Personal Reflections on Examining an Ancient Papyrus (𝔓104)

Earlier this week there was quite a bit of buzz in the media regarding claims that a first century fragment of the gospel of Mark had been discovered among papyri used in Egyptian burial masks. There’s been much smoke with not so much light relating to this news item, as is helpfully summarized in a few places (1, 2, 3). At present it has become a “wait and see” kind of situation.

Today, however, I had the privilege of heading over to Oxford to have an up-close look at a different NT fragment that we’ve known about since the late 1990s and which is generally considered to be among the oldest so far discovered.

Papyrus 104 (𝔓104), also known as P.Oxy. LXIV 4404, is a second century fragment of Matthew 21 that contains portions of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33–45).[3] The editio princeps was published in 1997 by David Thomas.[1] It is among a small number of papyri that are dated (even by scholars who have specifically argued against apologetically-driven tendencies to date such manuscripts earlier than they probably should be [2]) to the 100-200 AD range, placing it alongside the very famous and often debated 𝔓52, which has long held pole position as the earliest extant fragment.

The papyrus is quite clear on one side and rather damaged on the other. Images provided by the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project are available below, but leave a lot to be desired as they are fairly low resolution.

Front side (recto). © The Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford
Back side (verso). © The Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford

The back side of the papyrus appears to be missing a key verse (Matt 21:44), whose parallel in Luke 20:18 happens to be the central focus of one of the chapters of my dissertation. Hence, off to the Sackler Library I went in order to look at the papyrus fragment more closely under a microscope (literally).

It was a great afternoon and proved quite beneficial, as I was able to see under magnification many details of the back side of the fragment that were impossible to pick up via the images. I hope to share my findings more fully at some point in the future.

But on the drive back to Cambridge, I was reflecting on the afternoon and wanted to share some “regular Joe”-oriented thoughts about this kind of activity.

  • The privilege of studying. The study of ancient papyri and other manuscripts has to rank up there near the top on the nerdiness scale. It’s a very technical endeavor that generally bores most people to tears. As I was sitting there poring over the minutiae of smudged ink here, stripped fibers there, obscure letters, and whatnot, I was simultaneously overwhelmed by a tremendous appreciation for the fact that I was able to study an 1,800+ year old  (and perhaps THE oldest we have) fragment of the Bible that was hand written and used by early Christians. How amazing is that? Images are one thing, but seeing it in person is unsurpassed. Sadly, far too often in highly technical fields like this—even among Christian scholars—there is a tendency towards scholarly elitism, competitiveness, and academic arrogance. By God’s grace, my main takeaway today, however, was how privileged I am to be able to study in a place like this and access artifacts like this.
  • The burden and responsibility of studying. By the same token, I also recognized today that the rare privilege of being able to study such materials firsthand also imposes important responsibilities on the Christian scholar (or any scholar for that matter). Only a handful of people will ever be able to study 𝔓104 or things like it under a microscope; everyone else will depend on bad JPEGs and what the others say about it. This applies likewise to the rest of biblical studies. Only a relatively small number of Christians will ever spend several years deeply immersed in studying the biblical languages, history, theology, etc. (e.g., at seminary), and the average layperson will often have to take their word for it when they say, “In the Greek…” I was deeply reminded again today, then, that we must take this responsibility seriously. Any student of the Bible will never be perfect and will not always get things right—but we should try. Evangelical Christian scholars should be known for the carefulness, rigor, and quality of their work. But we should also be known for our scholarly humility. It is not something about which we should be puffed up or arrogant. Rather, it is a burden that we should bear with servants’ hearts.
  • The mystery of God’s providence. 𝔓104 belongs to a collection of papyrus fragments discovered in the late 19th century in what amounts to a garbage dump outside Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. There are thousands of these fragments, ranging from business receipts to classical works to biblical works. And it just so happens that some of these have been very significant in our understanding of the Bible. I was struck again today by the sheer mystery of God’s providence in all this. How on earth would one of the earliest known manuscripts of the Bible be found in a landfill outside Egypt? I guess this is not too dissimilar to Hilkiah’s rediscovery “book of the law” that had apparently been lost somewhere in the temple (2 Kgs 22:8). God’s sovereign hand moves in perplexing ways sometimes.


[1] J. David Thomas, “P. Oxy. 4404,” Pages 7–9 in E.W. Handley (ed.), The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Vol. LXIV (London: British Academy for the Egypt Exploration Society, 1997).

[2] Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Paleography,” ETL 88/4 (2012): 433–474.

[3] See my prior post on this parable.

5 thoughts on “Personal Reflections on Examining an Ancient Papyrus (𝔓104)”

  1. “The study of ancient papyri and other manuscripts has to rank up there near the top on the nerdiness scale.” No doubt but one I highly appreciate. Lol.

  2. Awesome and awe-inspiring at the same time! It must have been a thrill and a honor to be able to view this artifact. Probably brought chills knowing this was something used by the early Christians. Great day for you! d

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