On august 31st, the Egypt Exploration Society published the latest volume (LXXXVII) in its long-running series on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (volume 1 appeared in 1898). The volume presents many interesting papyri, including a collection of short biographies of eminent Romans and a fragment of the book of Revelation. Thanks to an article in the Daily Beast, however, the spotlight has fallen on a small fragment (about 1.3ʺ wide × 3.6ʺ high) that contains sayings of Jesus in a form similar to the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Thomas.

Why is this such a big deal? Let’s find out.

What Are the Oxyrhynchus Papyri?

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are a massive trove of papyri (estimates range upwards of half a million) excavated near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (modern el-Bahnasa) during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by a team organized by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. The site is an ancient trash dump, where public and private documents of all sorts were discarded. These included tax assessments, court records, business letters, private letters (even one written by a student at school writing home to ask his parents to send more money), and literary documents. Most were written in Greek, but also Coptic, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and other languages are represented.

The papyri—mostly in small fragments—range in date from the third century BC (the Ptolemaic era) to 640 AD (the end of the Roman period). When one of these papyri is published, it is given a standard prefix and a reference number. For example, the very first one published is P.Oxy. 1; the one that is catching so much interest now is P.Oxy. 5575.

The literary papyri (perhaps 10% or so of the total) encompass a wide range of Classical and Hellenistic literature. They also include a fair number of Christian writings of all sorts, including prayers (e.g., P.Oxy. 407, 4010), hymns (e.g., P.Oxy. 1786), letters, amulets (e.g., P.Oxy. 1077), homilies, and literary documents.

This last category includes fragments of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, several Pauline letters, some Catholic letters, and Revelation, as well as fragments of the Gospel of Thomas (P.Oxy. 1, 654, 655),1 Gospel of Mary (P.Oxy. 3525), perhaps (but not likely) Gospel of Peter (P.Oxy. 2949, 4009), some unidentified “gospel” fragments (P.Oxy. 210, 840, 1224), several fragments of the Shepherd of Hermas, and one of the Didache (P.Oxy. 1782).

So, P.Oxy. 5575 is one of the latest additions to this relatively large category of Christian literary texts from Oxyrhynchus. Why is it attracting so much attention? There are two reasons: first, its content, and second, its (probable) date.

What’s in the New Fragment?

While it’s not possible to represent accurately the form and layout of the Greek text in English translation, the following layout is an attempt to give an impression of the layout of the content of the fragment. (References in the following discussion to line numbers apply to this English presentation only—they do not correspond to the lines of the Greek fragment.)

Recto (→) Verso (↑)
… he died (?). [I tell] you:
[do not] worry [about]
your [life,] what you will eat,
[or] about the body, what
[you will wear.] For I tell you:
[unless] you fast [from
the world,] you will never find
[the Kingdom,] and unless you
… the world,
you [will never …]
the Father … the birds, how
… and [your (?)] heavenly 
Father [feeds
them (?).] You therefore …
[Consider the lilies,]
how they grow …
Solomon …
in [his] glory … [if] the Father [clothes]
grass which dries up
and is thrown into the oven,
[he will clothe (?)] you …
You [also (?)] therefore …
for [your] Father [knows what (?)] …
need you have. [Instead (?)]
seek [his kingdom (?),]
and [all these things (?)]
will be given [to you (?)] …

The first decipherable letters on the recto side (corresponding to the “odd number” page) of 5575 may be part of the last word of the main saying in Gospel of Thomas 63.1–3 (a saying similar to Luke 12:16–21).

Gospel of Thomas, 63: “Jesus said: There was a rich man who had much money. He said: ‘I will use my money so that I may sow and reap and  plant and fill my storehouses with produce, so that I lack nothing.’ This was what he thought in his heart. And that night he died.”

The saying then continues: “Whoever has ears let him hear.” (This saying survives only in Coptic.)

Then follows a saying similar to Luke 12:22/Matt 6:25a (lines 1–5). Next comes a saying similar to Gospel of Thomas 27 (lines 6–10), followed by words similar to Luke 12:24/Matt 6:25b–26 (lines 11–14).

Gospel of Thomas, 27: “Jesus said, ‘If you do not fast to the world, you will not find the kingdom of God; if you do not keep the Sabbath as Sabbath, you will not see the Father.’”

This is from the only Greek fragment that preserves saying 27 (P.Oxy. 1). The Coptic version is similar, but it lacks “Jesus said” and “of God.”

One interesting difference involves the Greek word for “birds”: in line 11, 5575 has ornea, instead of korakas (Luke) or peteina (Matthew).

On the verso (“even number page” side) the text is similar to Luke 12:27–2830b–31/Matt 6:28b–3032b–33, with some differences, larger and smaller. An example of a larger difference: whereas Luke 12:30 and Matt 6:32 end with two “reminders” (i.e., that gentiles seek after such things, and that the heavenly father knows that we need them), 5575—like Justin Martyr, who also quotes this passage (1 Apol. 15.15)—mentions only the second.

Why is it important?

What makes this a big deal? This is the first known occurrence of the weaving together of material similar to Luke and Matthew, on the one hand, and material similar to—and otherwise known only from—the Gospel of Thomas, on the other. In this significant respect, 5575 is unique among all known papyri.

As for the date: if the proposed date—probably “second century”—is right, then 5575 would be the earliest extant witness to sayings associated with the Gospel of Thomas, and one of the earliest witnesses to any Christian document. Now, put the two issues together—a relatively early date, and a unique interweaving of sayings known from Luke and Matthew with a saying known only from the Gospel of Thomas—and the questions and possibilities overflow. As the editors observe,

5575 may be from a sayings collection, or, given the flow from one saying to another, perhaps a discourse. One possibility is that it represents, or is closely related to, a work which was not dependent upon Gos. Thom. but rather served as a source for it.

Or, alternatively, the Gospel of Thomas may be a source for the saying in this fragment—a view that would, in light of the fragment’s early date, require a major re-assessment for the composition of Gospel of Thomas (of these last two possibilities, the former seems far more likely).

Remaining questions

More questions include: who wrote it, and why? What was his major concern? What does this fragment tell us about second-century Christianity that we didn’t already know? These are all excellent questions, but unfortunately for us, the fragment is so brief and so lacking in any larger context that we simply don’t have the information to answer them. We can speculate, but it is important to keep in mind the difference between speculation and evidence—and to enjoy the thrill of a new discovery.

Original Article – What’s the Big Deal about a New Papyrus with Sayings of Jesus? (textandcanon.org)