NOV. 20, 2015
Last January, Geoffrey Smith, a scholar of early Christianity at the University of Texas, noticed something startling: an eBay listing for an ancient Greek papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John — with an opening bid of only $99.
“I thought, This can’t be allowed to sell on eBay,” Dr. Smith said. “It will just disappear into a private collection.”
Dr. Smith contacted the seller and urged him to halt the online auction — apparently the first on eBay for a Greek New Testament papyrus, he and other scholars said — and let him study the fragment. The seller agreed, and now, on Saturday, Mr. Smith will present his research at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta.
The credit-card-size papyrus, which Dr. Smith dates from around A.D. 250 to A.D. 350, contains about six lines of the Gospel of John on one side and an unidentified Christian text on the other. If Dr. Smith’s analysis is correct, it is the only known Greek New Testament papyrus from an unused scroll rather than a codex, the emerging book technology that early Christians, in sharp contrast to their Jewish and pagan contemporaries, preferred for their texts.
That adds an interesting wrinkle, scholars say, to the story of the rise of the codex, the book as we know it today. But the dramatic story of the papyrus’s emergence also speaks to a distinctly 21st-century technological anxiety.
“The fact that this one came to light on the Internet speaks to the reality for all of us who deal with manuscripts and antiquities,” Dr. Smith said. “We’re all trying to come to terms with these things we study, our prized scholarly possessions, are now coming up for sale online.”
Greek New Testament papyri are among the oldest and rarest traces of Christian scripture. Only about 130 have been recognized by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany, which registers New Testament manuscripts of all types and oversees the effort to reconstruct the Greek initial text from surviving variants.
They are also a new entry into the growing — and, many scholars say, ethically questionable — online marketplace in ancient papyri.
“History doesn’t belong to one person,” said Brice C. Jones, a papyrus expert who tracks online sales, and who wrote about the eBay listing on his blog the same day Dr. Smith noticed it, inadvertently sending bids shooting up.
“Collectively, globally, it’s ours,” continued Dr. Jones, who also communicated with the seller, who wishes to remain anonymous. “It needs to be available for research, to be put on display.”
Many scholars refuse to study manuscripts that may have left their country of origin illegally, and some refuse to study material in private collections, on the grounds it helps drive the market.
That market is certainly robust. A third-century fragment of Romans on vellum, Dr. Jones noted, sold last year at Sotheby’s for nearly $500,000. The seller of the John papyrus, meanwhile, was “harassed by collectors offering him absurd amounts of money,” Dr. Smith said, declining to cite a specific figure.While the original provenance of the Gospel of John papyrus is not known, Dr. Smith said that ownership appeared to comply with the Unesco convention, which declares that cultural property legally acquired before 1970 cannot be subject to repatriation claims. (Virtually all papyri come from Egypt.)
Dr. Smith declined to identify the seller. But in the text of the listing copied on Dr. Jones’s blog, the seller said the papyrus had been in the private collection of Harold R. Willoughby, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Chicago who died in 1962.
The seller, who identified himself in the listing as a relative of Mr. Willoughby, told Mr. Smith that he had found the papyrus only recently, after opening a suitcase of Mr. Willoughby’s possessions that he had acquired in 1990 and stashed in his attic.
The fragment, which was encased in glass, “literally fell out of a stack of letters,” the seller said in the listing.
Both a collection inventory written in Mr. Willoughby’s handwriting and a typed estate inventory compiled after his death listed the papyrus, thus confirming, Dr. Smith said, that it had been part of his collection in 1962.
The eBay listing identified the item’s location as New Hampshire. Dr. Smith inspected and photographed it during a visit with the seller in March in an undisclosed meeting place. “I have no knowledge of where it is being stored,” he said. “But it didn’t look like it has suffered any recent damage.”
What the wider scholarly community will make of the new papyrus remains to be seen. But experts who have reviewed Dr. Smith’s research say he has made a strong case — based on highly technical aspects of the papyrus — that it is from a scroll, not a codex.
That may seem like a subtle point, but it’s significant, scholars say. Larry Hurtado, an expert in early Christian manuscripts at St. Andrews University in Scotland, said in an interview that early Christianity was “a bookish religion” that displayed a “maniacal preoccupation with texts,” with a clear preference for the codex at a time when it was far from obvious to most people that it was more user-friendly.
According to Dr. Hurtado’s calculations, 97 percent of Christian biblical texts that survive from the first three centuries A.D., including those from the Old Testament, are codexes. Except for a few texts on the back of previously used scrolls, all known Greek New Testament papyri are codexes.
The new papyrus, on which the John text appears to be on the front of the scroll, “breaks that pattern,” Dr. Hurtado said. “This shows that preference was not absolute.”
The fact that it has another text copied on the other side (seemingly in the same low-quality handwriting), Dr. Hurtado added, suggests that it was intended for private study, rather than liturgical use.
“What we may have here is someone’s prized possession,” he said.
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