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Papyrus is a tall, aquatic reed, the pith of which is cut into strips, laid in a crosswork pattern and glued together to make a page for writing. The papyrus rolls of Egypt have been used as a writing surface since the early third millennium BC. The Greeks adopted papyrus around 900 BC, and later the Romans adopted its use. However, the oldest extant Greek rolls of papyrus date from the fourth century BC. Unfortunately, papyrus is perishable, requiring a dry climate for its preservation. That is why so many papyri have been discovered in the desert sands of Egypt.
The NT papyrus manuscripts (abbreviated as “P”) are generally the earliest manuscripts of the NT. Broadly speaking, the most important ones can be categorized in three groups: the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt), (2) the Beatty Papyri (named after the owner); and (3) the Bodmer Papyri (named after the owner).
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Beginning in 1898 B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt discovered thousands of papyrus fragments in the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. This site yielded volumes of papyrus fragments containing all sorts of written material (literature, business, and legal contracts, letters, etc.) as well as over 40 manuscripts containing portions of the NT. Some of the more noteworthy papyrus manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus are as follows:
→ P1 (P. Oxy. 2) This late second-century manuscript contains Matthew 1:1–9, 12, 14–20. Grenfell and Hunt in the winter of 1896–97 went to Oxyrhynchus (now called El Bahnasa) in search of ancient Christian documents. P1 was discovered on the second day of the dig. At the time of this discovery, this was the earliest extant copy of any NT portion—at least 100 years earlier than Codex Vaticanus. The copyist of P1 seems to have faithfully followed a very reliable exemplar. Where there are major variants, P1 agrees with the best Alexandrian witnesses, especially B (Codex Vaticanus), from which it rarely varies.
→ P5 (P. Oxy. 208 and 1781) Two separate portions of this third-century manuscript were unearthed from Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt, both from the same papyrus manuscript. The first portion contains John 1:23–31, 33–40 on one fragment and John 20:11–17 on another—probably on the first and last quires of a manuscript containing only the Gospel of John. This portion was published in volume II of Oxyrhynchus Papyri in 1899; the second portion—containing John 16:14–30—was not published until 1922 in volume XV of Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
After examining the first portion, Grenfell and Hunt said, “The text is a good one, and appears to have affinities with that of Codex Sinaiticus, with which the papyrus agrees in several readings not found elsewhere.” The papyrus, written in a documentary hand, is marked for its brevity.
→ P13 (P. Oxy. 657 and PSI 1292) This manuscript, dated between 175 and 225, contains 12 columns from a roll preserving the text of Hebrews 2:14–5:5; 10:8–22; 10:29–11:13; 11:28–12:7. The text of Hebrews was written in a reformed documentary hand on the back of the papyrus containing the new epitome of Livy. For this reason, some scholars think the manuscript was possibly brought to Egpyt by a Roman official and left behind when he left his post. P13 very often agrees with B, and it supplements B where it is lacking—namely, from Hebrews 9:14 to the end of Hebrews. P13 and P46 display nearly the same text. Out of a total of 88 variation-units, there are 71 agreements and only 17 disagreements.
→ P77 (P. Oxy. 2683 + 4405) Dated c. 150–75, this is the earliest manuscript of Matthew (23:30–39). The manuscript is clearly a literary production. It was written in an elegant hand and has what was or became a standard system of chapter division, as well as punctuation and breathing marks. P77 has close textual affinities with Codex Sinaiticus.
→ P90 (P. Oxy. 3523) This second-century manuscript (c. 150–75) contains John 18:36–19:7. The handwriting (an upright, rounded, elegant script) is much like that found in P66. Furthermore, P90 has more affinity with P66 than with any other single manuscript, though it does not concur with P66 in its entirety.
→ P. Oxy. 4404 Containing Matthew 21:34–37, 43, 45, this manuscript could be the earliest extant manuscript of the NT in that the script is early Roman and therefore could be dated to the early second century.
The Chester Beatty Papyri These manuscripts were purchased from a dealer in Egypt during the 1930s by Chester Beatty and by the University of Michigan. The three manuscripts in this collection are very early and contain a large portion of the NT text. P45 (c. 200) contains portions of all four Gospels and Acts; P46 (c. 125) has almost all of Paul’s epistles and Hebrews; and P47 (third century) contains Revelation 9–17.
→ P45 (Chester Beatty Papyrus I) This codex has the four Gospels and Acts (Mt 20:24–32; 21:13–19; 25:41–26:39; Mk 4:36–9:31; 11:27–12:28; Lk 6:31–7:7; 9:26–14:33; Jn 4:51–5:2, 21–25; 10:7–25; 10:30–11:10, 18–36, 42–57; Acts 4:27–17:17). The order of books in the original intact manuscript was probably as follows: Matthew, John, Luke, Mark, Acts (the so-called Western order). This manuscript was dated by Kenyon to the early third century, a date that was confirmed by the papyrologists W. Schubart and H. I. Bell. This continues to be the date assigned to this manuscript in modern handbooks on textual criticism and critical editions of the Greek NT, but the consistent formation of certain letters suggests an earlier date—maybe sometime in the late second century.
The scribe of P45 worked without any intention of exactly reproducing his source. He wrote with a great amount of freedom—harmonizing, smoothing out, substituting at will. In short, the scribe did not actually copy words. He saw through the language to its idea-content, and copied that in words of his own choosing, or in rearranged order. Thus, in the scribe of P45, we see an exegete and a paraphrase.
→ P46 (Chester Beatty Papyrus II) This codex has most of Paul’s epistles (excluding the Pastorals) in this order: Romans 5:17–6:14; 8:15–15:9; 15:11–16:27; Hebrews 1:1–13:25; 1 Corinthians 1:1–16:22; 2 Corinthians 1:1–13:13; Ephesians 1:1–6:24; Galatians 1:1–6:18; Philippians 1:1–4:23; Colossians 1:1–4:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 1:9–2:3; 5:5–9, 23–28 (with minor lacunae in each of the books).
The manuscript was originally dated to the early third century. But others, since, have dated the manuscript earlier in the second century. The scribe who produced this manuscript used an early, excellent exemplar. He was a professional scribe because there are stichoi notations at the end of several books (see the conclusion of Romans, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians). The stichoi were used by professionals to note how many lines had been copied for commensurate pay. Most likely, the ex officio of the scriptorium (perhaps connected wth a church library) paginated the codex and indicated the stichoi. The scribe himself made a few corrections as he went, and then several other readers made corrections here and there.
The text of P46 shows a strong affinity with B (especially in Ephesians, Colossians, and Hebrews) and next with א (Codex Sinaiticus). P46 agrees much less with the later representatives of the Alexandrian text. In short, P46 is proto-Alexandrian. In Hebrews, P46 and P13 display nearly the same text. Out of a total of 88 variation-units, there are 71 agreements and only 17 disagreements.
→ P47 (Chester Beatty Papyrus III) This third-century codex contains Revelation 9:10–17:2. The text of P47 agrees more often with that of Codex Sinaiticus than with any other manuscript (including Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus), though it often shows independence.
The Bodmer Papyri These manuscripts were purchased by M. Martin Bodmer from a dealer in Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s. The three important papyri in this collection are P66 (c. 175, containing almost all of John), P72 (third century, having all of 1 and 2 Peter and Jude), and P75 (c. 200, containing large parts of Luke 3–John 15).
→ P66 (Papyrus Bodmer II) This manuscript contains most of John’s Gospel (1:1–6:11; 6:35–14:26, 29–30; 15:2–26; 16:2–4, 6–7; 16:10–20:20, 22–23; 20:25–21:9). The manuscript does not include the pericope of the adulteress (7:59–8:11), making it the earliest witness to not include this spurious passage. The manuscript is usually dated as c. 200, but the renowned paleographer Herbert Hunger has argued that P66 should be dated to the first half, if not the first quarter, of the second century.
According to recent studies, it seems evident that P66 has preserved the work of three individuals: the original scribe, a thoroughgoing corrector, and a minor corrector. With a practiced calligraphic hand, the original scribe of P66 wrote in larger print as he went along in order to fill out the codex. The large print throughout indicates that it was written to be read aloud to a Christian congregation. The text exhibits the scribe’s knowledge of other portions of Scripture (inasmuch as he harmonized John 6:69 to Matthew 16:16 and John 21:6 to Luke 5:5), his use of standard nomina sacra (a way of writing divine names), and his special use of nomina sacra for the words “cross” and “crucify.”
The original scribe was quite free in his interaction with the text; he produced several singular readings that reveal his independent interpretation of the text. While the numerous scribal mistakes would seem to indicate that the scribe was inattentive, many of the singular readings—prior to correction—reveal that he was not detached from the narrative of the text. Rather, he became so absorbed in his reading that he often forgot the exact words he was copying. His task as a copyist was to duplicate the exemplar word for word, but this was frustrated by the fact that he was reading the text in logical semantic chunks and often became a coproducer of a new text. As a result, he continually had to stop his reading and make many in-process corrections. But he left several places uncorrected, which were later fixed by the diorthotes (official corrector). The finished product is quite good, presenting a text that is very close to the Alexandrian witnesses.
→ P72 (Papyrus Bodmer VII–VIII) This manuscript, dated late third century, has an interesting collection of writings in one codex: 1 Peter 1:1–5:14; 2 Peter 1:1–3:18; Jude 1:1–25; the Nativity of Mary, the apocryphal correspondence of Paul to the Corinthians, the eleventh ode of Solomon, Melito’s Homily on the Passover, a fragment of a hymn, the Apology of Phileas, and Psalms 33 and 34.
Scholars think that four scribes took part in producing the entire manuscript. First Peter has clear Alexandrian affinities—especially with B. Second Peter and (especially) Jude display more of an uncontrolled type text (usually associated with the “Western” text), with several independent readings.
→ P75 (Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV) This codex contains most of Luke and John (Lk 3:18–4:2; 4:34–5:10; 5:37–18:18; 22:4–24:53; Jn 1:1–11:45, 48–57; 12:3–13:1, 8–9; 14:8–30; 15:7–8.) The manuscript does not include the pericope of the adulteress (7:59–8:11). The manuscript can be dated to the late second or early third century.
The copyist of P75 was a literate scribe trained in making books. His craftsmanship shows through in his tight calligraphy and controlled copying. The handwriting displayed in this manuscript is typically called by paleographers the common angular type of the late second to early third century. The scribe’s Christianity shows in his abbreviations of the nomina sacra, as well as in his abbreviation of the word “cross.” These are telltale signs of a scribe who belonged to the Christian community. Furthermore, the large typeface indicates that the manuscript was composed to be read aloud to a Christian congregation. The scribe even added a system of sectional divisions to aid any would-be lector. Thus, we have a manuscript written by a Christian for other Christians.
There are several indications of the scribe’s Alexandrian orientation. First and foremost is his scriptoral acumen. He is the best of all the early Christian scribes, and his manuscript is an extremely accurate copy. P75 is the work of an extremely disciplined scribe who copied with the intention of being careful and accurate. Scholars generally agree that P75 displays the kind of text that was used in making Codex Vaticanus (there is 87 percent agreement between P75 and B). As such, textual scholars have a high regard for P75’s textual fidelity.
Other Papyrus Manuscripts
→ P4 + P64 + P67 These three papyrus manuscripts are part of one codex dated ad 150–175. The manuscript was the work of a professional scribe, and the text is extremely accurate.
→ P32 (Rylands Papyrus 5) This manuscript, preserving Titus 1:11–15; 2:3–8, is dated c. 175, making it the earliest extant copy of any of the Pastoral Epistles. P32 shows agreement with א and with F and G. Since F and G (nearly identical manuscripts) go back to the same archetype, it is possible that P32 could be linked to the same source.
→ P52 (Rylands Papyrus 457) This fragment, containing John 18:31–34, 37–38, is noteworthy because of its date: c. 110–125. Many scholars (F. Kenyon, H. I. Bell, A. Deissmann, and W. H. P. Hatch) have confirmed this dating. The manuscript came from the Fayum or Oxyrhynchus site. It was acquired in 1920 by Grenfell, but it remained unnoticed among hundreds of papyri until 1934 when C. H. Roberts recognized that this fragment preserves a few verses from John’s Gospel.
By Philip Wesley Comfort