Bodmer Papyrus: History Becomes Reality

Author: Sever Juan Voicu

Bodmer Papyrus: History Becomes Reality

Sever Juan Voicu
Scriptor Graecus, Vatican Apostolic Library

Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 arrives at the Vatican

Two dates: on 30 April 1451, Pope Nicholas V established with a Brief a library "pro communi doctorum virorum commodo" (to facilitate the research of scholars). Thus, today's Vatican Apostolic Library came into being.

On 22 November 2006 the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15, generously donated to His Holiness Benedict XVI by the Sally and Frank Hanna Family Foundation and the Solidarity Association (U.S.A.), and the Mater Verbi/Hanna Papyrus Trust, was deposited in the Vatican Apostolic Library.

During the five and a half centuries between these two dates, despite various adversities, such as the losses occasioned by the Lansquenets during the Sack of Rome (1527) and the transfer of manuscripts to Paris in the Napoleonic period, the Vatican Apostolic Library was faithful to the mandate it had received to enrich, safeguard and preserve with the proper care the cultural treasures entrusted to it and to make them available to qualified scholars.

In the meantime, the 1,000 early manuscripts have become 150,000. There are also 300,000 coins and medals, as well as 100,000 prints and an important collection of ancient engravings.

Today, the momentous cultural items that are kept in the Vatican Library include, in the classical sector, the palimpsest of Cicero's De Republica (Vat. lat. 5757), the Vatican Virgil (Vat. lat. 3225), the Roman Virgil (Vat. lat. 3867), the Vatican Terence (Vat. lat. 3868), important manuscripts of Plato (Vat. gr. 1) and Pindar (Vat. gr. 1312), and Ptolemy's Handy Tables (Vat. gr. 1291), not to mention the extremely precious fragment of a palimpsest of Menander, discovered a few years ago in Vat. sir. 623.

Among the biblical manuscripts are listed the oldest known example of St. Peter's two Letters (Papyrus Bodmer 8), the so-called "Codex B", one of the two surviving fourth-century Bibles (Vat. gr. 1209), the "Codex Claromontanus" (Vat. lat. 7223) and one of the oldest known Palaeo-Slav manuscripts (Vat. gr. 2502). Fragments of an ancient Gospel manuscript (fifth century), of a manuscript of Strabo (fourth century) and of the oldest Greek juridical collection (sixth to seventh century) have been identified between the lower lines of writing in Vat. gr. 2061A and Vat. gr. 2306.

Famous for their miniatures are the "Menologion of Basil" (Vat. gr. 1613), the "Urbinate Bible" (Urb. lat. 1-2), the "Belbello Bible", (Barb. lat. 613), two Dante manuscripts: the "Urbinate Dante" (Urb. lat. 365) and parts of the Divine Comedy illustrated by Botticelli (Reg. lat. 1896), as well as the Homilies of Giacomo Monaco (Vatic. gr. 1162). Nor should we forget the oldest Greek liturgical manuscript, the so-called "Barberini Euchologion" (Barb. gr. 336), the only surviving example of Roman "parish" liturgy, the Gelasian Sacramentary (Reg. lat. 316), one of the most ancient paper manuscripts (the Doctrina Patrum of Vat. gr. 2200), the mysterious Joshua Roll (Pal. gr. 431), alongside, for example, Vat. lat. 5704, which comes from the scriptorium of Cassiodorus (sixth century), and one of the few surviving fragments of the Skeireins, that is, the Gothic translation of a Greek commentary on John (Vat. lat. 5704).

Well, to this list that should have ended with an extremely long etcetera1, there is a most valuable recent addition. This treasure is the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 which contains the Gospels of Luke and John and is the subject of a fascinating event.


To understand the exceptional nature of the papyrus, it might be useful to mention the historical context in which it was produced.

Shortly after the middle of the first century, as the first disciples of Jesus were departing this life, the need "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" (Lk 1:1-2), was making itself felt in Christian communities.

Consequently, in the last years of the first century, the Gospels came into being (the four canonical Gospels, of course, but also other similar texts of which only fragments have survived).

The ancient tradition and modern criticism agree unanimously on one point: the four canonical Gospels were compiled in different places and circumstances and gathered in a single corpus at some point in the second century. The first glimmerings of what was later to become the New Testament are very old.

In the years between 95 and 98, the Church of Rome sent a letter to the Church of Corinth, known as the First Letter of Clement. It refers to St. Paul's Letters to the Corinthians, in a way that asserted their normative and public value, thereby implying that they were read at liturgical assemblies.

Subsequently, toward the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr explained that "the memoirs of the Apostles and the writings of the Prophets" were read (I Apologia, 67, 3) at Eucharistic celebrations.

The term "memoirs", at first sight enigmatic, becomes clear on an analysis of the works of St. Justin who generally uses it to introduce passages from the Gospels or from evangelical traditions.

Since in a writing such as the Apologia, addressed to a pagan public, the word "Gospel" meaning "Good News" would have been simply incomprehensible, St. Justin preferred to fall back on a designation widely attested to in the classical tradition.

A few years later, before the end of the second century, St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and a martyr, said in a famous passage: "Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds... the Word, the Artificer of all things... who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit... the Gospel according to John... that according to Luke... that according to Matthew... that according to Mark.... The Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord. For this reason were four principal covenants given to the human race..." (cf. Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chap. 11, 8).

In short, the Bishop of Lyons held that there were four canonical Gospels and that there could be no fewer and no more.

The 'corpus' of the Gospels

The passage from St. Irenaeus makes no mention of the actual form in 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 oldest manuscript extant that contains two Gospels; this implies that after this period, as will be seen, the four Gospels were circulated together.

This affirmation becomes understandable only if one takes a step back in time to the classical world. In Greek and Roman milieus, formal texts were exclusively transmitted on papyrus scrolls whereas informal texts (accounts, notes, receipts...) were transcribed on other types of support, such as wax tablets or pottery 'labels' (ostra-ca).

In the first century A.D., "notepads" made of superimposed sheets folded and sewn together or tied with a piece of string became common. These articles of pagan origin were very soon used by Christians, as can be learned from a famous Deutero-Pauline passage in which Timothy is asked not to forget "the parchments", that is, the notes (II Tm 4:13).

This new format, a single notebook, had enormous advantages in comparison with the traditional scroll: it provided much more space and less bulk as well as more contained costs. At the same time, it facilitated the consultation and reading of a specific passage, all of which were significant factors for public reading at important liturgical celebrations.

The Bodmer Papyrus14-15, that originally consisted of 36 double leaves placed one on top of the other to make a total of 144 pages, is the oldest find that contains the text of two Gospels together, the Gospels of Luke and John. But why, one might ask, did it not contain all four Gospels?

This can be explained by the limitations of the new technique which although it provided almost twice as much room as the classical papyrus scroll, was still a fragile structure that inevitably tended to split along the fold, especially if the number of double pages exceeded 50. Thus, a codex of this kind could contain only a little more than two Gospels.

However, since all the lists of the Gospels begin with that of Matthew, one might presume that together with the surviving papyrus another volume was also made, now completely lost, which contained the two missing Gospels, that of Matthew and that of Mark.

A liturgical manuscript

Why was the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 copied? The modest way in which the codex was produced, apparent in the concern not to waste space that is demonstrated by the very narrow margins and lack of decoration, corresponds well with its practical use. The papyrus was almost certainly destined for a small community, an Egyptian Greek-speaking "parish", which, as is customary in all Christian liturgies, read the Gospel during the Eucharistic Celebration.

However, the manuscript's frequent use soon ended by damaging the frail structure of the papyrus which began to lose its pages, perhaps within a century, to the point that today it contains about half the text of the two Gospels.

What could be done with a manuscript that had become completely unusable but contained the sacred text par excellence, the Gospels? In all likelihood, someone aware of the age of the codex took a definitive decision: to reinforce it with a modest binding forming a "cartonnage" with the remains of the first and last surviving leaves. In these conditions, unusable as a book but as similar examples show, probably venerated as a relic, the papyrus was kept, perhaps from the fifth century, in the library of a Pachomian monastery in Middle Egypt.

Later, threatened by some unidentified danger, probably the Arab invasion of Egypt, in about the year 700 it was hidden on a hill where it would be safe from the flooding of the Nile and there, together with about 40 other Greek and Coptic works, containing sacred and profane texts and documentary papyri, it patiently awaited its discovery in 1952 by the inhabitants of a neighbouring village.

The journey to Geneva

These manuscripts were exported from Egypt in 1955-56 in the course of a labyrinthine journey whose main stages it has been possible to reconstruct. In the West, they were acquired by a certain number of public and private collections. The lion's share went to the collections of Martin Bodmer, a Swiss, whose library is located at Cologny, near Geneva, and to the Irishman, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, founder of the library of that name in Dublin. Other works were dispersed and are currently preserved in various public and private collections.

The announcement of the discovery, in the late 1950s, caused a certain sensation in specialist circles, somewhat dampened by the fact that in previous decades the sands of Egypt had already yielded two other substantial collections of manuscripts connected with ancient Christianity. In 1930, several Coptic codices produced by the Manichaeans were found at Medinet Habu and in 1948, the Gnostic library of Nag Ham-madi were rediscovered. This consisted of a collection of Coptic manuscripts among which was the Gospel of Thomas, peremptorily described as "the fifth Gospel" by the media of the time.

A turning point in the history of the Gospel texts

At the initiative of the Bodmer Foundation, the transcription of the text of the Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 was published together with a facsimile in 1961. In accordance with a practice that became common in the past century, the papyrus received an official seal in the list of Greek examples of the New Testament and in specialized circles is currently known as P75.

The impartial analysis of P75 only confirmed its fundamental importance for the history of the Gospel texts. And here it is necessary to go back further. Before the discovery of the New Testament papyri, which in 2006 totalled 118, critical editions of the Gospels were largely based on two fourth century Greek manuscripts written in capital letters: the "codex B", kept in the Vatican Library  (Vat. gr. 1209), and the Sinai Codex (British Library, Ad. dit. 43725, "Codex א"), which came from St. Catherine's Monastery and is preserved almost in its entirety in the British Library, in London.

It was long thought that the text of these two related manuscripts, copied in the same scriptorium at Caesarea in Palestine, was the result of a "revision" made at the beginning of the fourth century. However, P75 ruled out this hypothesis, showing that the same type of text had already reached Egypt by the beginning of the third century.

Confirmation of the trustworthiness of the important fourth-century manuscripts is reflected in that of the critical modern editions. This implies that the New Testament text has come down to our day 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 made in Egypt? The answer is certainly in the affirmative. Although generally speaking it confirms the text of the great Palestinian manuscripts of the fourth century, P75 presents several small variants that demonstrate without any doubt its kinship with the Egyptian tradition, represented by the Coptic translations.

For example, in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), it is the only Greek example which indicates that the rich man was called N(in)ive; in Jn 10:7, instead of reading: "I am the door of the sheep", the papyrus has the variant: "I am the shepherd". Both readings are virtually exclusive to the Coptic tradition.

This fact makes it possible to know some details concerning the making of P75 and, at the same time, to glimpse some of the stages that separate it from the originals of the two Gospels.

The papyrus is generally considered to date back to the first quarter of the third century; this dating relies on palaeographic arguments, that is, deduced from the type of character used by the professional scribe who copied it. Yet, as often happens in similar cases, this is only one conjecture. It awaits confirmation by the discovery of similar finds because the codicological technique of the notepad unique to Egypt was used for poor manuscripts at least until as late as the end of the fourth century, which is the most probable date of some of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.

But what hinders the proposal of an earlier date, thereby dating the papyrus to the middle of the second century as has sometimes been suggested? The history of the text of the two Gospels is itself probably an insurmountable obstacle.

As has already been said, the papyrus shows variants which suggest that it was transcribed from an Egyptian model. This second codex must in turn have been copied from an older manuscript of the two Gospels which did not yet contain those characteristic variants. In turn, however, this third codex, probably made outside Egypt, did not depend on the lost originals of the two Gospels but on a collection of the four canonical Gospels which could not have been made before the first half of the second century (it was quite probably the same model on which, through different channels, the above-mentioned manuscripts of the fourth century depended).

Even if one admits that these were later copies, very close in time (and the information we have on the expansion of Christians in Egypt would not contradict this), it is difficult to hypothesize that it took less than 50 years for the Greek text of the Gospels to reach an outlying locality as that in which P75 was used by an unknown Christian community.

The mystery of the new fragments

Research on an ancient manuscript can never be considered final. New facts continually emerge that confirm or rule out the hypotheses of experts. However, in the case of P75, an event occurred that it would not be an exaggeration to call astonishing.

The book produced in 1961 under the auspices of the Bodmer Foundation gave the impression that all the fragments of the papyrus had been published in the facsimile and transcribed.

However, when the manuscript was delivered to the Vatican Library, it was evident straightaway from a cursory examination that the actual situation of the papyrus was not identical to that described by the facsimile: certain fragments of the outer leaves had been recuperated by a partial restoration of the "cartonnage" that took place after its publication in 1961 and about 30 fragments of lesser importance await identification, whereas certain new fragments, some of which are far from tiny, turn out not to be documented.

Subsequent research has shown that at least one fragment that is not reproduced in the facsimile was already known in about 1974.

Certainly P75, which is now kept in the Reserve of the Manuscript Deposit of the Vatican Library together with its companion in vicissitudes, the Bodmer Papyrus 8 (P72), which is the oldest example of the Letters of St. Peter, and the oldest example of the Coptic translation of the minor Prophets, another find that was probably discovered on the same occasion (Pap. Vat. copto 9), has not yet revealed all its secrets.



1 For the record, the Vatican Library has acquired a certain reputation for manuscripts it does not possess or that have never existed. Among the requests for information are questions about the decrees of the Roman Senate concerning the trial of Jesus (in fact these are Medieval remakes taken from an ancient apocryphal text, the Acta Pilati), or the Necronomicon, a sort of "book of the next world" that the American writer H.P. Lovecraft mentioned as the presumed source of his "Gothic" novels. The author of one modern apocryphal work even maintains that he "transcribed" it from a "Nestorian manuscript" that the Library has never possessed.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 February 2007, page 8

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