The Oxyrhynchus 840 Gospel on Early Christian Writings

The transcription has been made from The Oxyrhynchus papyri, edited with translations and notes by Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, Part V, published London 1908.

The introduction is from pp. 1-4.

840. Fragment of an Uncanonical Gospel

8.8 x 7.4 cm. Plate I (verso).

This fragment consists of a single vellum leaf, practically complete except at one of the lower corners, and hear most of the lacunae admit of a satisfactory restoration. The book to which the leaf belonged was of remarkably modest dimensions, but though the written surface only slightly exceeds two insches square the scribe has succeeded in compressing forty-five lines into the two pages. He used a small and not very regular uncial hand, round and upright, of a type pointing, we think, to a fourth rather than a fifth century date. A later date is out of the question. A peculiarity is the employment of red ink to outline and bring into greater prominence the dots of punctuation (in the middle position), initial letters of sentences, strokes of abbreviation, and even accents, of which two examples occur (ll. 23 and 36). Longer pauses are marked not only by dots but also by short blank spaces, and the following letter, besides being ornamented with red, is rather enlarged. Of the abbreviations usual in theological MSS., anoV (anqrwpoV), dd (Dauied), and swr (swther) are found. n at the end of a line, in order to save space, is sometimes written as a horizontal stroke above the preceding vowel; and there is one apparent instance (l. 9) of the use of the common angular sign to complete a line shorter than its neighbors. In three cases words originally omitted have been supplied, all these interlineations most probably being by the original hand. The scribe apparently was particularly liable to omission, and in one or two other places supplements seem to be required, cf. l. 1 and notes in ll. 3-7 and 40.

The bulk of the fragment is concerned with a conversation between Jesus and a chief priest, which takes place in the Temple at Jerusalem, the episode, which is of a dramatic character, being preserved almost complete. It is preceded by the conclusion of a speech of Jesus to His disciples, exhorting them to avoid the example of certain wrong-doers and warning them of the penalties which await the latter both in this world and the next (ll. 1-7). What particular class is referred to by the word autoiV in l. 3 is not clear. Jesus, who throughout the fragment is called simply o swthr, then takes His disciples with Him inside the Temple to the agneuthrion, by which term the author of the gospel perhaps meant the 'court of the men of Israel', though how far this use of it is legitimate is doubtful (ll. 7-9; cf. l 8 note). They are there met by a chief priest who is also a Pharisee, but whose name is quite uncertain (l. 10, note). The chief priest reproaches them for having neglected to perform the necessary ceremonies of ablution and change of garments before entering the holy place and looking upon the sacred vessels (ll. 12-21). A short dialogue ensues in which Jesus asks the chief priest if he is pure, and the latter answers recounting the different purificatory rites which he had himself observed (ll. 21-30). To this Jesus delivers an eloquent and crushing reply contrasting outward with inward purity, the external bathing prescribed by Jewish ritual with the inward cleansing which He and His followers had received in the waters of eternal life (ll. 30-45). Before the conclusion of the speech is reached the fragment breaks off.

In its general outline the episode resembles Matt. xv. 1-20, Mark vii. 1-23, though the scene is there not Jerusalem but near Gennesaret, and the other details are of course different. The contrast between outward religious observance and inward purity was one of the most salient points in Christ's teaching, and is illustrated not only by the canonical gospels but by other uncanonical utterances, e.g., two series of Sayings of Jesus [this is the Gospel of Thomas] (l. 5-11 ean mh nhsteushte k.t.l., 654. 32 sqq. [ex]etazousin auton k.t.l.). Even more clearly than 655, 840 belongs to a narrative covering the same ground as the canonical gospels. That this was composed with a view to advocating the tenets of a particular sect is not indicated by anything in our fragment; for though ll. 41-4 when separated from their context might conceivably be adduced as an argument for denying the necessity of the use of water at baptism, baptizein is not there used in its technical Christian sense (cf. l. 15, note), and in other respects the fragment is quite orthodox. A possible point of connexion with the Gnostics may be found in the noticeable fact that our Lord is called not IhsouV or o kurioV but o swthr, a title which Irenaeus (I. i. 3) reproaches the Valentinian Ptolemaeus for using to the exclusion of kurioV; cf. Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, i. p. 124. But the use of swthr or salvator simply to designate Jesus is of course common in other early Christian writers, and though its employment indicates that this gospel belongs to a later stage of development than the canonical gospels, in which it only occurs in Luke ii. 11 etecqh umin shmeron swthr, os estin cristoV kurioV and John iv. 42 oidamen oti outoV estin o swthr tou kosmou, this is not sufficient to establish a Gnostic origin for the fragment. It is, however, enough to exclude the likelihood that 840 comes from either the gospel according to the Hebrews or that according to the Egyptians. For though swthr is used in introducing quotations from these gospels by Origen (In Ioann. ii. 6 to kaq EbraiouV euaggelion enqa autoV o swthr fhsin arti elabe me k.t.l.) and Epiphanius (Haer. 62.2) en autw (sc. the gospel according to the Egyptians) gar polla toiauta wV en parabustw musthriwdwV ek proswpon tou swthroV anaferetai wV autou dhlountoV toiV maqhtaiV k.t.l., the evidence of extant quotations themselves indicates that kurioV was the title commonly employed, as in the Gospel of Peter. In the absence of any definite resemblances between 840 and the scanty remains of the various uncanonical gospels composed in the second or third century, the fragment is best classed as belonging to a gospel distinct from any of them. The chief point of interest in it lies in the references to Jewish ceremonies of purification in connexion with the Temple-worship, about which the author at first sight shows an intimate knowledge. On some points the statements in the fragment find support in the extant authorities for the Temple-ritual at the time of Christ. Thus Josephus states that no Jew who was unclean had the right to be admitted to the inner court of the Temple, i.e. that known as the 'court of the men of Israel' (cf. l. 8, note), and the statement put into the mouth of the chief priest concerning the necessity of ceremonial washing and putting on white garments is in accordance with the regulations for priests described in the Mishnah (cf. ll. 25 and 27, notes). But that an ordinary Jew before visiting the inner court of the Temple had to wash and change his clothes as stated in ll. 18-20 is not confirmed by any other evidence; and neither the term agneuthrion in l. 8 nor the limnh tou Daueid in l. 25 are mentioned elsewhere, while considerable difficulty arises in connexion with the 'sacred vessels' which are stated to have been visible from the court to which Jesus and His disciples had penetrated; cf. ll. 12-21, note. Moreover the two stairways leading down to the 'pool of David' and still more the statement that dogs and swine were cast into it (ll. 33-4) seem to be details invented for the sake of rhetorical effect, for that a high priest washed himself in a pool of the character described is incredible. So great indeed are the divergences between this account and the extant and no doubt well informed authorities with regard to the topography and ritual of the Temple that it is hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that much of the local colour is due to the imagination of the author, who was aiming chiefly at dramatic effect, and was not really well acquainted with the Temple. But if the inaccuracy of the fragment in this important respect is admitted, the historical character of the whole episode breaks down, and it is probably to be regarded as an apocryphal elaboration of Matt. xv. 1-20 and Mark vii. 1-23. In these circumastances the gospel to which the fragment belongs can hardly have been composed before the middle of the second century. The use of the term swthr and the fact that the manuscript itself was written in the fourth or possibly even in the fifth century may be represented as arguments for a third century date, but that seems to us improbable. After the four canonical gospels had come to be exclusively used in most churches, a process which was complete by the end of the second century (Harnack, Gesch. d. altchr. Lit. ii. p. 699), no new gospel covering the same ground could look for more than a very limited acceptance, and after about A.D. 180 authors of apocryphal gospels generally avoided competition with the canonical gospels by placing their supposed revelations in the period of the Childhood or after the Resurrection. Moreover, if the author of 840 wrote in the third century, we should expect him to betray a definitely heretical point of view, which, as we have said, is not discernable in the fragment. That it is Egyptian in origin is very likely, but it stands much nearer to the gospel according to the Egyptians which was composed in the second century, probably before the middle of it, than e.g. the Pistis Sophia which was written in the third. The literary quality of the fragment does not favour a very late date; the style is more ambitious than that of the canonical gospels, and the rhetorical tendency of the composer, who uses a number of words not found in the New Testament, is somewhat pronounced, but he is more successful in catching something of the genuine ring than many of the authors of the apocryphal gospels. Hence we prefer to regard the work to which 840 belongs as composed before A.D. 200. While the story of the dialogue between Christ and the chief priest has no claim to be accepted as authentic, and is probably a secondary or even tertiary production, the fragment is an interesting and valuable addition to the scanty remnant of the numerious uncanonical traditions concerning Christ's teaching which were current in many Christian communities, especially in Egypt, during the third and fourth centuries.

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