P.Berol. 16595: Epiphany, Miriam, and her Tambourine

This is one of a short series of posts about Epiphany themes in early Christian papyri.

P.Berol. 16595 (Transcription) is a small fragment with writing extant on recto and verso. The recto portion mentions the baptism of Jesus and is the portion directly involved with Epiphany. The verso, however, mentions the Song of Miram from Exodus. Is it related to the recto?

P. 16595: Theophanie-Hymnus mit musikalischen Vokalverdoppelungen

P.Berol. 16595 recto (source)

P.Berol 16595


P.Berol. 16595 (tm 64842) is a small papyrus fragment (5.8 x 9.5 cm) hailing from Egypt, dated to the 5th–6th centuries (ad 400–599). Writing is visible on the recto and verso sides of the papyrus. It is described by Treu as a “Theophany hymn with musical vocal doublings.”[1] The content of the papyrus, like that of P.Berol. 11633, is related to the celebration of Epiphany.[2]

The vocal doublings present in the papyrus are unnecessarily repeated vowels within words. They indicate an intended rhythmic or musical quality to the text. Martinez provides more information regarding the doubling in this papyrus:

We can, however, be sure that these passages were sung or chanted, because both sides [recto and verso] display doubling or quasi-doubling of vowels, a usage we know from other papyri and manuscripts that preserve musical scores. The doubled vowels indicate for the singer (possibly in this case the cantor, or psaltes) places where two notes are to be sung in a syllable (melism). This feature lends to the document considerable musicological importance.[3]

Martinez further notes that “Some Christian scribes, however, adopted this practice in writing hymns and liturgies.”[4] This papyrus reflects a text that was not simply read, but was chanted or sung.


The recto reflects material from John’s gospel regarding John the Baptist’s testimony of Jesus’ baptism, one of the events strongly associated with the feast of Epiphany. It records the words of John the Baptist from John 1:15 (repeated in John 1:30) in testimony of Jesus, that Jesus comes after John but is more important than John. It is a reminder of John’s function as forerunner,[5] pointing toward Jesus.

The verso, however, is different. It does not reflect material from the New Testament but instead refers to the “Song of Miriam” from Ex 15:20–21. It reproduces at least part of the song (Ex 15:21, also Ex 15:1) and extends it mentioning “singing … of the heavenly powers.”



(1) … of the Jordan has come near (2) John testified and cried (3) out, “This one was he, about whom I said to you, ‘The one (4) who comes after me he is ahead of me (5) because before me if’” (6) … (7) … baptism (8) …


(9) O, Miriam[6] … they (10) received the tambourine … (11) she said, “Let us sing to the Lord, (12) for he is supremely glorified until even … (13) of being deluged (14) … singing (15) … of the heavenly powers (16) …”


The recto begins mid-sentence with reference to the Jordan river, John the Baptist, and at least an allusion to Jesus’ baptism. This firmly sets the context of the papyrus as Epiphany, a feast originally associated with this event. The words ascribed to John the Baptist reproduce the text of John 1:15 and 1:30, albeit not exactly. They do, however, confirm the relationship of the papyrus with the gospel of John. While there is no way to know how large this song was or if the papyrus represents a large or small portion of it, the context of Epiphany and the use of material from John’s gospel is certain.

What else is certain is that the orthography (doubling of vowels) reflects material that was chanted or sung. Unfortunately portions of the papyrus are reconstructed (based on relationship with John 1:15 and Ex 15:20–21) and there is no information available of how the vowel doubling would be represented in the reconstructed portions. This means no complete information on the rhythm or musicality of this hymn is available.

What is available, however, is the unique focus of the verso on the “Song of Miriam.” Miriam, Moses’ sister, is a lesser-known character in the modern western church so the appearance of this material in the context of Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism may at first be confusing. But it need not be. Here is the “Song of Miriam,” from Ex 15:20–21 (lxx):

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took up her tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out behind her with tambourines and dancing. Then Miriam led them, saying, “Let us sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously glorified; horse and rider he has cast into the sea.”

The “Song of Miriam,” (Ex 15:20–22) follows the “Song of Moses” in Ex 15:1–19, which follows the people of Israel’s passing through the Red Sea. Notably, Miriam’s song repeats the beginning of Moses’ song (Ex 15:1) signaling that Ex 15:1–21 form an inclusio. The Song of Moses is also found in the Odes as Ode 1. The Odes are a collection of material transmitted with the Greek Old Testament that includes messianic-themed material from the lxx and nativity material from the Greek New Testament. Even today, the Odes are typically used in liturgical contexts in Eastern Orthodox churches.[7] They are transmitted as a group with the Psalms in several Psalter manuscripts. They are also found in whole-Bible manuscripts such as codex Alexandrinus. At least one Psalter manuscript, codex Vernonensis, includes Ex 15:1–21 as the first Ode.[8] Why does this matter? It matters because it confirms that at least some Christian communities used the inclusio formed by Ex 15:1–21, the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam, in the context of worship.

But why this reference to the Israelites’ passing through the Red Sea here in the context of baptism? Paul, in 1Co 10:1–4, makes the association.

For I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all went through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (1Co 10:1–4)

Martinez summarizes the association between this event and baptism:

Theologically and liturgically, the miraculous defeat of Pharoah and the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea is a type of Christian baptism … This passage [1Co 10:1–2] is used in the liturgy for the blessing of the baptismal waters in the Greek Orthodox rite on Epiphany eve.[9]

The parting and passing through of the Red Sea (Ex 14) prefigure Christian baptism (1Co 10:1–2). The celebration of the event referred to in this scant scrap of papyrus recalls one sign of the commencement of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ (Jn 1:15, 30), his baptism. The picture of Miriam, leading the women with tambourine and dancing, singing about how the Lord “cast horse and rider into the sea” are a picture of the waters of baptism, sanctified by Christ, used to overtake those who pursue God’s people.[10]


Martinez, David G. “Epiphany Themes in Christian Liturgies on Papyrus.” Pages 187–215 in Light from the East. Papyrologische Kommentare Zum Neuen Testament. Edited by Peter Artz-Grabner and Christina Kreinecker. Vol. 39 of Philippika. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010.

Swete, Henry Barclay. An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914.

Treu, Kurt. “Varia Christiana.” AfP 24–25 (1976): 113–126.

[1] Kurt Treu, “Varia Christiana,” AfP 24–25 (1976): 121–23.

[2] See discussion on P.Berol. 11633 elsewhere in this volume.

[3] David G. Martinez, “Epiphany Themes in Christian Liturgies on Papyrus,” in Light from the East. Papyrologische Kommentare Zum Neuen Testament, ed. Peter Artz-Grabner and Christina Kreinecker, vol. 39 of Philippika (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010), 194–95.

[4] Martinez, “Epiphany Themes in Christian Liturgies on Papyrus,” 195.

[5] See discussion regarding “forerunner” on P.Berol. 11633.

[6] Possibly “Mary”

[7] Martinez, “Epiphany Themes in Christian Liturgies on Papyrus,” 195.

[8] Henry Barclay Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), 253; Treu, “Varia Christiana,” 122.

[9] Martinez, “Epiphany Themes in Christian Liturgies on Papyrus,” 195.

[10] Martinez, “Epiphany Themes in Christian Liturgies on Papyrus,” 196.

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