I first read about Papyrus 23 in “Encountering The Manuscripts” by Philip Comfort. He argued that its paleographical resemblance to Beatty IX suggested a date of 200 AD, or perhaps even earlier. That would make it the oldest fragment of James’ Epistle in the world.
But what really caught my attention was its location. Urbana, Illinois – just an hour and a half from Lafayette. There was no question in my mind I would be going to see it.
Papyrus 23 is among the manuscripts known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. These manuscripts were found by archaeologists working in Egypt around the turn of the century, and include thousands of ancient fragments. Among these are several biblical works, from both the New Testament and the Septuagint.
Because I despise any kind of winter driving, I opted to wait until March before leaving for Urbana. Not that there wasn’t plenty to do at home. Most important was to begin memorizing the Greek text. I didn’t just want to see Papyrus 23 when I went to Illinois – I wanted to read it for myself. Frankly, the thought of reading from the same manuscript that was being used in a Christian congregation 1800 years ago felt exciting. The text was short, anyhow – only a handful of verses.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon as we left Lafayette. I was very fortune in this instance to be married to a woman who loves road trips. In fact, if Liz had had her way, we’d probably have stayed in Urbana all weekend.
The trip was uneventful, if relaxing, and we arrived at the University of Illinois after just one wrong turn. It was only now that I discovered the one thing that I had failed to plan for: parking meters.
After a delay of nearly twenty minutes driving around the campus, and a stop at Jimmy John’s to make change, we arrived at the Spurlock Museum – for a second time. Getting out of the car, I inserted six quarters (two hours) into the parking meter. Only then did I notice that parking was free on weekends.
Once inside the museum, the remainder of the afternoon proved much better. The museum was divided into several large rooms, each corresponding to specific regions of the world. We decided to begin in the European room. Here, my attention was first drawn to a fine collection of illuminated manuscripts. Among these was a luminous text produced in 15th century France, and a German manuscript of the same era with colored woodblock initials.
Moving along we stumbled upon a collection of Reformation items, including a handwritten indulgence and a fifteenth century printing of Martin Luther’s “On Aplas Von Rom.” Nearby were a loose leaf from a Gutenberg Bible and a page from a handwritten Latin Vulgate.
Working our way through the displays, we observed a large Torah scroll produced in the fifteenth century, and a very nicely illuminated Qur’an. Nearby was a collection of cuneiform clay tablets. This trip was proving reasonably exciting for someone with an interest in the history of writing and linguistics!
And so, at last, we arrived at the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection. There, nestled between a widow’s petition and Thucydides Book V, was Papyrus 23.
Μη πλανασθε αδελφοι μου αγαπητοι…
Who, I wondered, had read this tiny fragment in its earliest days? Here before me was a page of Scripture copied before the Reformation, before the Great Schism, before the Council of Nicaea, nearly a hundred years even before the birth of Constantine. Here before me was a fragment of James’ Epistle only 125 years removed from the original. Truly, it was a privilege to see and read this tiny page of Greek writing firsthand.
We cycled around each of the manuscript collections several more times before heading to Biaggi’s in nearby Champaign for dinner. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day. Parking meters and all.