"It Has Not Yet Revealed All Its Secrets"
VATICAN CITY, 3 FEB. 2007 (ZENIT)
Here is a translation of an article
published last week in the semi-official Vatican newspaper,
L'Osservatore Romano, entitled "18 Centuries of History: The Bodmer
Papyrus 14-15 (P75) Arrives in the Vatican Apostolic Library."
* * *
April 30, 1451: With a papal brief Pope Nicholas V establishes a
library "pro communi doctorum virorum commodo" (to facilitate the
research of scholars). Thus was born the present Vatican Apostolic
November 22, 2006: the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15, donated to His Holiness
Benedict XVI by the generosity of the Sally and Frank Hanna Family
Foundation and the Solidarity Association (U.S.A.), as well as the Mater
Verbi/Hanna Papyrus Trust, was given to the Vatican Apostolic Library.
During the five and a half centuries that separate these two dates,
albeit through different vicissitudes, such as the losses caused by the
lansquenets on the occasion of the sack of Rome (1527) or the transfer
of the manuscripts to Paris in the Napoleonic age, the Vatican Apostolic
Library remained faithful to the mandate it received to enrich, guard
and preserve with all care the cultural treasures entrusted to it and to
put them at the disposition of qualified scholars.
In the meantime, the initial thousand manuscripts by this time numbered
150,000; beside these were placed 300,000 coins and medals, as well as
100,000 stamps and an important collection of antique prints.
Among the famous monuments of culture deposited at present in the
Vatican Library, mention can be made, in the classic line, of the
palimsest of Cicero's De Republica (Vat. lat. 5757), of the Virgilio
Vaticano (Vat. lat. 3225), of the Virgilio Romano (Vat. lat. 3867), of
the Terenzio Vaticano (Vat. lat. 3868), of important manuscripts of
Plato (Vat. gr. 1), of Pindar (Vat. gr. 1312) and of the Tavole Facili
of Ptolemy (Vat. gr. 1291), not to mention Menander's most precious
palimsest discovered a few years ago in Vast. sir. 623.
Numbered among the biblical manuscripts is the most ancient testimony
known of the two letters of St. Peter (Papyrus Bodmer 8), the so-called
"B codex," one of the two surviving Bibles of the 4th century (Vat. gr.
1209) and the "codex Claromontanus" (Vat. lat. 7223) or even one of the
most ancient known paleo-Slavic manuscripts (Vat. gr. 2502).
Identified among the inferior writings of Vat. gr. 2061A and of Vat. gr.
2306 are fragments of an ancient manuscript of the Gospels of the fifth
century, of a Strabone of the fourth century and of the most ancient
Greek juridical collection (sixth - seventh century).
Famous for their miniatures are "Basil's Menologium" (Vat. gr. 1613),
the "Urbinate Bible" (Urb. lat. 1-2), "Belbello's Bible" (Barb. lat.
613), two Dantesque manuscripts, the "Dante Urbinate" (Urb. lat. 1-2),
portions of the Divine Comedy illustrated by Boticelli (Reg.lat. 1896),
and the Homilies of Giacomo Monaco (Vatic. gr. 1162), not forgetting,
however, the most ancient Greek liturgical manuscript, the so-called "Barberini
Eucologium" (Barb. gr. 336), the only surviving testimony of the Roman
"parish" liturgy, the Gelasian Sacramentary (Reg. lat. 316), one of the
most ancient paper manuscripts (the Doctrina Patrum of the Vat. gr.
2200), or the mysterious Rotolo di Giosue (Pal. gr. 431), alongside
which are placed, for example, the Vat. Lat. 5704, from the Cassiodorus'
scriptorium (sixth century) or one of the few surviving fragments of the
Skeireins, namely, the Gothic translation of a Greek commentary on John
(Vat. lat. 5750).
To this list, which should end with a very long etcetera (1), was added
recently a most precious treasure, the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15, containing
Luke's and John's Gospels, protagonist of a fascinating event.
To appreciate the exceptional nature of the papyrus, it would be useful
to refer to the historical context in which it was produced.
Shortly after the middle of the first century, as the first disciples of
Christ were leaving this world, the need began to be felt in the
Christian community to "compile a narrative of the things which have
been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those
who from the beginning were eyewitnesses" (Luke 1:1-2). Thus were born,
in the last years of the first century, the Gospels (the four canonical
Gospels, of course, but also other similar texts, of which only
Ancient tradition and modern criticism are unanimous on one point: the
four canonical Gospels were written in different places and
circumstances and were brought together in one corpus at some point in
the second century.
The first signs of what would later become the New Testament are very
ancient: In the years between 95 and 98, the Church of Rome sent a
letter to the Church of Corinth, considered the First Letter of Clement,
in which reference is made to the letters of St. Paul to the
Corinthians, in a way that confirms their normative and public value,
thus implying that they were read in the liturgical assemblies.
Subsequently, toward the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr
specified that "the recollections of the apostles and the writing of the
prophets were read "during the Eucharistic celebration" (I Apologia
67,3). The term "recollections," at first sight enigmatic, is clarified
on analyzing the works of St. Justin, who uses it in general to
introduce passages addressed by the Gospels or of evangelical
traditions. Because in a writing such as the Apologia, addressed to a
pagan public, the word "Gospel," that is to say "Good News," would have
been simply incomprehensible, St. Justin preferred to turn to a
designation well attested in the classic tradition.
A few years after, before the end of the second century, St. Irenaeus,
Bishop of Lyon and martyr, stated in a famous passage that "Because the
world has four regions, and there are four main winds ... the Word
creator of everything ... revealing himself to men, gave us a quadruple
Gospel, unified however by one Spirit ... that according to John ...
that according to Luke ... that according to Matthew ... and that
according to Mark. ... The Gospel is quadruple and so is the Lord's
action. For this reason four general covenants were given to the human
race" (Against the Heresies III 11,8). In short, for the Bishop of Lyon
four canonical Gospels exist; there can be no more or less.
The "corpus" of the Gospels
The passage from St. Irenaeus is silent about the concrete form under
which this canon of the four Gospels was presented. On this point, the
testimony of the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15, written in the first years of the
third century, is fundamental: it is the most ancient manuscript that
contains two Gospels and this fact implies, as will be seen, that by
this time the four Gospels were circulating together.
This last affirmation becomes comprehensible only if one leaps back to
the classic world. In the Greco-Roman environments, formal texts were
transmitted exclusively on papyrus scrolls, while informal ones
(accounts, notes, receipts ...) were transcribed on other kinds of
supports, like wax tablets or ceramic fragments (ostraca). During the
first century A.D. "notebooks" became common, made up of superimposed
sheets, folded and held together by sewing or string.
These manufactures, of pagan origin, were very soon adopted by
Christians, as one learns from a famous Deutero-Pauline passage, in
which Timothy is asked not to forget "the books," that is, the notes (2
Timothy 4:13). This new format, in only one notebook, had enormous
advantages as opposed to the traditional scroll: greater capacity
combined with less encumbrance and lower costs and, at the same time, it
made the consultation and reading of a specific passage easier, all
important factors for public reading during the liturgical celebrations.
The Bodmer Papyrus 14-15, made up originally of 36 superimposed double
sheets for a total of 144 pages, is the most ancient find which contains
the texts of the two Gospels together
that of Luke and of John.
But why, one might ask, did it not contain all four? The reason lies in
the limits of the new technique that, though having practically double
capacity in respect of the classic papyrus scroll, was still a fragile
structure which tended inevitably to tear along the fold, especially if
the number of double pages used was more than fifty. A codex of this
kind could contain little more than two Gospels. But, because all the
lists of Gospels begin with Matthew's, one might suspect that alongside
the surviving papyrus another volume was also made, now altogether lost,
that referred to the other two missing Gospels, that of Matthew and
A liturgical manuscript
Why was the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 copied? The modest execution of the
code, evidenced by the concern not to waste space, demonstrated by the
very restricted margins and the lack of decorations, is well reconciled
with a practical use. The manufacture was almost certainly destined for
a small community, a Greek-speaking Egyptian "parish" that, as usual in
all Christian liturgies, read the Gospel during the Eucharistic
But, very soon, this frequent use ended up by damaging the fragile
structure of the papyrus, which began, perhaps at the end of a century,
to lose pages, to the point that at present in contains about half the
text of the two Gospels. What could be done then with a manuscript which
had become altogether unusable, but which contained the Gospels, the
sacred text par excellence?
Probably aware of the antiquity of the codex, some one made an extreme
decision: to give it a modest binding, which was reinforced making a
hard binding with the rest of the first and last surviving pages. In
these conditions, unusable as a book, but, as similar examples
demonstrate, probably venerated as a relic, the papyrus was conserved,
perhaps beginning in the fifth century, in the library of the Pachomian
monastery of Middle Egypt.
Later, in face of an unspecified danger, probably the Arab invasion of
Egypt, it was hidden around the year 700 in a mound that kept it
sheltered from the floods of the Nile and there it waited patiently,
alongside some forty other Greek and Coptic volumes, containing sacred
and profane works and documentary papyruses, until it was discovered
around 1952 by the inhabitants of a neighboring village.
The trip to Geneva
Through a labyrinthine itinerary, of which it has been possible to
reconstruct the main stages, the manuscripts were exported from Egypt in
the years 1955-56. They were acquired in the West by a certain number of
public and private collections, of which the lion's share went to the
collection of Swiss Martin Bodmer, whose library was located in Cologny,
on the outskirts of Geneva, and of Irishman Sir Alfred Chester Beatty,
founder of the library of the same name in Dublin. Other volumes are
scattered at present in several public and private collections.
The announcement of the discovery, which took place in the last years of
the 50s, caused a certain sensation in specialist circles, a sensation
mitigated by the fact that in the previous decades, Egyptian soil had
restored two other groups consisting of manuscripts linked to ancient
Christianity. In 1930 some Coptic codexes produced by the Manicheans
were discovered in Medinet Habu and in 1948 the Gnostic library of Nag
Hammadi was rediscovered, a group of Coptic manuscripts, which
contained, among other things, the Gospel of Thomas, a work described
hastily as "the fifth Gospel" by the media of the time.
A turn in history
Behind the initiative of the Bodmer Foundation, the transcription of the
text of the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 was published along with a facsimile in
1961. According to a practice consolidated then by a century, the
papyrus received an official abbreviation in the list of Greek
testimonies of the New Testament and today is noted in specialized
circles as P75.
The dispassionate analysis of the P75 text did no more than confirm its
fundamental importance for the history of the text of the Gospels. And
here it is necessary to make another leap backwards. Before the
discovery of the New Testament papyruses, which in 2006 now numbered
118, the critical editions of the Gospels were based in large measure on
two Greek manuscripts written in capital letters in the 4th century: the
"codex B," kept in the Vatican Library (Vat. gr. 1209), and the Sinai
codex (British Library, Addit. 43725, "codex"), from St. Catherine's
Monastery, but kept almost entirely in the British Library in London.
For a long time it was thought that the text of these two related
manuscripts, produced in the same desk of Caesarea of Palestine, was the
result of a "revision" made at the beginning of the fourth century. But
P75 has refuted this theory, demonstrating that the same kind of text
had by this time arrived in Egypt at the beginning of the third century.
The confirmation of the reliability of the great manuscripts of the
fourth century is reflected in that of the modern critical editions.
This implies that the text of the New Testament has come down to our
days in extremely acceptable conditions, incomparably better than those
of any other non-biblical text of antiquity.
An Egyptian testimony
But is it really certain that P75 was produced in Egypt? The answer is
certainly affirmative. Although the text of the great Palestinian
manuscripts of the fourth century is confirmed in general, P75 also
presents some small variations that relate it undoubtedly to the
Egyptian tradition, represented by the Coptic translations.
For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
it is the only Greek testimony that indicates that the rich man was
called N(in)ive. In John 10:7, instead of, "I am the door of the sheep,"
the papyrus uses the variant "I am the shepherd." In both, the lessons
are almost exclusively of the Coptic tradition.
This fact allows one to specify some particulars of the production of
P75 and, at the same time, to perceive some of the stages that separate
it from the originals of the two Gospels.
Usually, the papyrus is dated back to the first quarter of the third
century; this dating is entrusted to debates, as often happens in
similar cases. It is only a conjecture, which awaits confirmation by the
discovery of similar finds, because the already mentioned codifying
technique of the single notebook in Egypt was used for poor manuscripts
at least until the end of the fourth century, which is the most probable
date of some of the manuscripts of Nag Hammadi.
But what impedes proposing an earlier date and placing the papyrus
squarely in the second century, as has sometimes been proposed? The
history itself of the text of the two Gospels probably represents an
insurmountable obstacle. As already mentioned, the papyrus presents
variants that indicate that it was transcribed from an Egyptian model.
This second codex, in turn, must have been copied from a more ancient
manuscript of the two Gospels that did not yet have those characteristic
But, in turn, this third codex, probably executed outside of Egypt,
depended not on the lost originals of the two Gospels, but on a
collection of four canonical Gospels, that must have been formed not
earlier than the mid second century (quite likely it was the same model
on which, through another procedure, the already mentioned manuscripts
of the fourth century depended).
Even admitting that they were subsequent copies very close in time (and
the information available on the spread of Christianity in Egypt would
not contradict this circumstance), it is difficult to theorize that less
than 50 years were necessary for the Greek text of the Gospels to reach
a quite peripheral location, as that in which P75 was used by an unknown
The mystery of the new fragments
Research on an ancient manuscript can never be said to be complete. New
facts emerge continually which confirm or refute scholars' theories. But
in the case of P75 an event occurred which it is no exaggeration to
describe as amazing. The volume produced in 1961 under the auspices of
the Bodmer Foundation leads one to understand that all the fragments of
the papyrus were published in the facsimile and transcribed.
When, however, the manuscript was consigned to the Vatican Library, it
emerged immediately from a summary review, that the present situation of
the papyrus is not identical to that described by the facsimile: Some
fragments of the external pages were recovered by a partial restoration
of the "hard binding" effected after the publication in 1961 and some
thirty worn out fragments awaited identification, while some new
fragments, of which not a few, turned out not to be documented.
Subsequent research demonstrated that at least one fragment not
reproduced in the facsimile was already noted around 1974.
which now rests in the Reserve of the Deposit of Manuscripts of the
Vatican Library, alongside one of its companions of vicissitudes, the
Bodmer Papyrus 8 (P72), namely, the most ancient testimony of the
Letters of St. Peter, and the most ancient testimony of the Coptic
translation of the minor Prophets, another find which probably was
rediscovered in the same circumstances, (Pap. Vat. Copto 9)
has not yet revealed all its secrets.
SEVER J. VOICU
* * *
1) Truth be told, the Vatican Library also has a discreet fame for
manuscripts it does not possess or that never existed. Among the
requests for information are questions on the decrees of the Roman
Senate relative to the prosecution of Jesus
in reality they are Medieval reconstructions deduced from an ancient
apocrypha, the Acta Pilati or on Necronomicon, a sort of "book of the
life to come" that U.S. writer H.P. Lovecraft indicated as the alleged
source of his Gothic novels. Actually the author of a modern apocrypha
maintains he transcribed it from a Nestorian manuscript the library
[Translation by ZENIT]