In 1896, near the ruins of an ancient Egyptian city called Oxyrhynchus, British scholars Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt made a remarkable discovery. They’d traveled to the ancient city in hopes of finding papyrus manuscripts. What they found was beyond their wildest dreams.
They came across the ancient city’s garbage dump—filled with thousands upon thousands of manuscripts. So enormous was the find that the archaeologists were overwhelmed. Grenfell described it later: “The flow of papyri became a torrent which it was difficult to cope with.”
For the last 127 years, the site of Oxyrhynchus has continued to produce manuscripts. While most of these manuscripts are fairly routine discoveries—including what we call “documentary” papyri like receipts, letters, and contracts—occasionally the site reveals something more significant, even exhilarating.
Significance of Oxyrhynchus
As a general rule, ancient manuscripts are hard to come by. Most have perished over the years for a variety of reasons—destroyed by foreign armies, burned in fires, eaten by insects, rotted or decayed, or simply lost. We never have as many as we’d like.
Thanks to Oxyrhynchus, though, we have manuscripts of the New Testament we might never have expected to have. Before the 20th century, we possessed very few of what we call New Testament papyri—copies of the New Testament on papyrus, typically earlier than the later parchment manuscripts.
Since Grenfell and Hunt’s discovery, though, the number of New Testament papyri in our possession has exploded. So much so that well over 40 percent of our New Testament papyri come from the single site of Oxyrhynchus. And some of these are early in date, even from the second and third centuries.
Well over 40 percent of our New Testament papyri come from the single site of Oxyrhynchus.
As a recent (and rather famous) example, the 83rd volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri published a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark, P.Oxy. 5345. Why was this such a big deal? Because for years, there had been rumors swirling about a manuscript from Mark dated to the first century—which would make it the earliest New Testament manuscript in existence. When P.Oxy. 5345 was unveiled, it turned out to be dated to the late second or early third century, not the first. Even so, this manuscript is still remarkably early and is the oldest copy of Mark’s Gospel in our possession.
But Oxyrhynchus has not just supplied copies of the New Testament. It has also been a treasure trove for what we call “apocryphal” writings—that is, writings about Jesus that weren’t included in our Bibles. The very first manuscript from Oxyrhynchus—fittingly labeled P.Oxy. 1—was not a copy of the New Testament but a copy of the Gospel of Thomas. Other copies of Thomas have been found there (P.Oxy. 654, 655), along with a number of other apocryphal texts (e.g., Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, Gospel of Peter).
And that brings us to our current topic—and the latest exhilarating find from Oxyrhynchus. Less than a month ago, on August 31, 2023, the 87th volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri was published—and therein we learn of a remarkable fragment, P.Oxy. 5575. The internet has been buzzing about it ever since. Let’s explore why.
Content of P.Oxy. 5575
The first notable feature of this fragment—and the feature that’s generated most of the online buzz—is the unique mix of content it contains. According to the original editors, it apparently contains a conglomeration of material from Matthew (6:25–26, 28–33) and Luke (12:22, 24, 27–31), laid alongside portions from the Gospel of Thomas (27, 36, 63). The various verses are not neatly divided into separate sections but seem to alternate back and forth. There seems to be a section from Thomas, followed by portions of Matthew/Luke, then back to Thomas, then back to Matthew/Luke, and so on.
So what do we make of this interesting mix of content? We can begin by observing that the mixing of Matthew and Luke in early Christian texts is nothing new. We see this sort of natural Synoptic “harmonization” in a number of places in early Christianity, including the Apostolic Fathers, as well as Justin Martyr.
Even so, it’s unclear how much Synoptic mixing is actually taking place in P.Oxy. 5575, especially given the fragmentary remains of the manuscript. The material seems heavily connected to Matthew, leaving questions about how much Lukan material is really mixed in. (Peter Gurry questions the influence of Luke, whereas Mark Goodacre supports it.)
Regardless, the more intriguing feature is the pairing of Thomas material alongside Synoptic material. Although, due to the fragmentary nature of the manuscript, it’s again unclear how much Thomas material is actually in view. While it’s clear that our fragment employed saying 27, it seems less clear whether it employed saying 36 or 63. The supposed link to saying 63 is built on the remains of only a single word.
Even with these considerations in mind, P.Oxy. 5575 is still the only example I’m aware of where material from the Synoptics and material from Thomas are blended together in this manner. And, no doubt, that is partly why this manuscript has garnered so much attention.
In the larger context of the second century, P.Oxy. 5575 may not be as unusual as we might think. A number of apocryphal Gospels during this time period were already mixing canonical and non-canonical material—e.g., P.Egerton 2, Gospel of Peter, P.Oxy. 840. Many of these apocryphal Gospels were dependent on earlier canonical material; and when they subsequently added new material, it inevitably created a “mix” of sorts.
A notable example of this phenomenon is actually the Gospel of Thomas itself. Most scholars now regard Thomas as dependent on the Synoptic Gospels (see the recent works of Gathercole and Goodacre). If so, then there’s a sense in which we could say the Gospel of Thomas was already doing what P.Oxy. 5575 appears to be doing—namely, mixing Synoptic and Thomas material into a single document.
Of course, the usage of Synoptic material is a bit more subtle in Thomas, and not as “wooden” as in P.Oxy. 5575. But the same general principle seems to be at work.
Date of P.Oxy. 5575
The second feature that makes this fragment noteworthy is its remarkably early date. The original editors placed the manuscript in the second century, largely due to comparisons with the hand of P.Oxy. 4009 (possibly from the Gospel of Peter), among other manuscripts. In a recent blog post, Dan Wallace clarified that the editors favored a slightly broader date: “late second or perhaps early third century.”
For those aware of the state of early Christian papyri, this is a stunningly early date. While we have some New Testament manuscripts possibly dated to the second century—e.g., P52, P90, P104, P137—the vast majority are much, much later. And even the dates of these possible second-century manuscripts have been challenged by some scholars as being too early.
For those aware of the state of early Christian papyri, this is a stunningly early date.
Thus, if the editors of P.Oxy. 5575 are correct, then this new manuscript is one of the earliest ‘gospel’ manuscripts in our possession—and earlier than nearly all our existing New Testament manuscripts.
But others aren’t convinced. Brent Nongbri, who has previously published a number of articles challenging traditional dating methods, has already expressed his doubts about the date of P.Oxy. 5575. Moreover, even the editors acknowledge that the well-known palaeographer, Pasquale Orsini, has assigned P.Oxy. 4009 (the primary manuscript used to date P.Oxy. 5575) to the fourth century.
Size of P.Oxy. 5575
The final feature I’ll mention is P.Oxy. 5575’s tiny size. Based on a number of measurements offered by the editors, I reconstructed the size as approximately 8.8 x 10.6 cm. (width x height). The editors therefore put this manuscript in the category of a miniature codex.
From as early as the second century, and especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians began to create little “pocket Bibles” that contained portions of Scripture and sometimes even held multiple scriptural books. We have miniature codices with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, James, 1 Peter, Revelation, and more.
The early Christians probably used the miniature codex format for a number of reasons including private reading, portability for long journeys, and sometimes even in a “magical” sense, thinking it provided protection for the one who possessed it. But they also used this tiny format to carry what we’d call “apocryphal” writings—books not approved by the ecclesiastical authorities. For example, we have miniature codices that contain the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Protevangelium of James, the Apocalypse of Peter, and more.
While we have no way to know for sure how P.Oxy. 5575 functioned, it may have been a sayings-of-Jesus collection, drawn from a variety of sources, that early Christians used for private devotional reading and possibly for taking on journeys.
Implications of P.Oxy. 5575
P.Oxy. 5575 is a fascinating manuscript: it has an unusual mix of material from Matthew/Luke and from the Gospel of Thomas; it’s dated as early as the second century; and it was constructed to be a miniature “pocket” book probably for private use.
Now we come to the main issue on many people’s minds. What are the implications of this new manuscript discovery for our understanding of how Jesus tradition was transmitted and used in the early Christian movement? And should this manuscript change what we think about the content in our four Gospels?
Indeed, in some people’s minds, such a manuscript might be regarded as evidence that Christians in the second century weren’t interested in making distinctions between canonical and apocryphal material. Some might conclude sayings of Jesus just existed in some sort of undifferentiated lump in these early centuries, all mixed together, and this lump of material would only be sorted out in the fourth century or later.
So let’s break down this issue a little bit.
We can begin by acknowledging that the discovery of P.Oxy. 5575 might provide a helpful correction to some rather simplistic views of the way Jesus tradition was transmitted or how the canon developed. Some in the church who grew up reading (and loving) the four Gospels might not even realize “other” gospels existed or that some Christians might have read them or profited from them. They might think all people claiming to be Christians in the ancient world were on the same theological and biblical page (no pun intended).
But that was not the case. The early Christian world, particularly the second century, was a theologically diverse place. There were battles over “heresy” and “orthodoxy.” Christians didn’t always agree. And sometimes they read from different books. The existence of manuscripts like P.Oxy. 5575 reminds us of that reality. (For more on these sorts of issues, see my book Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church.)
With that said, I don’t think this new manuscript discovery challenges the fundamental integrity of Jesus tradition in this time period. Here are a few considerations:
- We should remember that the earliest Christian movement was not just devoted to oral tradition but maintained a robust “textual culture” that was manifested in a rather sophisticated scribal network and the copying and dissemination of books. Thus, we have good reasons to think Christians not only cared about the Jesus tradition they possessed but were careful to transmit it faithfully. (For more on this issue, see my book The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate.)
- By the second century, the early Christian movement was already making meaningful distinctions between canonical and apocryphal writings. For example, our earliest canonical list, the Muratorian fragment (c. 180), is already distinguishing between which books were “in” and which were “out.” And it affirms about 22 out of 27 books that became part of our New Testament.
- Also in the second century, we see a number of patristic writers affirming the integrity of the fourfold Gospel. I (and others) have written about this elsewhere, and there’s not space here to cull through the evidence. But a good case can be made that we have a fourfold Gospel affirmed by Papias, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria. Particularly noteworthy is the statement by Irenaeus: “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds . . . [and] the Cherubim, too, were four-faced” (Haer. 3.11.8). Apparently these Christian writers didn’t think all Jesus stories or Jesus books were the same.
- Christians during this time period were quite willing to use a variety of Jesus material in the second century, drawn from many sources (oral and written), as long as it was helpful and edifying. But this didn’t mean they drew no distinctions between canonical and noncanonical content. Clement of Alexandria, for example, is able to cite favorably from the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of the Hebrews (and many other noncanonical works)—but, at the same time, he makes clear he considers only the four Gospels as canonical. Thus, even though a wide variety of material could be used, it wasn’t all necessarily regarded as Scripture.
- While the church fathers, generally speaking, were open to using Jesus material outside of the received books (though not necessarily as Scripture), there were some apocryphal gospels so fundamentally at odds with the rule of faith (that had been handed down from the apostles) that the fathers felt the need to condemn them. From what we can tell, Thomas was one of those gospels toward which the fathers were not favorably disposed. Hippolytus and Origen, for example, critique it in the third century (though there are some questions about whether Origen was referring to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
No Fundamental Changes
By now, it’s probably becoming clear why such manuscript discoveries are so exciting. Aside from the thrill of an archaeological discovery from the ancient world, manuscripts like P.Oxy. 5575 shed light on aspects of the early Christian movement and the way that Jesus tradition was transmitted and utilized.
This new fragment, as we’ve noted, reminds us these aspects of the early Christian movement were not always as “neat and tidy” as people sometimes think. The development of the canon was a messy process at points, and not all early Christians saw things the same way.
That said, there is nothing about P.Oxy. 5575 that diminishes the trustworthiness of the Jesus material we find in the Gospels, nor does it change the way we view the Gospel of Thomas. When the dust settles, it seems if someone wants to know about the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they can still turn with confidence to the place where Christians have turned for thousands of years—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.