A New Article on P52 in New Testament Studies

The latest issue of New Testament Studies contains an article I wrote on P.Ryl. 3.457, a.k.a. P52, the fragmentary leaf from a codex generally regarded as the earliest surviving copy of the Gospel According to John (and indeed earliest surviving copy of any of the texts that eventually ended up in the New Testament).

“Palaeography, Precision and Publicity: Further Thoughts on P.Ryl. III.457 (P52)”

Fifteen years ago (time flies!), I wrote one of my first academic articles about this papyrus. At the time, I thought I had been pretty thorough. Is there really anything more to say?

Postcard from the John Rylands Library (bought in 2014) showing the front and back of P.Ryl. 3.457 (P52); on the reverse is a rather unhelpful description: “Papyri (sic) fragment of St. John’s Gospel, written in Greek and dated to 125A.D. This is the earliest surviving piece of the New Testament.”

In 2014, Roberta Mazza invited me to a conference she had organized at the University of Manchester, “From Egypt to Manchester: Unravelling the John Rylands Papyrus Collection.” During my visit, I took the opportunity to comb through their archives a bit with the helpful guidance of both Roberta and of Elizabeth Gow. I was able to learn some interesting things about the purchase of the papyrus. When Colin H. Roberts published P.Ryl. 3.457 in 1935, a preface by Henry Guppy (the librarian at the John Rylands Library) gave an account of the origin of the papyrus:

“The precious little fragment of a papyrus codex which is described in the following pages, forms part of the hitherto unpublished portion of the collection of Greek papyri in the John Rylands Library. The particular group to which this fragment belongs was acquired in Egypt by the late Professor Bernard P. Grenfell in 1920.”

I think most of us had been under the impression that Roberts “discovered” the fragment of John amongst a mass of material left unsorted by Grenfell after he died in 1926 (indeed, the remainder of Guppy’s “Prefatory Note” strongly gives that impression). But it turns out this is not the case. Grenfell wasn’t purchasing blindly in 1920; he knew quite well what he was buying. His trip to Egypt is in fact reasonably well documented, and even his activities purchasing papyri are detailed in his letters and in the diary of his travel companion, Professor Francis Kelsey of the University of Michigan (pictured below walking together with Grenfell in Theadelphia during their trip in the spring of 1920).

Francis W. Kelsey, Bernard P. Grenfell, and an unidentified individual in Theadelphia, Spring 1920, photograph by Easton Kelsey; image source: Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

So, we have some new information about the acquisition of the Rylands fragment of John. I’ll leave the details for you to read in the article.

I also dedicate a bit of space in the article to engaging with some more recent scholarship on P.Ryl. 3.457, and in this connection I introduce some previously unknown material from the papyrologist Eric Turner. Background: When I was working in Australia several years ago, I ordered a copy of Medea Norsa’s big palaeographic album through interlibrary loan. When it arrived, I noticed two things: It came from the University of Western Australia in Perth, and Turner’s name was inscribed in his own handwriting on the inside of the front cover. A quick check of UWA’s library catalog revealed that UWA held the personal papers and library of Eric Turner. When I later visited Perth, I stopped in at UWA and examined Turner’s materials. My trip was short, so I didn’t have time to work thoroughly through everything there, but I did get an overview of the collection, and I was able to look at several of his books, including his copy of the editio princeps of P.Ryl. 3.457.

What I found was quite revealing. Next to a selection of the palaeographic parallels suggested by Roberts, Turner had simply written “Not dated,” indicating that Roberts was using one undated manuscript to assign a date to another undated manuscript, a procedure that is now recognized as dubious. Turner also added in the margins references to several (precisely dated) manuscripts for palaeographic comparison.

An opening of Eric Turner’s annotated copy of Colin H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library (University of Manchester Press, 1935), pp. 14-15; University of Western Australia Library

So, a second part of my article gathers images of Turner’s suggested parallels for the handwriting of the Rylands John fragment and reassesses the evidence for assigning a date to this fragmentary leaf.

It was fun to revisit this papyrus. I’m very grateful to Roberta and everyone at the John Rylands Library for their help, to Todd Hickey for sharing his knowledge of Grenfell’s trip to Egypt in 1920, and to the Australian Research Council for giving me the time and freedom to carry out research like this.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Bernard Grenfell, Colin H. Roberts, Eric Turner, New Testament, P.Ryl. 3.457, Palaeography, Rylands Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A New Article on P52 in New Testament Studies

  1. Pingback: C. H. Roberts at Blackwell’s | Variant Readings

  2. Pingback: A Book of Psalms and a Missing Page Number | Variant Readings

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