The Earliest Scriptures

The Washington Codex of the Minor Prophets

A dark brown papyrus codex, very old and in pieces.
Washington, D.C., Freer Gallery of Art, F1916.768 (MS V), p. 37
Ink on papyrus; ff. 34 + fragments; 295 x 140mm
Minor Prophets; Greek with Coptic glosses
Egypt, Fayyum(?); third century, second half

This papyrus codex contains what is almost the oldest complete Christian copy of the Greek text of the twelve Minor Prophets (compare the more fragmentary first-century B.C.E. leather scroll from Nahal Hever). Only fragments of the first book (Hosea) are preserved, but part or whole of every page of the eleven other Minor Prophets survives. The codex was produced on papyrus of fine quality, and the scribe’s work was corrected by another person against the parent manuscript with meticulous care.

Thirty-four leaves of the codex survive in some form. Based on how much of Hosea is lost at the beginning, the codex was almost certainly originally formed from twenty-four sheets of papyrus, folded and bound as a single quire (gathering) to make a ninety-six-page codex. After the end of Malachi, a fragmentary colophon of sorts in a different, later hand names the work (“Prophets and…[?]”) and notes “(it is) complete.” This may serve to set the Minor Prophets off from the work that follows on the last preserved page of the codex. This text survives only in fragments, and more may have originally stood at the end of the manuscript. It was written, perhaps in the early fourth century, by a scribe different from the one who wrote the Minor Prophets (whose hand is, however, similar to that of some of the marginal notations). This text contains verbatim quotes from the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel (the latter in the version of Symmachus) surrounded (where the writer’s sense can be followed) by development of the theme of the “new Jerusalem” of Revelation 21.

Indications both within the text and in one set of marginal notations of independence from the known Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures suggest that the direct influence of the Hebrew is likely in some cases. A more certain linguistic influence is provided by the Coptic glosses that line many of the left, right, and bottom margins of fourteen pages (and probably originally many more, as one or more margins are lost entirely on a large number of pages).

The codex’s ancient home is not known. Judging by the Sahidic (Upper Egyptian) dialect of the Coptic glosses, it may not have been the Fayyum, despite the fact it was acquired there. Wherever it was kept, a succession of people with close knowledge of the biblical books concerned had access to it and helped shape its text. Whether these were individual owners or members of a community in whose library the book was kept cannot be known. In its passage from a purely Greek production to a work adapted for use for preaching in Egyptian (one explanation for the Coptic glosses) the codex is a contemporary witness to the spread of Christianity in third- and fourth-century Egypt, from the Hellenized cultural centers in the Nile Delta and Valley into the native-speaking population.

The codex of the Minor Prophets was acquired in Egypt’s Fayyum region by David Askren, a resident American missionary, and formed part of a large consignment of papyri that he sold through the Cairo antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman. These were purchased in 1916 by Charles Lang Freer in partnership with J. P. Morgan Jr., who (per agreement) took all the Coptic texts to the library founded by his father in New York. Freer received the lone Greek item, the Minor Prophets.
MC (author bios)

Sanders, 1921; Sanders, 1927; Sanders and Schmidt, 1927; Boak, 1959; Aland, 1976, no. 08; Haelst, 1976, no. 284; Rahlfs and Fraenkel, 2004, pp. 387-Ð89; Choat, 2006.

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