Putting the New Papyrus of Jesus’ Sayings in Context While exciting and important, much about a recently published, headline-grabbing fragment is not unique. Ian N. MillsLate last year, the Egyptian Exploration Society grabbed headlines when it announced the publication of a new cache of ancient papyri from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. The 87th volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri contained several pieces of interest to scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity. Among the newly published fragments were a vaguely “gnostic” speech attributed to Jesus (P.Oxy. 5576), part of an apocryphal dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (P.Oxy. 5577), and the remains of several otherwise unknown ancient biographies. The only item to generate headlines, however, was a small papyrus containing a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This fragment was no mere copy of Matthew’s Gospel. The papyrus now known to scholars as P.Oxy. 5575 is a combination of traditions about Jesus otherwise found in Matthew, Luke, and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. The fragment’s significance It’s this combination of diverse gospel materials that caught the attention of the wider-public. Upon the publication of P.Oxy. 5575, Michael Holmes, one of the fragment’s editors, explained its significance in this way: What makes this a big deal? This is the first known occurrence of the weaving together of material similar to Luke and Matthew, on the one hand, and material similar to—and otherwise known only from—the Gospel of Thomas, on the other. In this significant respect, 5575 is unique among all known papyri. “With a sharp enough scalpel,” it’s been said, “everything is unique.” And, certainly, no other fragment is exactly like P.Oxy. 5575. In a technical sense, Holmes is correct: There are no other papyri with precisely this combination of gospel parallels. But, in almost every other respect, this fragment is not unique at all. It seems to me that Holmes’s answer might leave readers with a misleading impression about the state of the evidence for other works that, like P.Oxy. 5575, combine traditions about Jesus without respect for canonical/non-canonical boundaries. There are no other papyri with precisely this combination of gospel parallels. But, in almost every other respect, this fragment is not unique at all. My goal here is neither to minimize the importance of this new piece of early Christian literature nor to exaggerate the evidence for similar works but, rather, to help the reader understand P.Oxy. 5575 by setting it into a larger comparative context. This new fragment of Jesus’ preaching is one of many early Christian compositions to bring together material about Jesus found in multiple gospels, including gospels beyond the canonical four. Works that combine canonical material The first set of helpful analogies are early fragments that combine some or all the canonical Gospels. Perhaps the best-known example is the Dura Fragment (P. Dura 10), a third century parchment from Dura Europos on the border of Roman Syria. The Dura Fragment contains only fifteen legible lines, written on one side of a parchment roll. These lines describe the women at Jesus’ crucifixion and introduce Joseph of Arimathea. RelatedWhat’s the Big Deal about a New Papyrus with Sayings of Jesus?Michael W. HolmesTaking Stock of the “First-Century Mark” SagaElijah HixsonThe Gospel of Jesus’ Wife FiascoChristian Askeland But the Dura Fragment doesn’t correspond to any known gospel. Rather, it carefully interweaves wording from the four canonical Gospels to produce a unique version of the story. For instance, one line reads “…there came a person (Matt. 27:57), being a councilor (Luke 23:50), from Erinmathea (sic), a city of Judea (Luke 23:51), his name was Joseph (Matt. 27:57), good and righteous (Luke 23:50), being a disciple of Jesus in secret because of his fear of the Jews (John 19:38) and he was expecting the kingdom of God (Luke 23:51).” Almost every word of the Dura Fragment can be traced back to one of the canonical Gospels, but the result is an intricately interwoven tapestry of the four. Similarly, the so-called “Fayyum Fragment” (P. Vienna G. 2325) combines elements from Matthew and Mark to produce a unique version of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial. The Matthean phrasing, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered” (Matt. 26:31) is followed by the distinctively Markan phrasing, “Before a cock twice crows…” (Mark 14:27). Like P.Oxy. 5575, the wording of the Fayyum Fragment does not match any of the canonical Gospels exactly, but the parallels with multiple gospels are undeniable. As the Dura Fragment and the Fayyum Fragment make clear, P.Oxy. 5575 is one of many early Christian works that re-combined and re-arranged traditions about Jesus. Works that combine canonical and non-canonical material These two examples are combinations of gospels now-considered canonical, whereas P.Oxy. 5575 combines the synoptics with material found in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. In this respect, the Greek fragments of Thomas found at Oxyrhynchus provide a better analogy for the newly discovered gospel fragment. The only complete manuscript of Thomas contains 114 sayings of Jesus in Coptic. About two-thirds of these sayings appear to be drawn from the canonical Gospels. For dozens of additional sayings, however, there are no canonical parallels. Probably, the compiler of Thomas composed some of these non-canonical sayings from scratch, but parallels between Thomas’s non-canonical sayings and other early Christian sources suggest that the compiler drew on additional non-canonical gospels in composing the Gospel of Thomas. P.Oxy. 654, for instance, contains a saying of Jesus (GThom 2) that Clement of Alexandria says belonged to the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (Stromateis 2.9.45; 5.14.96). Gospel of the HebrewsThomas 2 (Greek; P.Oxy. 654)Thomas 2 (Coptic)The one who seeks will not stop until he finds. And when he finds, he will be amazed. And when he is amazed, he will reign. And when he reigns, he will rest.Let the one who seeks not stop [seeking until] he finds. And when he finds, [he will be amazed. And] when he is amazed he will reign. And [when he reigns over everything] he will rest.Let the one who seeks not stop seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be troubled. And when he is troubled, he will be amazed and will become king over everything. Probably the compiler of Thomas drew this saying of Jesus from the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews. And in P.Oxy. 654, this saying sits alongside Thomas 3, a version of the saying found at Luke 17:20–25. Side-by-side, this fragment preserves a combination of canonical and non-canonical gospel material. In this respect, P.Oxy. 654 is a close parallel to what we find in P.Oxy. 5575. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: Other good analogies include P.Oxy. 4009 and the Egerton Gospel (BL Egerton Papyrus 2). The former is a fragmentary papyrus containing parallels to Matthew 10:16, Luke 7:36–50, and a non-canonical conversation between Jesus and Peter cited by the preacher of Second Clement. The Egerton Gospel, likewise, weaves together sayings of Jesus found in John 5 and 10, several synoptic stories, and a story about Jesus sowing seeds on the banks of the Jordan that has no canonical parallel. We do not know what ancient readers called these gospels, but fragmentary remains provide additional evidence of early Christians combining canonical and non-canonical materials about Jesus. Further examples If we look beyond the papyri, there is more evidence for the combination of canonical and non-canonical Jesus traditions. The Epistle of the Apostles, for instance, is an early second century, theologically-orthodox composition. It contains a summary of Jesus’ nativity, life, death, and resurrection. Most of this gospel-summary corresponds to one or more of the canonical lives of Jesus. However, the author also includes a scene of Jesus as a school boy, found only in the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The result is a gospel-like narrative that, again, weaves together strands from both canonical and non-canonical books. In the second half of the second century, a Christian teacher named Tatian composed his own gospel by interweaving stories from earlier gospels. Later Christians called Tatian’s composition “The Diatessaron,” which translates to “the [gospel] through the four [gospels].” Although Tatian himself seems to have revised the content and wording of his sources, almost every line of the Diatessaron can be attributed to one of the four now-canonical gospels. There are, however, a few important exceptions, most notably a passage attributed to Tatian’s Diatessaron as found in the fourth-century Commentary on the Gospel by Ephrem. Ephrem, Comm. 14.24Thomas 30 (Greek; P.Oxy 1)Thomas 30 (Coptic)…when he said, Where there is one, I [am there], lest all those who are solitary be sad. Where there is one, I [am there].1Translation from Carmel McCarthy, Saint Ephrem’s Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron : An English Translation of Chester Beatty Syriac MS 709 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).Jesus says, Where there are three, they are godless And where there is one-alone, I say I am with him.Jesus says, Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him. This saying of Jesus, not found in any manuscript of any canonical gospel, appears in the Gospel of Thomas. Like P.Oxy. 5575, therefore, either Tatian or one of Tatian’s sources must have combined canonical Jesus traditions with a saying otherwise known to us only from a non-canonical gospel. There are, additionally, a few pieces of non-canonical material found in more-or-less complete manuscripts of the canonical Gospels. The copy of Matthew in Codex Sinaiticus, for instance, contains a version of Jesus’ “consider the lily” speech in Matthew 6:28 that says the lilies neither “card nor spin nor work,” precise phrasing otherwise only known from the Gospel of Thomas. Related Portraits of the four evangelists from GA 773 (10th c.) Why There Are Just Four Gospels in the BibleDespite tales of conspiracy, there are good historical and theological reasons why the Church recognized four—and only four—Gospels. C. E. Hill Likewise, the famous story of the “Woman Caught in Adultery,” according to Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman’s study, was known from the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews. At some point in the second or third centuries, readers inserted this story into manuscripts of the canonical John. Of course, P.Oxy. 5575 seems to reflect a more thoroughly interwoven combination of diverse gospel traditions than what is found in anything preserved in the complete manuscripts from the fourth century. But these traces of gospel combinations show that some early readers were happy to bring together the words of Jesus as found in canonical and non-canonical gospels. Conclusion P.Oxy. 5575 is one of several pieces of early Christian literature that shows how some ancient readers collected and combined Jesus material otherwise found in canonical and non-canonical gospels. All the analogies to P.Oxy. 5575 that we’ve considered above make up only a tiny fraction of our documentary evidence for early Christian gospel literature. The vast majority of Christian literary papyri are either readily identifiable with specific works (e.g., P.Oxy. 4) or clearly distinct from any known work (e.g., P.Oxy. 840). And the practice of harmonizing the text of the canonical Gospels is surprisingly uncommon in the papyri. Still, P.Oxy. 5575 is one of several pieces of early Christian literature that shows how some ancient readers collected and combined Jesus material otherwise found in canonical and non-canonical gospels. In particular, this fragment is intriguing new evidence that some early Christians continued to re-write and re-arrange stories about Jesus in the same way that the authors of Matthew and Luke used earlier gospels. As I hope to have shown, P.Oxy. 5575 is not the only evidence for this practice. But it is important new evidence for this aspect of early Christian book culture.Notes1Translation from Carmel McCarthy, Saint Ephrem’s Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron : An English Translation of Chester Beatty Syriac MS 709 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).