“Intriguing Discovery: A Second-Century Christian Fragment Offers Insights into Ancient Worries and Christian Thought”
The recent revelation of a second-century Christian fragment has ignited significant interest among scholars and historians. This ancient text, predating the formation of the New Testament and widespread recognition of Christian sacred scripture, provides a valuable glimpse into the concerns and perspectives of early Christians, showing that they grappled with life’s worries much like we do today.
Unearthed as part of the Oxyrhynchus collection, a trove of over half a million papyrus fragments excavated in Egypt over a century ago, this remarkable discovery sheds light on various aspects of ancient life. Classical scholars Grenfell and Hunt, along with local Egyptian laborers, uncovered these fragments in ancient trash heaps during the late nineteenth century. Since then, the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and generations of papyrologists have been meticulously identifying, editing, and publishing these fragments, unveiling insights into a wide range of ancient experiences, from commerce and friendship to lawsuits and romantic relationships.
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Among the valuable findings within the Oxyrhynchus collection are several early Christian texts, including this newly unearthed example, which was only recently published. This fragment has a unique history, having been cataloged and photographed in Oxford during the 1960s-1980s. It subsequently made its way into the possession of Hobby Lobby, Inc. in 2010, sold by former University of Oxford faculty member Dirk Obbink. However, in 2019, Museum of the Bible (MOTB), founded by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, returned the papyrus to the EES after confirming its rightful ownership. In 2020, Dirk Obbink was arrested on suspicion of theft by the Thames Valley Police, and Hobby Lobby is currently suing him, alleging the theft of 32 pieces. Obbink has denied any wrongdoing. Notably, all three editors who worked on the fragment while it was in the possession of Hobby Lobby/MOTB have ties to the Museum of the Bible.
The significance of this fragment lies in both its age and its contents. Collaborating with prominent papyrologist and paleographer Ben Henry, the editors—Jeffrey Fish, Daniel Wallace, and Michael Holmes—have dated the fragment to the second century CE. This dating is of great importance, as only a few gospel papyri can be securely dated to the second or early third century. This makes it one of the earliest-known Christian manuscripts.
Although the fragment is quite short, its content appears to consist of sayings attributed to Jesus. It could potentially be a part of an unknown Gospel or a text by an early Christian writer quoting Jesus’s sayings. Notably, there are similarities between this fragment and a text by the second-century Christian philosopher Justin Martyr. Consequently, the editors have tentatively titled it “Sayings of Jesus.”
The fragment’s contents revolve around the theme of worldly worries, echoing passages found in both canonical and non-canonical Gospels. It instructs individuals not to fret about their lives, food, or clothing, drawing parallels with canonical scriptures such as Matthew 6:25 and Luke 12:22, as well as the Gospel of Thomas. This ancient text emphasizes the futility of preoccupying oneself with worldly concerns, reminding readers that even the wealthy eventually face mortality.
This discovery offers invaluable insights into early Christian thought and writing practices. It suggests that early Christians valued written texts about Jesus’s words and deeds while not obsessing over the precise wording. This fluidity in the transmission of Jesus’s teachings underscores the importance of the message over specific phrasing.
In essence, this newly uncovered fragment provides a window into the enduring human struggle with life’s anxieties, a concern shared by early Christians and contemporary individuals alike. It reveals that, despite the passage of centuries, the human experience of grappling with uncertainty and worldly concerns remains a timeless and universal theme.
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