A flax merchant from Egypt! Owner of 4th century New Testament papyrus identified.
A Princeton University researcher has identified the owner of a New Testament papyrus that dates to the time of Constantine the Great.
Constantine was the Roman emperor who allowed Christians to practice freely, ending hundreds of years of persecution. His decision led people throughout the empire to convert and disseminate the New Testament.
Now, thanks to this new discovery, we know the story of one of these Christians.
“It is the first and only ancient instance where we know the owner of a Greek New Testament papyrus,” writes Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk in an article recently published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. “For most early New Testament manuscripts, we do not know where they were found, let alone who had owned them.”
The papyrus was discovered in the late 19th century at the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, located roughly 160 kilometres south of Cairo. The document contains the first seven verses of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
“There are several mistakes in spelling and part of verse 6 is omitted” wrote site excavators Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt in 1899. They concluded that the papyrus was “no doubt a schoolboy’s exercise.”
Who owned it?
To find the ancient owner of this papyrus Professor Luijendijk engaged in some archaeological detective work. Grenfell and Hunt mentioned in 1899 that “the papyrus was found tied up with a contract dating to 316 AD.” Unfortunately they did not specify which document this is.
“They were not particularly interested in the social context of the texts they had unearthed, or perhaps they were too busy editing their enormous find,” writes Luijendijk.
To find this missing document Luijendijk turned to a modern day papyrus database called the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis or HGV. She searched for examples from Oxyrhynchus that date to AD 316. She found 13 examples but only two of them were contracts. One discussed a “lease of a plot of land” while the other was “a contract for the sale of a donkey.”
Luijendijk determined that the donkey sale could not be the missing contract. “Grenfell and Hunt cannot have referred to the latter papyrus, for it did not come from their excavations.”
This left only the land lease document. Further investigation revealed that it was excavated during the same field season as the New Testament papyrus. This meant that it had to be the one.
From there the discovery got even more interesting.
The land lease contract had a name on it – that of a man named Aurelius Leonides, a flax merchant from Egypt. He must have owned both the contract and the New Testament papyrus.
Further research revealed that there are more than a dozen papyri from Oxyrhynchus that belonged to Leonides. This gave Luijendijk the opportunity to reconstruct this man’s past – and give some clues as to how Christianity may have spread in his community…
More on this interesting research here.