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The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: The Largest Cache of Early Christian Manuscripts Discovered to Date

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: The Largest Cache of Early Christian Manuscripts Discovered to Date

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are a group of texts that were discovered at Oxyrhynchus (known today as el-Bahnasa), a site located in Upper Egypt. This group of documents is seen as one of the most important discoveries when it comes to manuscripts for a number of reasons. First, they have works of ancient literature that are not known to have survived anywhere else in the world. Additionally, there are many texts that provide an insight into everyday life in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Furthermore, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri contains the largest cache of early Christian manuscripts discovered to date.

Locating Oxyrhynchus

The city of Oxyrhynchus (meaning ‘sharp-nosed’ in Greek) is located in the Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt, 160 km (99 mi) to the southwest of Cairo. This city lies on the Bahr Yussef (‘Canal of Joseph’), which is a branch of the Nile situated to the west of the main river.

For over a millennium, the inhabitants of the city would throw away their rubbish in a number of sites in the desert beyond the city limits. Amongst these items were texts written on papyri that the people of Oxyrhynchus no longer wanted.

Map of the location of Oxyrhynchos (Oxyrhynchus).

Map of the location of Oxyrhynchos (Oxyrhynchus). (Public Domain)

A Durable Material

It is common knowledge that papyrus is a durable material which may survive up to 2000 years. Whilst other writing materials, such as vellum and parchment, are also known to be durable, papyrus could be produced cheaply as well. This means that papyrus has a high chance of surviving in the archaeological record.

Another factor contributing to the survival of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri is the location of the city. As Oxyrhynchus lies on a branch of the Nile, rather than on the bank of that mighty river, the city is spared from the river’s annual inundation. Additionally, when the canals dried up, the water table fell and never rose again. Furthermore, the area west of the Nile receives almost no rain. Thus, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri were able to survive for a long time.

A private letter on papyrus from Oxyrhynchus.

A private letter on papyrus from Oxyrhynchus. (Public Domain)

Discovering the Papyri

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri first came to light in the final years of the 19th century. In 1896, two British Egyptologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, chose to excavate at El-Bahnasa. One factor that influenced the two men to choose this city as their excavation site was its reputation as a key Christian center in ancient times. The two men were hoping that they would be able to find some interesting pieces of early Christian literature there.

Grenfell (left) and Hunt (right) in about 1896.

Grenfell (left) and Hunt (right) in about 1896. (Public Domain)

However, the city was no longer the important center of Christianity that it once was, and as the season went on, Grenfell and Hunt’s hopes were diminishing. Yet things changed for the two men on January 11, 1897. A low mound was being dug, when a piece of papyrus with unknown Logia, or ‘Sayings of Jesus’ was brought to the surface (it would later be determined that this was the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas). Next was a leaf from the Gospel of Matthew, and then even more pieces of papyri. In three months, the men found enough papyri to fill 280 boxes.

Gospel of Matthew.

Gospel of Matthew. (Public Domain)

Other Texts in the Papyri

Apart from manuscripts that are of interest to scholars of early Christian literature, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri also contained numerous other types of works. For example, some of the papyri have been found to hold magical spells. One recently translated spell, for instance, calls upon the gods to make a woman fall in love with the spell caster. Another was written with the intention of subjugating a man so that he would be forced do whatever that spell caster wanted.

Amos 2.

Amos 2. (Public Domain)

Apart from these documents, papyri containing texts used in everyday situations, such as grocery lists, official records, business contracts, and personal correspondences, have also been uncovered. These papyri offer scholars a glimpse into the lives of the ancient inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus.

In addition, pieces of ancient literature, which would otherwise have been completely lost, have been found amongst the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Two of the most famous of these are a satyr play by Sophocles and poetry by Sappho. Whilst scholars have been hard at work transcribing the texts on the papyri found by Grenfell and Hunt, this undertaking is far from complete, and is still being carried out today.

Top image: An Oxyrhynchus papyrus. Source: (Public Domain)

By Wu Mingren

References

Egypt Exploration Society, 2016. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Collection. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ees.ac.uk/research/Oxyrhynchus%20Papyri.html

Jarus, O., 2016. Ancient 'Mad Libs' Papyri Contain Evil Spells of Sex and Subjugation. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livescience.com/54819-ancient-egyptian-magic-spells-deciphered.html

Parsons, P., 2007. City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, Greek Lives in Roman Egypt. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Stott, R., 2016. Oxyrhynchus, Ancient Egypt's Most Literate Trash Heap. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/oxyrhynchus-ancient-egypts-most-literate-trash-heap

www.crystalinks.com, 2016. Oxyrhynchus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.crystalinks.com/oxyrhynchus.html

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