Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 924, a Prayer against Fevers

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P. Oxy. 5306,* possibly written by same scribe as P. Oxy. 924.

P. Oxy. 924 (TM 64394) is an amulet papyrus from the fourth century. Specifically, it is a prayer against fevers.* We may not think of it much because today we can diagnose the problems behind the fevers and prescribe medicine appropriately. But in the ancient world, a fever meant more because you probably had to ride it out and hope you’d make it through, particularly if due to an infection. Even the flu can be fatal without treatment, so fevers were a real problem. Here’s a translation of the amulet from Blumell and Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus:

Truly guard and protect Aria from fever by day, and from daily fever, and from fever by night, and from minor fever and small fever. All this you will do with benevolence according to your will and according to her faith, because she is a servant of the living God so that your name may be glorified forever.
Father of Jesus, son, mother of Christ, alpha and omega, Holy Spirit, Abrasax.

Now, here is where I identify with this prayer in a very personal way: My daughter has what is called Periodic Fever Syndrome. She gets fevers all the time (fewer now than when she was younger, but still once a month or so isn’t uncommon). When she was younger, they’d come on fast and very high (105 was not an uncommon fever temp in our house) and last for a few days, even with ibuprofen and aceitamenophen fighting against it. I get the first sentence of this prayer intimately. Check the perspective: It is not Aria (who suffers fevers) praying, it is someone who wants her protected — I’d guess a parent or perhaps a husband(?) — praying on her behalf.

From a Christian theological perspective, this prayer starts to go a little south in the second sentence because it is bargaining with God, telling him what he needs to do (prevent Aria’s fevers) and why he needs to do it (she’s faithful, she is a servant of God, and so God will be glorified). And the third sentence goes completely bonkers with appeal to every deity or holy entity in Christianity (Trinity + Mary) with a further “Abrasax” appeal that is commonly found in gnostic papyri. It can refer to the number 365, implying an appeal for constant protection. Idiomatically, “Abrasax” could be the equivalent of saying “24/7”. This whole sentence is structured graphically at the end of the papyrus in an inverse pyramid with all seven Greek vowels lining the outside margin. At this point, it is less a prayer and more an incantation, a magical appeal for goodness to whatever and whomever might supply an answer.

What can we really take away from this papyrus? I see a very real, very human problem represented in P. Oxy. 924. Because of my personal circumstance, it is very hard for me to not read this papyrus as a father desperately wanting his daughter’s fevers to go away, but having no ability or power to do so and no treatments from physicians that help. This desperate dad does whatever he can, including reading this prayer, when a fever hits his daughter.

An appeal to any sort of god or higher power in a desperate and powerless time is a human response to an issue like this. It reminds again that these ancient Christians were people. Their theology wasn’t always pure, but these papyrus scraps from an ancient garbage dump, retrieved by what were essentially late 19th/early 20th century dumpster divers, show us the humanity of these people. They show us how the ancients were real human beings, with real problems.


* Interesting note: Apparently P. Oxy. 5306 and P. Oxy. 5307 are similar amulets with prayers possibly/probably written by the same scribe.

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