The Earliest Scriptures

The Sayings of Jesus (Logia Jesou)

Fragmented, worn papyrus with faded writing in black ink
The Sayings of Jesus (Logia Jesou)
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Gr. th. e. 7 (P), recto and verso
Ink on papyrus; f. 1; 140-48 x 90-95mm
Gospel of Thomas (fragment); Greek
Oxyrhynchus, Egypt; third century C.E.

Jesus says “…Raise the stone and there you shall find me, split the wood and there I am.” (Logion 5)

Every Christian must feel a shiver of excitement at the new vistas suggested by these words. They are a translation of one of the eight Greek sayings (logia) of Jesus surviving on the two sides of this papyrus. Each begins “Jesus says…,” and though most of the material is duplicated in the canonical gospels, some is new or shows an unexpected turn of phrase:

Jesus says, “A prophet is not acceptable in his own country, nor does a physician work cures on those who know him.” (Logion 6)

The papyrus derives from the Greco-Roman culture of Egypt, and was excavated in 1896–97 at Oxyrhynchus, a town about 190 kilometers south of Cairo. There, the ancient rubbish-tips have yielded the largest surviving group of papyri containing documents and literary texts from the period of the Roman Empire. Nearly five thousand Oxyrhynchus papyri have been published so far, but this has the distinction of being the first: P.Oxy.I 1. Its discoverers, the Oxford scholars B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, dated it from its script “not much later than the year 200,” and rushed it into print in 1897 under the title Sayings of Our Lord. The original was given to the Bodleian Library in 1900 by the Egypt Exploration Fund, which had financed the excavation.

The nature of the text was established more fully through the discovery in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt of a papyrus codex of the later fourth century which includes, among various Gnostic texts in Coptic, a complete version in Coptic of the Gospel of Thomas (Cairo, Coptic Museum, Nag Hammadi Codex II). Textual parallels reveal that the Oxyrhynchus papyrus and other fragments in fact belong to the Greek version (close, but not identical) of the apocryphal text attributed in the Coptic to “Didymos Judas Thomas”: it consists entirely of sayings attributed to Jesus, without narrative. Nevertheless, the Bodleian’s papyrus remains of the highest value as the major witness to the original Greek version, first composed perhaps in the mid-second century—or earlier?

Like the Coptic find, this copy of the Greek Gospel of Thomas had been written in a papyrus codex. The format is immediately evident from the continuity of text and script on both sides: it is clearly one whole leaf, relatively little damaged, which had been numbered as the eleventh folio (equivalent to pages 21-22) of its book. By contrast, an ancient roll would have been written on one side only, with the other side either blank or perhaps reused for a different text and script. The fact that this early Christian text was here written in codex form is especially significant. Unlike the roll, the codex allows immediate access to any part of the text: the reader need no longer read a text continuously, but can leaf through it quickly, maybe to find a favorite Saying in a book like this. The adoption of the new format by the early Christians may have been the decisive factor in the development of the Western form of book.
BCBB (author bios)

Gospel of Thomas; Summary Catalogue, 1895-1953, no. 32901 (listing only); Grenfell and Hunt, 1897; Canberra, 2001, pp. 13, 36, 37 (pl.), 177.

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