The recent discovery of a Christian fragment provides a glimpse into the early Christian worldview before the New Testament’s formation. This artifact is dated to the second century CE, making it one of the earliest known Christian manuscripts from this era.
The importance of this discovery lies not only in its age but also in its content. According to Jeffrey Fish, one of the editors of the fragment, only a few gospel papyri can be securely dated to the second or beginning of the third century.
This fragment stands out as a unique early Christian manuscript. It contains sayings of Jesus that partially align with canonical gospels like Matthew and Luke, as well as some that are exclusively found in the Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical text.
Determining the precise date of ancient manuscripts can be challenging, as they lack contextual clues due to their discovery in ancient trash heaps. However, scholars have employed the science of paleography to compare the handwriting in this fragment with that of other dated documents and non-canonical manuscripts. While no dating method is without some degree of uncertainty, experts involved in this research assert that the dating of this fragment is as secure as paleography allows.
The Appearance of Christ before the People
Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858) pic.twitter.com/SaplN6Isrx
— Edward Wilkie (@wambaworld) August 14, 2016
Scholars and experts in Christian history will continue to scrutinize and assess the significance of this newfound fragment. Nonetheless, any second-century Christian manuscript is considered invaluable, as it sheds light on the early development of Christian thought and scripture, filling a historical gap in the understanding of the religion’s formative years.
The Importance of the Papyrus Fragment
The recently discovered fragment, which has been titled “Sayings of Jesus,” holds intriguing insights into early Christian thought. While it does not include the phrase “Jesus said,” it appears to be a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Its brevity makes it challenging to determine its precise nature, whether part of an unknown Gospel or a text quoting Jesus’s sayings by an early Christian writer.
This fragment’s importance lies in its potential to shed light on how early Christians recorded Jesus’s words. It aligns with the historical idea that, before the composition of the New Testament, early Christians may have initially collected Jesus’s sayings. The Gospel of Thomas, for instance, follows this pattern.
Furthermore, the papyrus touches on the theme of worldly worries, akin to passages in canonical and non-canonical Gospels, urging people not to fret about life’s necessities. Some variations in wording may reflect differing perspectives on human nature.
The fragment also showcases the practice of thematic excerpting and reorganizing of material from the Gospels, a characteristic of early Christian reading and writing practices. This approach, as suggested by scholars Jeremiah Coogan and Jacob Rodriguez, allowed early Christians to synthesize thematic material from various sources, highlighting the fluidity of early Christian thought and the intellectual engagement of the community.
Researchers suggest that early Christians highly valued written records of Jesus’s teachings but weren’t fixated on details, similar to how Matthew and Luke used their sources. The author of this fragment creatively combined various traditions about Jesus, showing a flexible approach to wording.
Guidance from this fragment, alongside canonical Gospels and philosophers like Philodemus, reflects the enduring challenges of ancient life, marked by financial uncertainty and the pursuit of wealth.