Stuff Early Christians Read: PSI XI 1200 bis, an Eschatological Fragment

This unique papyrus fragment, PSI XI 1200 bis (TM: 63460), has an excerpt of Plato’s Gorgias on the front, but the back is not Plato. It is not part of any known text. It is early. It has been dated to the early second century (100–150 by Clarysse and Orsini).

Because the text is not known, and the evidence is too small to reconstruct, we really have no idea what is represented. But we do have some words and fragments that led the original editor (A. Carlini) to propose this back side of a scroll of Plato’s Gorgias actually represents a Christian theological text (cf. Blumell & Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus, p 286).

Not only that, the vocabulary extant in the fragment indicates the discussion had some sort of eschatological vibe to it. Maybe it was a saying of Jesus; maybe a sermon of some sort, maybe a theological treatise. It does have nomina sacra for God (ΘΣ, ΘΩ) in the middle (line 4) and near the bottom (line 10); you can make out the overlines even on the above image if you squint. It also uses words in the εσχατ* family (line 1, 4) as well as πρωτα (line 3, line 7), νυν (line 9). The original editior (A. Carlini) even noted a possible parallel with Ep. Barn. 6:13, which says “And the Lord says, ‘Behold, I will make the last things as the first.'”

While we can’t know the larger context, we have justifiable reason to think the context is eschatological. And, given the amount of ink spilled in Christian circles on eschatological discussions since the early second century, is it really surprising that we’d find a fragment of a document from this early period that appears to discuss (teach, preach?) eschatology? Nope.

From this slim fragment, we learn that Christians from 1900 years ago had concerns similar to ours. We know from the New Testament that Christians were confused about the Lord’s return (cf. 1 & 2 Thessalonians, which some view as the earliest of Paul’s letters, and have been dated as early as the 40s and 50s). Should we be surprised that we have textual evidence from 50–100 years post-NT that also appears to discuss eschatological issues? No, we shouldn’t. I’m not saying that this fragment represents some sort of second century Left Behind, but I am saying it shows that early Christians were concerned (just like Christians today are concerned) about the doctrine of last things. They spoke, wrote, and read about it from an early date. For this text to be copied in 100–150, it means it had to be composed and, to some degree, circulate before then. It is reasonable to think that the origin of the text can be placed within a generation or two of the apostles.

 

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