Since the discovery and publication of the Nag Hammadi codices, the single-quire codex format has become very familiar to papyrologists and historians of the book. It’s interesting, however, to recall that there was a time when the idea of an ancient book consisting of just one single large quire seemed a bit strange. The year was 1899. In the second volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Grenfell and Hunt published a fragment of a bifolium from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel According to John in Greek (P.Oxy. 2.208; LDAB 2780). They assigned it to the third century. For Grenfell and Hunt, it was a curious item, as only the central fold and a few centimeters on either side of the fold are preserved.
The contents turned out to be John 1:23-41 on one leaf and John 20:11-25 on the other. It is thus very likely to be the remains of one of the outer bifolia of a single-quire codex containing the whole Gospel According to John. For Grenfell and Hunt, this format was something odd, “rather awkward,” as they noted in their edition:
“If, then, the original book contained the whole of the Gospel, which is certainly the most natural supposition, our sheet was very nearly the outermost of a large quire, and within it were a number of other sheets sufficient to hold the eighteen intervening chapters. Written upon the same scale as the surviving fragments, these eighteen chapters would fill twenty-two sheets. The whole book would thus consist of a single quire of twenty-five sheets, the first leaf being probably left blank, or giving only the title. Such an arrangement certainly seems rather awkward, particularly as the margin between the two columns of writing in the flattened sheet is only about 2 cm. wide. This is not much to be divided between two leaves at the outside of so thick a quire. But as yet little is known about the composition of these early books; and it is by no means improbable that the simpler and more primitive form of a large number of sheets gathered into a single quire was prevalent before the more convenient arrangement of several small quires placed side by side came into fashion.”
As usual, Grenfell and Hunt were willing to be surprised and recognized that many of their expectations might be overturned by the vast amount of new evidence they were uncovering in those early days.
This passage came to mind because I just stumbled across a fascinating earlier moment in their process of thinking about this piece. In a preliminary report published in 1898, Grenfell floated a different interpretation of the fragment:
“Since the issue of the first volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Mr. Hunt and I have opened a number of fresh boxes, and the plan of the second volume, which will appear next year, is now for the most part arranged. The department of theology will include 3rd century fragments of St. John’s Gospel, written in parallel columns with another work.”
The idea that columns of writing containing the first chapter of John and one of the last chapters should appear next to each other was so unheard of that Grenfell and Hunt seem to have initially interpreted the fragment as part of a roll containing the fourth gospel and an altogether different text written next to each other in parallel columns. It’s a neat reminder of just how little was known about papyrus codices at the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1922, Grenfell and Hunt published a fragment of another leaf from this codex as P.Oxy. 15.1781, which contains John 16. That leaves from both the inner sheets and the outer sheets were found in the trash heaps at Oxyrhynchus probably indicates that the whole codex was thrown out (and not just a stray leaf that fell out). On this point, see AnneMarie Luijendijk, “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.”