] in uncial[10] letters. It is designated by the number 957 on the list of Septuagint manuscripts according to the numbering system devised by Alfred Rahlfs.[11] The surviving texts of the Book of Deuteronomy[12] are Deuteronomy 23:24(26)–24:3; 25:1–3; 26:12; 26:17–19; 28:31–33; 27:15; 28:2.[13]

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The manuscript consists of only 8 small fragments, designated by the letters “a”–”h”. Fragment “h” is the smallest and contains only two letters. The words are not divided by spaces but written continuously. The writer uses the colorimetric system, regularly leaving a space at the end of a sentence or clause.[14]

The text of the manuscript agrees more with Washington Manuscript I (WI) or Codex Alexandrinus[15] than with Codex Vaticanus.[16]

 

Tetragrammaton In Papyrus Rylands 458

Martin Rösel wrote that the fragmentary manuscript contains neither Κύριος nor the Tetragrammaton, but it has “a gap in Deut. 26.18 where one would expect either κύριος or the tetragrammaton. This gap is large enough to accommodate both words, and it seems likely that the scribe of the Greek text left the space free for someone else to insert the Hebrew characters of the tetragrammaton.”[17] In his view, “from the very beginnings of the translation of the Pentateuch, the translators were using κύριος as an/the equivalent for the Hebrew name of God.”[18]

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Anthony Meyer rejects Rösel’s supposition that the Tetragrammaton was likely intended to be inserted into Rylands 458. He cites the directly opposite supposition of C. H. Roberts,[19] who in 1936 wrote: “It is probable that κυριος was written in full, i.e. that the scribe did not employ the theological contractions[20] almost universal in later MSS.” However, Paul E. Kahle[21] said in 1957 that Roberts had by then changed his mind and had accepted Kahle’s view that “this space actually contained the Tetragrammaton”. Meyer objects: There is no measurable gap, waiting to be filled. Instead, the fragment simply breaks off at this point, and Rylands 458 offers no support for the idea that it used the Tetragrammaton at this point.[22]

Albert Pietersma also says that the evidence from this manuscript has been overemphasized, “not because it is relevant to our discussion, but because it has been forcibly introduced into the discussion, in part, one surmises, because it is the oldest extant LXX MSS.”[23] He adds with some irony, “One hopes that this text will henceforth be banned from further discussion regarding the Tetragram since it has nothing to say about it.”[24]

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History of the Scroll

Palaeographically the manuscript has been assigned to the mid-2nd century BC. It is the oldest known manuscript of the Septuagint. It is believed it came from Fayyum,[25] where there were two Jewish synagogues.[26]

The manuscript was discovered in 1917 by J. Rendel Harris.[27] It was examined by A. Vaccari (1936) and A. Pietersma (1985).[2] The text was edited by C. H. Roberts in 1936.[28]

The manuscript is currently housed at the John Rylands Library[29] (Gr. P. 458) in Manchester,[30] giving the manuscript its name.

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[1] Torah has a range of meanings. It can most specifically mean the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. This is commonly known as the Written Torah. It can also mean the continued narrative from all the 24 books, from the Book of Genesis to the end of the Tanakh (Chronicles). If in bound book form, it is called Chumash, and is usually printed with the rabbinic commentaries. If meant for liturgic purposes, it takes the form of a Torah scroll, which contains strictly the five books of Moses.

[2] Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus, Albania, other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning at least 3,500 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

[3] The Hebrew Bible, which is also called the Tanakh, or sometimes the Miqra (מִקְרָא), is the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures, including the Torah. These texts are almost exclusively in Biblical Hebrew, with a few passages in Biblical Aramaic. The form of this text that is authoritative for Rabbinic Judaism is known as the Masoretic Text (MT) and consists of 24 books, while Protestant Bibles divide essentially the same material into 39 books. Catholic Bibles and Eastern / Greek Orthodox Bibles contain additional materials in their Old Testaments, derived from the Septuagint and other sources.

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[4] The Greek Old Testament, or Septuagint, is the earliest extant Koine Greek translation of books from the Hebrew Bible, various biblical Apocrypha, and deuterocanonical books. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch, were translated in the mid-3rd century BCE; they did not survive as original-translation texts, however, except as rare fragments. The remaining books of the Greek Old Testament are presumably translations of the 2nd century BCE.

[5]manuscript was, traditionally, any document that is written by hand – or, once practical typewriters became available, typewritten — as opposed to being mechanically printed or reproduced in some indirect or automated way. More recently, the term has come to be understood to further include any written, typed, or word-processed copy of an author’s work, as distinguished from its rendition as a printed version of the same. Before the arrival of printing, all documents and books were manuscripts. Manuscripts are not defined by their contents, which may combine writing with mathematical calculations, maps, music notation, explanatory figures, or illustrations.

[6] Palaeography (UK) or paleography is the study of ancient and historical handwriting. Included in the discipline is the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts, and the cultural context of writing, including the methods with which writing and books were produced, and the history of scriptoria.

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[7] George Howard (1971). “The oldest Greek text of Deuteronomy”. Hebrew Union College Annual. Jewish Institute of Religion: Hebrew Union College Press. Vol. 42: 125–131. JSTOR 23506719

[8] The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish religious manuscripts that were found in the Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert, near Ein Feshkha on the northern shore of the Dead Sea in the West Bank. Scholarly consensus dates these scrolls from the last three centuries BCE and the first century CE. The texts have great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the second-oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon, along with deuterocanonical and extra-biblical manuscripts which preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. Almost all of the Dead Sea Scrolls are held by the state of Israel in the Shrine of the Book on the grounds of the Israel Museum, but ownership of the scrolls is disputed by Jordan and Palestine.

[9] Papyrus is a material similar to thick paper that was used in ancient times as a writing surface. It was made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge. Papyrus can also refer to a document written on sheets of such material, joined together side by side and rolled up into a scroll, an early form of a book.

[10] Uncial is a majuscule script commonly used from the 4th to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. Uncial letters were used to write Greek, Latin, and Gothic.

[11] Alfred Rahlfs was a German Biblical scholar. He was a member of the history of religions school. He is known for his edition of the Septuagint published in 1935.

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[12] The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Jewish Torah, where it is called Devarim, “the words [of Moses]”.

[13] Würthwein Ernst (1988). Der Text des Alten Testaments, Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, p. 190.

[14] Würthwein Ernst (1988). Der Text des Alten Testaments, Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, p. 190.

[15] The Codex Alexandrinus is a fifth-century Christian manuscript of a Greek Bible, containing the majority of the Greek Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. It is one of the four Great uncial codices. Along with the Codex Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus, it is one of the earliest and most complete manuscripts of the Bible. Brian Walton assigned Alexandrinus the capital Latin letter A in the Polyglot Bible of 1657. This designation was maintained when the system was standardized by Wettstein in 1751. Thus, Alexandrinus held the first position in the manuscript list.

[16] The Codex Vaticanus is one of the oldest copies of the Bible, one of the four great uncial codices. The Codex is named after its place of conservation in the Vatican Library, where it has been kept since at least the 15th century. It is written on 759 leaves of vellum in uncial letters and has been dated palaeographically to the 4th century.

[17] Martin Rösel. Tradition and Innovation: English and German Studies on the Septuagint. SBL Press; 8 October 2018. ISBN 978-0-88414-324-6. p. 295.

[18] Martin Rösel, “The Reading and Translation of the Divine Name in the Masoretic Tradition and the Greek Pentateuch” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 2007 31: 425 DOI: 10.1177/0309089207080558

[19] Colin Henderson Roberts was a classical scholar and publisher. He was Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press between 1954 and 1974.

[20] In Christian scribal practice, nomina sacra is the abbreviation of several frequently occurring divine names or titles, especially in Greek manuscripts of Holy Scripture. A nomen sacrum consists of two or more letters from the original word spanned by an overline.

[21] Paul Ernst Kahle was a German orientalist and scholar.

[22] Anthony Meyer, The Divine Name in Early Judaism: Use and Non-Use in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek (McMaster University 2017), p. 211

[23] Albert Pietersma (1984). Albert Pietersma and Claude Cox (ed.). Kyrios or Tetragram: A Renewed Quest for the Original LXX (PDF). De Septuaginta. Studies in Honour of John William Wevers on his sixty-fifth birthday. Mississauga: Benben Publications. P. 91

[24] Albert Pietersma (1984). Albert Pietersma and Claude Cox (ed.). Kyrios or Tetragram: A Renewed Quest for the Original LXX (PDF). De Septuaginta. Studies in Honour of John William Wevers on his sixty-fifth birthday. Mississauga: Benben Publications. P. 92.

[25] Faiyum is a city in Middle Egypt. Located 100 kilometres southwest of Cairo, in the Faiyum Oasis, it is the capital of the modern Faiyum Governorate. Originally called Shedet in Egyptian, the Greeks called it Koinē Greek: Κροκοδειλόπολις, romanized: Krokodilópolis, and later Byzantine Greek: Ἀρσινόη, romanized: Arsinoë. It is one of Egypt’s oldest cities due to its strategic location.

[26] Würthwein Ernst (1988). Der Text des Alten Testaments, Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, p. 190.

[27] James Rendel Harris was an English biblical scholar and curator of manuscripts, who was instrumental in bringing back to light many Syriac Scriptures and other early documents. His contacts at the Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt enabled twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson to discover there the Sinaitic Palimpsest, the oldest Syriac New Testament document in existence. He subsequently accompanied them on a second trip, with Robert Bensly and Francis Crawford Burkitt, to decipher the palimpsest. He himself discovered there other manuscripts. Harris’s Biblical Fragments from Mount Sinai appeared in 1890. He was a Quaker.

[28] Roberts, C. H. (1936) Two biblical Papyri in the John Rylands Library Manchester. Manchester 1936, p. 25.

Opitz, H. & Schaeder, H. (2009). Zum Septuaginta-Papyrus Rylands Greek 458. Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Älteren Kirche, 35(1), pp. 115-117. Retrieved 3 Jul. 2019, from doi:10.1515/zntw.1936.35.1.115

[29] The John Rylands Library is a late-Victorian neo-Gothic building on Deansgate in Manchester, England. The library, which opened to the public in 1900, was founded by Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in memory of her husband, John Rylands. The John Rylands Library and the library of the University of Manchester merged in July 1972 into the John Rylands University Library of Manchester; today it is part of The University of Manchester Library.

[30] Würthwein Ernst (1988). Der Text des Alten Testaments, Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, p. 190.

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