Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 407, a Christian Prayer

Prayer-MSS-001

(not P. Oxy. 407)

P. Oxy. 407 (TM: 64310)  is titled “Christian Prayer,” but it is so much more. It is a window into early Christian practice. There is a short, seven-line prayer on one side of the papyrus. The other side simply says “Prayer” and, remarkably, has some scribbled amounts of stuff I’d guess the owner needed to record and only happened to have this papyrus with the prayer handy. Here’s the transcription from P. Oxy. III:

1 ο θεος ο παντ[ο]κρατωρ ο ποιησας τον ουρανον
2 και την γην και την θαλατταν και παντα τα εν αυτοις
3 βοηθησον μοι ελεησον με ⟦εξ⟧ εξαλιψον μου τας
4 αμαρτιας σωσον με εν τω νυν και εν τω μελλοντι
5 αιωνι δια του κυριου κα[ι] σωτηρος ημων Ϊησου
6 Χρειστου δι ου η δοξα και το κρατος εις τους αιωνας
7 των αιωνω[ν] αμην

On the verso

8 προσευχη
9 . (δραχμαὶ) ʼΒρλϛ
10 χωρ( ) λι(τρ ) ε (ἥμισυ?).

Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, eds., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (vol. III; Egypt Exploration Fund: Graeco-Roman Branch; Boston, MA; London: The Offices of the Egypt Exploration Fund; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.; Bernard Quaritch; Asher & Co.; Henry Frowde, 1903), 12–13.

The beauty of this prayer is that it is simple. If you know some NT Greek, you probably already read some chunks of it without much effort. Here’s a translation:

1 O God Almighty, who made the heaven
2 and the earth and the sea and all the things in them,
3 help me, have mercy on me. Cleanse me from my
4 sin, save me in the present [age] and in the coming
5 age through our Lord and Savior Jesus
6 Christ, through whom [be] the glory and the power forever
7 and ever, amen.

This is a real thing that a real person in Egypt did, back in the late third to fourth century: He (or someone he knew) wrote the prayer on a scrap of papyrus, small enough to fold up and keep with him pretty much all the time. He wrote “Prayer” on the back. He folded it up and kept it with him. He opened it up and read it. He cherished it. He was encouraged by it. He probably memorized it, but still read it. Somewhere along the way, he scribbled some other notes and amounts on it, like any one of us has done — scribbled an important number or amount on a post-it note near us so we would remember it.

Then it ended up in a garbage dump and sat there for 1500 years. Then some guys found it and brought it back to Oxford. And now we know about it. I’m sure the owner never dreamed that would happen, but his prayer now gives us a glimpse into a very personal sort of ancient Christian practice. It represents an incredibly human thing (writing a note, something important to treasure and remember) that is something many of us have likely done before. It is a reminder that early Christians were real people, who did real things. They were individuals. They tried all sorts of stuff to keep their faith at the forefront of their minds, much like we do.

And they read more than the New Testament, and they did more writing than just copy NT manuscripts. Just like you, and just like me.

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