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Jan 12 Digging up the Bible

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Today in 1897 we remember an amazing discovery in ancient rubbish dump near Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt. Two English archaeologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt discovered a huge cache of ancient manuscripts, what is estimated to be at least half a million papyri and fragments, which give a fascinating insight into the bible and the ancient world. Including information on the apocryphal Gospels including the Gospel of Thomas.


Today we travel to Egypt to an ancient rubbish dump near Oxyrhynchus. Two English archaeologist’s, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt discovered a huge cache of ancient manuscripts. Grenfell and Hunt had different domains of expertise, Hunt was an Egyptologist, whereas Grenfell was a papyrologist who studied ancient manuscripts. Their incredible discover has since been partly-collated and transcribed into over 5,000 documents from what were originally hundreds of boxes of papyrus fragments the size of large cornflakes. This is thought to represent only 1 to 2% of what is estimated to be at least half a million papyri that still remain to be conserved, transcribed, deciphered and catalogued. The manuscripts date from the 3rd century BC to the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640 AD. They give a fascinating insight into the ancient world.

Only an estimated 10% of the papyri are literary in nature. Most are public and private documents including: official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, court-records, wills, horoscopes, and private letters. Although most of the papyri were written in Greek, some are in Egyptian, Latin and Arabic, with a smaller selection in Hebrew and Aramaic. They are currently housed in institutions all over the world, the largest collection is in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

As well as manuscripts of great poetic, dramatic, historical and even mathematical significance , there are a large amount of Christian texts, including fragments of early canonical and non-canonical Gospels. A canonical text is one that the Jewish or Christian religious community regards as authoritative scripture. So for instance, since the fourth Century and the Council of Rome, all Christians agree on the four canonical gospels as being linked to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But these are a selection of a large number of writings by early Christians that give accounts of Jesus and his teachings and the nature of God, which are not considered authoritative and therefore did not make it into the Canon of Scripture. It is estimated that there are up to 20 non-canonical Gospels or Apocryphal Gospels. The ancient manuscripts found in Oxyrhynchus include parts of Matthew, Mark and John, as well as the apocryphal Gospel according to the Hebrews. Today on Jan 12th, the second day of the excavation, a Greek literary papyrus of the sayings of Jesus was discovered. At another Egyptian dig in Nag Hammadi 48 years later this was shown to be part of the Gospel of Thomas. In the huge discovery there are many parts of other canonical books as well as many early Christian hymns, prayers, and letters.


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