Early Manuscripts of the

By Mike Willis

Every fall when the leaves are turning, my wife Sandy and I take a couple of days of vacation. When October 1996 came, she asked me where I wanted to go. I replied, “I want to see the Chester Beatty papyri” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. She said, “What?”

I explained to her that, while reading my Greek New Testament, I observed that p37, p38, and p46, some of the oldest existing copies of the New Testament were stored in the library at the University of Michigan. I wanted to see them.

After a little coaxing and my explaining to her that there was a mall or two on the way and that we would be able to stay in a nice motel or bed and breakfast, she agreed to go with me. We enjoyed a very pleasant trip.

I learned that the University of Michigan has the largest collection of papyri in the Western Hemisphere. The University began its collection in 1920 with continuous subsequent purchases until 1943. They continued occasionally to add to their collection in the 1980s. In the early years, the papyri were purchased through a “cartel” comprised of the British Museum and several participating European and American universities (Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and Michigan). The University of Michigan’s holdings expanded from the finds of an expedition in Karanis, Egypt that covered eleven seasons (1924-1935). Most of the findings from this expedition were returned to the Egyptian government in 1954, but approximately 1000 individual papyrus fragments remain at the University of Michigan. Today, the Michigan Papyrus Collection is among the largest worldwide. It contains over 7,000 inventory numbers and more than 10,000 individual fragments.

When we arrived at the University of Michigan, Ms. Kathryn L. Beam, gave us a tour of the facility and a few of the manuscripts. She was a well-informed guide and very delightful company.

When I asked to see the Chester Beatty Papyri, she informed to me that these were not the Chester Beatty Papyri but the Michigan Papyri. She explained that Michigan Papyri and the Chester Beatty were originally part of the same codex, but when the codex was found, the merchants learned that they could make more money selling it in fragments. Chester Beatty was a wealthy man who was purchasing manuscripts in the region. He was able to act on the spot without committee approval from others. Buyers from the University of Michigan, on the other hand, had to obtain permission to purchase what they wanted. Of the 86 leaves of the codex that survived, 56 were purchased by Beatty and are known as the Chester Beatty Papyri. They are housed in Dublin, Ireland in the Chester Beatty Museum. Thirty pages are known as the Michigan Papyri and are in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Chester Beatty and Michigan Papyri originally measured 11 by 6’h inches and contained 104 leaves, 86 of which have survived in the two collections. All of the pages are slightly mutilated. The text contained the ten epistles of Paul in the following order: Romans, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Portions of Romans and 1 Thessalonians are missing and all of 2 Thessalonians is missing. p06, the manuscript at the University of Michigan, is usually dated about the year 200, although our guide indicated that recent scholars believe that the copy could have been made as early as A.D. 150.

The significance of these manuscripts may not be obvious to our readers. The texts have much value for the study of the transmission of the New Testament. The Michigan and Chester Beatty papyri pre-date the best uncial texts (Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus) by a century. They are within a hundred years of the time when the original works of Paul were written. They helps us to know assuredly that the copy of the New Testament that we hold in our hands today is substantially the same as when the various books were written. Anyone who affirms that the text of the New Testament is corrupt for whatever reasons (such as to justify the need for continuous revelation) is wrong.

These texts also reflect that the early church revered the writings of the New Testament. The epistles of Paul were written in such places as Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, and Rome. They were written to specific churches and individuals in different cities (Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, Thessalonica, Philippi, Colossae, etc.). Why were they copied and studied far away in Egypt? Obviously, the early church saw a difference in these documents and the ordinary letters that men write to one another. They considered them inspired literature on a par with the Old Testament (see 2 Pet. 3:16).

1 Corinthians 1:12, gives us a second example of hero 1515 Walnut, Alameda, California 94501 worship. Paul had planted the church there during his one and one-half year’s stay (see Acts 18). He was successful because he did not preach Moses, Elijah, philosophy, science, or feelings; he preached Christ (1 Cor. 1:23). By the time of Paul’s writing they had become hero worshipers.


A Certificate to Verify That One Paid

Tribute to Caesar

The P. Mich. Inv. 263 Libellus text is also very interesting for students of the New Testament. It is a certificate in Greek issued during the Decian persecution to a woman and her daughter from the village of Theadelphia in Egypt. It testifies that they had obeyed the imperial edict to participate in pagan sacrifices as proof of their loyalty to the government. Since faithful Christians would not offer tribute to Caesar as god, the edict served as a means of identifying Christians and making them liable for punishment or imprisonment. The Roman emperor Decius ruled from 249 to 251 and conducted vigorous persecutions of Christians in an effort to revive the Roman state religion. This little text helps us to better understand the pressures that were put on early Christians to choose between Caesar and Christ. Here is a translation of the Libellus text:

To those in charge of the sacrifices of the village Theadelphia, from Aurelia Bellias, daughter of Peteres, and her daughter, Kapinis. We have always been constant in sacrificing to the gods, and now too, in our presence, in accordance with the regulations, I have poured libations and sacrificed and tasted the offerings, and I ask you to certify this for us below. May you continue to prosper.

(2nd hand) We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing.

(3rd hand) I, Hermas, certify.

(1st hand) The first year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauna 27.

University of Michigan Web Site

The University of Michigan is participating in the Advanced Papyrological Information System, a joint project of Columbia University, Duke University, Princeton University, University of California in Berkeley, and Yale University, to make the papyri in their collection available on the world wide web. You will want to visit their home page at http://www.lib.umich.edu/pap. The certificate from the Decian persecution was available on the web when I last looked. Also, be sure to read highlights from the exhibit, From Papyri to King James on their web site.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 7 p. 2
April 3, 1997