NT Papyri from Oxyrhynchus:
An Overview and Preliminary Assessment
Tyndale Bulletin 51 , (2000), pp. 1-16
Last Updated: Apr 27, 2009
Although we have a wealth of early papyri, pieces and fragments of the New Testament and other writings, many people don't realise they mostly come from a single out of the way location in Upper Egypt. This narrow geographical location means that the papyri reflect the growth and development of a single local text of the New Testament, not a proper sample of the New Testament as it spread across the entire Roman Empire in the 2nd to 4th centuries.
ancient city, Egypt
also spelled Oxyrynkhos
- ancient capital of the 19th Upper Egyptian nome (province), on the western edge of the Nile Valley, in al-Minyā muḥāfaẓah (governorate). It is best known for the numerous papyri uncovered there, first by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt (1897–1907), and later by Italian scholars early in the 20th century. The papyri—dating from about 250 bc to ad 700 and written primarily in Greek and Latin but also in demotic Egyptian, Coptic, Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic—include religious texts (e.g., miracles of Serapis, early copies of the New Testament, and such apocryphal books as the Gospel of Thomas) and also masterpieces of Greek classical literature. Among the papyri were texts once considered lost, including selections of early Greek lyric poetry, Pindar, dramatists such as Menander and Callimachus, and innumerable prose works of oratory or history, such as those of the Oxyrhynchus historian. The modern village of al-Bahnasā is located on the site.
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online
Known in the Dynastic period as Per-medjed, Oxyrhynchus rose to prominence under Egypt’s Hellenistic and Roman rulers. It was a prosperous regional capital, reckoned the third city of Egypt, and home town of the sophist Athenaeus. In later antiquity it was famous for its many churches and monasteries. Today the village of el-Bahnasa occupies part of the ancient site. Grenfell and Hunt, who made its "few squalid huts" their base of operations, knew it as ‘Behneseh’.
The town lies roughly 300 km south of the coastal metropolis of Alexandria, or 160 km south-west of Cairo (ancient Memphis). It is situated on the Bahr Yusuf, the branch of the Nile that terminates in Lake Moeris and the Fayum oasis.
Some Recently Published NT Papyri from Oxyrhynchus:
An Overview and Preliminary Assessment
Published in Tyndale Bulletin 51 (2000), pp. 1-16 (reprinted with minor alterations) from Peter M. Head:
The total number of NT manuscripts on papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus is therefore forty-seven. This is a significant proportion of the total of perhaps 111 separate manuscripts, most of which are completely without provenance. The proportion is even more telling for those manuscripts dated to the early part of the fourth century or earlier (i.e. those given as III/IV or earlier in our list), in which Oxyrhynchus accounts for 34 out of a total of 58. The down-side is that all the material from Oxyrhynchus is very fragmentary. Only a few provide substantial material (e.g. P13 covers several chapters of Hebrews in a fairly well preserved state; P115 covers a lot of the Apocalypse in a fragmentary state). Epp refers to only three others which provide more than two dozen verses (P5, P15, P27) and the longest of the new fragments is P100 (James), which attests around 20 verses.
Doubtless this explains the relative lack of attention given to Oxyrhynchus in particular among textual critics. Nevertheless the breadth of material, our growing knowledge of the town itself, and its church life, make this material a vital resource. As regards scope we simply note that the Oxyrhynchus collection comprises portions of Matthew (13 copies), Luke (2 copies), John (10 copies), Acts (3 copies), Romans (4 copies), 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Hebrews (3 copies), James (3 copies), 1 John, Jude, and Revelation (3 copies).
Headings have been added for clarity and navigation purposes.
II. The Papyrii
All of the manuscripts under consideration here come from a single, known location in Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, capital of the local region or nome (modern Behnasa, around 120 miles south of Cairo). They were recovered by Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt in a series of expeditions from 1896/97 and 1903 through to 1907.
These two young Oxford men formed, in the words of Eric Turner, ‘a partnership more lasting and at least as productive as that of Gilbert and Sullivan’.
At times they were recovering up to thirty baskets of manuscripts each day from the rubbish pits into which old and no longer useful manuscripts had been thrown. They excavated at times to a depth of 8 metres and at the end of the first season sent 280 boxes of manuscripts back to Oxford.
Alongside a wealth of documentary and classical literary texts, these excavations (which were followed by a series of Italian excavations in 1910-1913, under E. Pistelli and G. Farina and later in 1927-34 under E. Breccia) recovered a wide range of early Christian literature (including other early Christian material from the Apostolic Fathers, non-canonical gospels, etc.).
Indeed, Grenfell recorded that it was Oxyrhynchus’ renown as an important Christian site, with a number of churches and thousands of monks in the fourth and fifth centuries, that in part at least, motivated the original search. The manuscripts themselves provide evidence of a growing number of churches (from two in the third century, up to around forty in the sixth centuries) and, in a later period, thousands of monks.
As regards the New Testament we should note that Oxyrhynchus is the principal supplier of NT papyri. If we limit ourselves to those manuscripts definitely from Oxyrhynchus (that is, all those published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri volumes and a number published in the Italian series, Papiri greci e latini, whose provenance is specifically identified), we note, in addition to those listed above, that the following would be included:
P1 (P. Oxy 2), P5 (P. Oxy 208, 1781), P9 (P. Oxy 402),
P10 (P. Oxy 209), P13 (P. Oxy 657 & PSI 1292), P15 (P. Oxy 1008),
P16 (P. Oxy 1009), P17 (P. Oxy 1078), P18 (P. Oxy 1079),
P19 (P. Oxy 1170), P20 (P. Oxy 1171), P21 (P. Oxy 1227),
P22 (P. Oxy 1228), P23 (P. Oxy 1229), P24 (P. Oxy 1230),
P26 (P. Oxy 1354), P27 (P. Oxy 1355), P28 (P. Oxy 1596),
P29 (P. Oxy 1597), P30 (P. Oxy 1598), P35 (PSI 1),
P36 (PSI 3), P39 (P. Oxy 1780), P48 (PSI 1165),
P51 (P. Oxy 2157), P69 (P. Oxy 2383),
P70 (P. Oxy 2384 & PSI inv. CNR 419f.), P71 (P. Oxy 2385),
P77 (P. Oxy 2683), P78 (P. Oxy 2684), P90 (P. Oxy 3523).
To these manuscripts we can now add the following:
Gregory /Aland #/P. Oxy NT Passage Date (acc. to editor)
P77 (new portion)4405 Mt. 23:30-34; 35-39 II/III
P100 4449 Jas. 3:13-4:4; 4:9-5:1 III/IV
P101 4401 Mt. 3:10-12; 3:16-4:3 III
P102 4402 Mt. 4:11-12, 22-23 III/IV
P103 4403 Mt. 13:55-56; 14:3-5 II/III
P104 4404 Mt. 21:34-37; 43 & 45 (?) II (late)
P105 4405 Mt. 27:62-64; 28:1-5 V/VI
P106 4445 Jn. 1:29-35, 40-46 III
P107 4446 Jn. 17:1-2, 11 III
P108 4447 Jn. 17:23-24; 18:1-5 III
P109 4448 Jn. 21:18-20, 23-25 III
P110 4494 Mt. 10:13f., 25-27 IV
P111 4495 Lk. 17:11-13, 22f. III
P112 4496 Acts 26:31f.; 27:6f V
P113 4497 Rom. 2:12f., 29 III
P114 4498 Heb. 1:7-12 III
P115 4499 Rev. 2-15 III/IV
I would like to note here that not only are the papyrii from a narrow geographical area and time, but it is actually more extreme than that!
Over half the papyrii are from a single garbage dump in Egypt. The rest are of unknown origin and later or unknown date. And finally, you will notice that the number of papyrii useful to establishing actual readings and texts is less than the number of UNCIALs!