Found on eBay: Rare ancient Greek Gospel of John papyrus

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Friday 27 November 2015

A Greek papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John has been discovered on eBay.

The papyrus fragment, which is about the size of a credit card, was initially listed at US$99 on eBay but quickly rose in value after a well-read blogger and papyri expert posted about the listing.

Another papyri expert, Professor Geoffrey Smith from the University of Texas also noticed the eBay listing earlier this year, and told the New York Times that he contacted the seller to urge him to take the papyrus off the market and let him study the fragment.

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 2.01.00 pmProfessor Smith presented a preliminary report on the fragment at the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta over the weekend. It has become known as the “Willoughby Papyrus”, named after Harold Willoughby, a professor of Christianity at the University of Chicago who at the time of his death had a library of over 3500 rare Bibles. A relative of Willoughby’s is now in possession of his library and identified themselves as the seller of the fragment.

“Mr Willoughby was a relative, and I attest this info to be true. Good luck bidding on a very rare piece with no reserve … [The fragment] literally fell out of a stack of letters. I’m sure it was tucked away for security,” read the eBay listing.

“When I reached out to the seller, he was not quite convinced yet of its tremendous scholarly value,” Professor Smith told BBC Newshour. But after days of emailing back and forth to prove its worth for a scholar, the fragment was taken down from the online auction site.

Professor Smith says the papyrus dates from between AD 250 to AD 350 and contains six lines of the Gospel of John on one side – the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two – and an unidentified Christian text on the other.

A New Testament papyrus in Greek, the original language of the New Testament, is a very rare piece.

A New Testament papyrus in Greek, the original language of the New Testament, is a very rare piece, said Professor Smith in his BBC interview.

“We have about 130-135 of these things,” he said.

Dr Chris Forbes, a senior lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney, and the deputy chairman of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity, said the discovery, while not the earliest, would be considered “seriously early”.

“There are complete copies, or virtually complete copies, that still exist of the New Testament, starting at about AD 350,” Dr Forbes told Eternity. “There are individual books that are earlier than that, but not a huge number. So to find a really early one, like this, is at least potentially new information that we might not otherwise find.”

The fragment was only discovered in April, and Dr Forbes said that analysis of materials like this can take several years before the true significance can be known.

The oldest known copy of a section of John – from John 4-5 and 10-11 – is one of the so-called Chester Beatty papyri from somewhere in the first of the 2nd century, between 100-150AD and is the earliest New Testament manuscript to have been found.

But Professor Smith’s initial study of the fragment suggests it is from a scroll rather than a codex. This would make it the only known Greek New Testament papyrus from an unused scroll.

In the ancient world, scrolls were almost always used for literary works. Codices, or bound books, were personal items, often carried on one’s person and used as notebooks. Christians changed this, preferencing the use of codices over scrolls for their holy book.

“This [newly-discovered papyrus] is interesting because it’s an exception. But we don’t know what that really means yet.”

“We know that starting somewhere in the 2nd century AD and then accelerating through the 3rd and 4th, Christians – as opposed to the rest of the population – started putting their Holy Book into books instead of scrolls. We don’t really know why, but that’s what they did. It became a pattern that eventually bled into the wider culture so in the end everybody used books rather than scrolls,” said Dr Forbes.

“This [newly-discovered papyrus] is interesting because it’s an exception. But we don’t know what that really means yet.”

Dr Forbes says discoveries like this can often help scholars reconstruct the exact wording of a New Testament book. For a lay person, differences in wording in ancient manuscripts show up in the footnotes in modern Bibles, giving alternate wordings.

For the Gospel of John, for example, there is no known complete copy, says Dr Forbes. “What we’ve got is copies of copies of copies of sections, just like with much of the New Testament. And inevitably there are copying errors in them. So any new copy we get gives us a better chance of figuring out what the original was, by screening out copying errors.”

Discoveries like this new Gospel of John fragment, says Dr Forbes, are almost always a matter of luck, though he says it’s “completely unexpected to find something like this on eBay.”

Not quite so unexpected for Professor Smith, though. He has taken an active interest in the sale of antiquities on eBay and the ethics of buying and selling antiquities, and told the BBC that he does a daily eBay search for such findings.

Regardless, Dr Forbes and Professor Smith agree that the worst-case scenario for discoveries like this is for them to be sold to a private collector who hoards it away and never shows anyone.

Dr Forbes says that in the early days of papyri study, which only really started in earnest about 130 years ago, trade was not strictly controlled and there was a lot of buying and selling of bulk ancient papyrus bundles that were then “stashed away and forgotten.”

…The worst-case scenario for discoveries like this is for them to be sold to a private collector who hoards it away and never shows anyone.

“These days, every now and then someone inherits a whole lot of old books and, like in this case, discovers something that they don’t know what to do with.” But Dr Forbes says the usual scenario is approaching an antiquities dealer to find out if the discovery is, indeed, valuable.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, were discovered by Bedouin Arabs who sold them to antiquities dealers who then used their networks to on-sell them to scholars at universities around the world. “You see, that was just luck,” says Dr Forbes.

He recounts a similar experience he had about 30 years ago at Macquarie University, when his faculty bought a bundle of pieces of papyrus from a dealer in Vienna.

“We discovered something that would have made the bundles cost a great deal more, or the dealer possibly wouldn’t have sold it to us at all. It was a tiny fragment – as in, only eight to ten lines of only a few letters across each – a scrap, really. But we were able to demonstrate with no questions at all that this was a passage from a very early manuscript of the Book of Acts, chapters 2 and 3. And it’s about the 15-20th oldest in the world.

“Now, [the dealer] had no idea that’s what it was. He just had a bundle of scraps of papyri. But that’s what it turned out to be. And now that ‘scrap’ is well-stored, under glass, in a controlled temperature environment with people who know what they’re doing,” said Dr Forbes.

“What’s happened in the case of [the Willoughby Papyrus of the Gospel of John] is that someone has inherited something from an elderly school which contained something quite exciting but they didn’t know what it was, and thought ‘maybe I could get some money for this.’ It’s a bit like the show Antiques Roadshow. Except, in this case, they decided to just give it a try on eBay.”

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