Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 4010, the Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13) is this sort of common piece of Christianity that, if you went to church for any sustained period of time in your life, you probably know. In the church of my youth, we repeated it every Sunday (and it was not an overly liturgical church). It is a beautiful thing, because as the text in Matthew 6:7 presents it, it is not simply a prayer but it is Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. It is not a prayer, it is an exemplar prayer. Some might even say it is the prayer.

We twenty-first (and twentieth) century Christians weren’t the first to notice this. The Lord’s prayer was found on a single papyrus sheet in Oxyrhynchus.

P. Oxy 4010 (TM: 64491) is dated to 300–399, and on lines 11 and below contains the Lord’s Prayer. Blumell & Wayment’s Christian Oxyrhynchus, pp. 354–356 is the basis of my discussion below and also the source of the transcription and reconstruction that I translate below.

The right side of the papyrus has not survived, but the enough of the text remains to reliably reconstruct it. Interestingly, another prayer (perhaps reflective of 2 Cor 1:3) is prepended. The purpose of this manuscript is not known. It has no evidence of fold marks so is not likely an amulet text, and based on its end of the prayer at the end of the sheet, appears to be intended as a single sheet production.

As a witness to the text of Matthew 6:9–13, P. Oxy 4010 does not exactly reproduce the critical text (NA28). A phrase from 6:10 (“your will be done”) is absent, likely due to homoiteleuton. The scribe seems to prefer ωσπερ to ως (in 6:12; Blumell & Wayment make the same note in v. 10 but it seems errant). Of most interest is the apparent repeating of the phrase “save/rescue us” at the very end of the prayer: “but [save us f]rom the evil one, save u[s].” I say “apparent” because the first “save/rescue” occurs in a reconstruction and thus makes assumptions about text we cannot absolutely verify, but the reconstruction does seem appropriate.

Here is a translation of P. Oxy. 4010, with reconstructions noted and translation representing the differences in text present and text reconstructed as much as possible (which is why it reads a little strange):

8 Master of all … [Father of mercies]
9 and God of all co[mfort]
10 and have compassion and …
11 consider us … [   Our Father]
12 who is in heaven, let be holy [your name]
13 let your kingdom come, as i[n heaven also upon]
14 earth. Our bread f[or the day give]
15 to us today, and forgive u[s the deb-]
16 ts of us, just as eve[n] w[e forgive]
17 our debtors, a[nd lead not]
18 us into temptation, but [save us fr-]
19 om the evil one, save u[s]

This really is a neat papyrus. Somewhere, someone found it important to write down (or, likely, have written down) these prayers. Whatever their purpose, whatever their function, they were recorded by someone who found them valuable. It was probably read, and re-read. It probably offered encouragement, comfort, and hope to the reader.

Yes, Lord. Save us from the evil one. Save us.



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.


Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 1786, a Christian Hymn

If you’ve ever gone to church and wondered, “When did Christians start singing hymns?” one answer with manuscript evidence to back it is “mid to late third century or before.” We can say that with certainty because we have P.Oxy. 1786, which (thanks to a grain receipt on one side) we can be pretty sure was written sometime in the third century (200–299), likelier in the later half of that range.


P.Oxy. 1786

Even better, we not only have an idea of the words of the hymn, but we also have an idea of the music. This is the earliest Christian hymn with musical notation extant. You can see the notation above the word line. It’s pretty awesome. In the ed. princ., Grenfell and Hunt supply the complete transcsription as well as a reconstruction of the hymn in modern musical notation (courtesy H. Stuart Jones). So slip this to your worship team for Sunday, and see what they do with it:


P.Oxy. 1786 transcription and with musical notation

But what is the translation? Here’s Blumell & Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus, (p. 323), though note that this translation (which I’ve roughly broken to follow the stanzas above; note the first line has no musical notation extant) is based on a slightly different transcription with more reconstruction. The [bracketed] portions are Blumell & Wayment’s reconstructions and have no musical notation available:

… together all the notable of God (sing?)
… or the day (?), let it be silent. Let the lu-
minous stars not … [Let the winds(?) and] all the flowing rivers [be silent],
while we sing, Father and
Son and Holy Spirit, let all the powers
respond, “Amen, amen.” Strength and praise
[and glory forever to God], the sole giver
of all good things, “Amen, amen.”

This is pretty solid stuff. There’s the Trinitarian formula (“Father and Son and Holy Spirit”) clearly expressed. In a hymn. In the mid-to-late third century. This is pre-Constantine, and only 200 years or so removed from the birth of Christianity. The notion of calling the elements (wind, rivers) and heavenly phenomenon (stars) to silence while the Trinitarian formula is sung, followed by a call for the “all the powers” to respond with a double amen affirming the Godhead is (at least as I read it) stunning.

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


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.

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


(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.

Early Christian Non-NT Manuscripts


P. Oxy. 1, 150–250 AD

I’ve had a printed copy of Clarysse and Orsini’s short article Christian Manuscripts from Egypt to the Times of Constantine printed and sitting on my desk for awhile. It is chock full of papyrological and epigraphal detail. Ultimately, it is about estimating dates for papyri. They include a short catalogue of “earliest Christian manuscripts” consisting of 27 manuscripts dated in the second to early third century (so, 100–250). The interesting thing that got me thinking is that there are some NT manuscripts (six, seven if you count P. Dura 10 as a diatessaron and thus NT, but I’m not convinced it’s a diatessaron). That leaves 20 manuscripts (over 2/3!) that are not NT, but still early and still Christian.

Of the remaining 20 manuscripts, 11 are Old Testament (and four of those are Psalms!) and nine are simply “other Christian literature.” Of those nine, four are witnesses to the Shepherd of Hermas (extremely popular in the early church), three are theological texts of some sort, and two are apocryphal gospels (P. Oxy. 1, Gospel of Thomas; and P. Egerton 2 + P. Köln 255).

Working through all of this stuff reminded me, once again, that early Christians produced a wide array of literature. So I started with Clarysse and Orsini’s list and broke it into three types of literature: LXX Texts, Extracanonical Texts, and Other Christian Literary Texts. Then I supplemented the LXX Texts list with material from Rahlf’s list (via the Logos Bible Software LXX Manuscript Explorer). I supplemented the other categories with data from Blumell & Wayment’s Christian Oxyrhynchus (which is a fantastic volume!). My small catalogue has 24 LXX Texts (1–350 AD),  28 Extracanonical Texts (150–399 AD), and 26 Other Christian Literary Texts (100–499 AD). Again, this catalog is not exhaustive and centers mainly around texts with Egyptian provenance from the fourth century and before. Dates are all from entries in

Over the next while, I plan to write about some of the more interesting of the Extracanonical and Christian Literary texts. There are some gems.

What Did Early Christians Read?

P.Oxy. 63.4365 (transcription, images) is a letter from one woman to another regarding lending books to each other. The letter, albeit short, indicates that both women were Christian and familiar with reading Christian manuscripts.

P.Oxy. 63.4365

The letter author requests “the Ezra” (likely the pseudepigraphal 4 Ezra) and reminds the recipient that she was lent the “Little Genesis” (another way to refer to the pseudepigraphal book of Jubilees). The entire text is as follows:

To my dearest lady sister in the Lord, greetings. Lend the Ezra, since I lent you the Little Genesis. Farewell from us in God.

AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Harvard Theological Studies vol. 60. Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 2008, p. 71.

This letter, dated to the early fourth century, was discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. It indicates that there were literate people at that time and in that place who had experience reading Christian manuscripts to the point of owning manuscripts and lending them to others. The letter itself uses two different nomina sacra (a Christian practice of abbreviating sacred names), typically found in larger manuscripts. This is a clue that the writer of the letter was familiar with nomina sacra, most likely from experience reading them in various manuscripts.

Interestingly, these literate Christian ladies were borrowing each other’s pseudepigraphal literature. But all sorts of literature has been retrieved from Oxyrhynchus: writings from the New Testament, from the Septuagint, from the Apostolic Fathers, from the Pseudepigrapha, and from the Christian Apocrypha.

This letter and the other literary remains retrieved from Oxyrhynchus indicate that (at Oxyrhynchus, anyway) Christian literature was collected (perhaps even produced), read, heard, lent, and borrowed among the community.

But it is true in other early Christian communities as well. Harry Y. Gamble, in his masterful work Books and Readers in the Early Church, provides a translation of Gesta apud Zenophilum consularem (Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church. Yale University Press, New Haven: 1995, p. 145–147.). This document describes the capture of Christian manuscripts for destruction during Diocletian’s “Great Persecution,” which commenced in 303. The document mentions 37 different manuscripts that were captured from a single church. The description is striking. The first volume taken was “a very large volume” which was likely a gospels codex. Upon receiving it, the mayor (who is the one seeking the manuscripts) simply states: “Why have you given one volume only? Produce the scriptures that you have.” He doesn’t for a minute believe that the church only has one codex. The next step is to locate the church’s readers (the early church had an office of “reader”), who are the ones with the books. The remaining 36 books are distributed among the seven readers of the church. The manuscripts were taken from the readers and, in all likelihood, destroyed.

Christians had books. They read books, they heard books read, they produced books, they maintained books, and they shared books. And it was more than just the New Testament. And it was more than just the material most today consider canonical.

They read widely and deeply.

Stuff Early Christians Read

I’m hoping (not promising) to write a series of posts introducing and examining various collections of works and individual works outside of the New Testament that early Christians likely read.

This is tenatively planned to include stuff like the Septuagint, the Apostolic Fathers, other writings from early Christian writers (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Melito of Sardis), and various writings collectively labeled as “Christian Apocrypha.”

Some Background

Over 4.5 years ago, I organized a class at my church that we called Stuff Early Christians Read. The goal was to give a very high level introduction to non-canonical sources the early church read and copied. I had the extra benefit of friends and colleagues well versed in other relevant literature (Judaica, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Pseudepigrapha) who did the introductions to those particular corpora. I focused on LXX, Apostolic Fathers, and Christian Apocrypha. It was a hoot. Since then, I’ve toyed with the thought of expanding the material I was responsible for into a book, but simply haven’t got around to it.

But it is good material. So I want to try to be semi-disciplined and work through the material, expanding and researching and writing as a I go. The best-case scenario is that I actually make my way through the material and end up with a rough draft that I can then further edit and revise into something publishable. The worst case is that I write one post and then the crazyness of life takes over and I never finish it. The reality is we’ll probably end up somewhere in between those two scenarios. I think it’s worth trying.