Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Oxy. 925, Christian Prayer about a Journey

P. Oxy. 925 (TM 35312) is a short Christian prayer dating somewhere between 400–599 AD. It is a simple prayer asking for discernment on whether or not one should go on a journey.

This prayer is doubly interesting because there are several pagan counter-examples to it. The pagan (read: non-Christian) version would be to petition a god as to whether or not something was in the will of said divine being. These written-out prayers would then typically be left in the pagan god’s temple for fulfillment (cf. P. Oxy. 923). P. Oxy. 925 is a Christian example of something similar. It reflects Christians adapting their lives and practice from pagan to Christian. Here’s the simple prayer, the transcription is from P. Oxy. volume 6 (p. 291), but even the thumbnail in this post above is fairly readable (try it, compare transcription to the image, you might be surprised):

  1. + Ὁ θ(εὸ)ς ὁ παντοκράτωρ ὁ ἅγιος
  2. ὁ ἀληθινὸς φιλάνθρωπος καὶ
  3. δημιουργὸς ὁ π(ατ)ὴρ τοῦ κ(υρίο)υ (καὶ) σω(τῆ)ρ(ο)ς
  4. ἡμῶν Ἰ(ησο)ῦ Χ(ριστο)ῦ φανέρωσόν μοι τὴν
  5. παρὰ σοὶ ἀλήθισν εἰ βούλῃ με ἀπελθεῖν
  6. εἰς Χιοὺτ ἢ εὑρίσκω σε σὺν ἐμοὶ
  7. πράττοντα (καὶ) εὐμενῆν. γένοιτο, στθ.*

And here’s a translation:

O God, almighty, holy, true, friend of people and creator, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, reveal to me your truth, if you wish me to go to Chiout or if I will find you aiding me and gracious. May it be so, amen.

As with others of these papyri, this is a simple act, and it shows the humanity of the one writing the prayer. “Should I go to [place], and will you help me?” The short introduction to the papyrus in the P.Oxy. volume notes:

The writer asks whether it was the divine will that he should make a certain journey and whether success would attend him. Presumably this prayer was to be deposited in some church, just as the similar pagan documents were left in the temples ….

Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, eds., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (vol. VI; Egypt Exploration Fund: Graeco-Roman Branch; London; Boston, MA; New York; Berlin: The Offices of the Egypt Exploration Fund; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.; Bernard Quaritch; Asher & Co.; Henry Frowde, 1908), 291.

We ask questions like this of God all the time. Now, we might not write them down and leave them in churches, but we think these thoughts. The author of this prayer approached it the same way others in his day approached it: Write a prayer to your god, leave it in his temple, and hope something happens to make the answer to the question clear.

We ask these things of God: Should I take that job? Should we move? How should we handle that situation with that friend or relative? So did Christians of earlier eras. There are no foolproof ways for quick answers. but we do need to bring these things to God (more than just once!) as one step in arriving at an answer. Early Christians did that too. They were much like us in many ways, and we do well to remember that.

Stuff Early Christians Read: PSI III 208, another Transfer of Church Membership

PSI III 208 (TM 33228), another letter regarding transfer of individuals from church to church, is dated somewhere between 250–330. I came across it (again) in Goodspeed & Colwell’s  Greek Papyrus Reader (item #10), but (again) Luijendijk has a more recent and fuller treatment in her  Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (if you dig the stuff I’m writing in these posts, you’ll enjoy Luijenkijk’s work as well).

I earlier wrote about PSI IX 1041, a letter regarding transfer of church membership. It was sent from Sotas to Paul. Well, that wasn’t a one-off situation. The (very probably) same person, Sotas, sent a very similar letter to a guy named Peter, and today we know it as PSI III 208. The handwriting is different (Luijendijk 84) but the letter is fairly similar. First the Greek, then the translation.

  1. Χ̣αῖρε ἐν κ(υρί)ῳ, ἀγαπητὲ
  2. [ἄδ]ελφε Πέτρε, Σώτ̣[ας]*
  3. σε προσαγορεύω.
  4. τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἡμῶν
  5. Ἡρακλῆν παράδεξαι
  6. [κ]ατὰ τὸ ἔθος, διʼ οὗ σὲ
  7. καὶ τοὺς σὺν σοὶ πάν-
  8. τας ἀδελφοὺς ἐγὼ*
  9. καὶ οἱ σὺν ἐμοι
  10. προσαγορεύομε(ν)
  11. ἐρρῶσαί σε
  12. ἐν θ(ε)ῷ εὔχομαι.

And the translation.

Greetings in the Lord, beloved brother Peter.
I, Sotas, greet you.

Accept our brother Heracles according to custom, through whom I and all the brothers and sisters with me greet you and those with you.

Farewell, I pray you in God.

The basic form of the letter is the same. Note that Heracles is described as a “brother” instead of as a “catechumen.” So these letters serve both as introduction and also transfer status within the church. Heracles doesn’t have to go through the “New Believers” class at the church Peter oversees, but the catechumens mentioned in PSI IX 1041 do have to continue in the “New Believers” class at the church Paul oversees.

This is all so very ordinary. All of these guys — Sotas, Paul, and Peter — probably wrote and received several letters like this. People moved around, and needed some method to transfer their status in the church with them as they moved. We do similar things. We may not require letters, but I have been to churches that, as part of their membership course, wanted information on previous churches attended. If a particular body requires completion of a course or class before becoming a member, it isn’t a stretch to think we might want to get out of taking that class if we’ve done something similar before.

While the formality and the use of particular vocabulary like “brother” and “catechumen” leads us to think more was going on in the instances with Sotas (and it probably was) the underlying motives and thoughts are familiar to us.

Early Christians weren’t that different from us.

Stuff Early Christians Read: PSI IX 1041, Transfer of Church Membership


PSI IX 1041 (TM 30662) is a letter that dates from the early third century. It was written by a guy named Sotas to a guy named Paul. I came across it in Goodspeed & Colwell’s Greek Papyrus Reader (item #5), but it is treated in more recently and in much more detail in AnneMarie Luijendijk’s fantastic book, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Even though it is now held at the Vatican (supposedly, 14 is the shelfmark) I have not been able to find images.

Anyway, this little papyrus once again reminds us how normal these earlier Christians were. While we don’t know the reasons, we do know Sotas was writing to Paul to recommend certain catechumens. A catechumen is one who is in the midst of recieving teaching about Christianity in preparation for baptism. Goodspeed and Colwell give the title “Transfer of Church Membership” and provide the following description: “Sotas, a Christian official who is mentioned elsewhere in the papyri, sends to Paul the church letters of two groups of Christians.” First the text, then a translation.

  1. Χαῖρε ἐν κ(υρί)ῳ, ἀγαπητὲ
  2. αδελφε Παῦλε
  3. Σώτας σε προσαγορ(εύω)
  4. τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς ἡμῶν
  5. Ἥρωνα καὶ Ὡρίωνα
  6. καὶ Φιλάδελφον καὶ Πε-
  7. κῦσιν καὶ Νααρωοῦν
  8. καθηχουμένους τῶν*
  9. συναγομένων καὶ
  10. Λέωνα καθηχούμενον*
  11. ἐν ἀρχη τοῦ εὐαγγελίου*
  12. πρόσδεξαι ὡς καθήκε̣[ι]·
  13. διʼ ὧν σὲ καὶ τοὺς σὺν σοὶ
  14. ἐγὼ καὶ οἱ σὺν ἐμοι προσα-
  15. γορεύω. ἐρρωσθαί σε εὔ-
  16. χομαι ἐν κ(υρί)ῳ,
  17. ἀγαπητὲ ἄδελ(φε)

Translation. I’ve basically transliterated the names; note I’m not up to speed on translation/rendering of names from Egyptian sources.

Greetings in the Lord, beloved brother Paul.
I, Sotas, greet you.

Our brothers, Heron, Horion, Philadelphon, Pekusin, and Naarooun, catechumen of the assembly; and Leon, a catechumen in the beginning of the gospel. Receive them as is proper, through whom I and those with me greet you and those with you.

Farewell, I pray you in the Lord, beloved brother.

For whatever reason, these brothers were moving from one area to another. So the receiving assembly could know more about them and their state of instruction, a letter was sent along. If you step back and look at it, it is all so human and so understandable.

Early Christians (catechumens, bishops, presbyters, etc.) were all people in the midst of real life. We often forget that when we read the Bible because we’re so bent on approaching it to get something from it, or to solve some sort of question. We do similar things when we read and think about the early church. Now, reading the Bible to understand what it teaches is a good thing; but we shouldn’t forget the humanity that this literature has as some of its central characters, and that the subsequent literature has as writer, character, actor, and reader. These fully human people had pressures of life weighing on them as much as we do today. Who knows what other responsibilities Sotas had to put on hold to scratch out (or dictate) this short letter. Who knows how or why this guy Leon (or perhaps Leo?) came to Christianity, but it sounds like a fairly recent conversion as he was “in the beginning of the gospel.” Why was he moving? Did he have a family? And who was this Paul guy? Were these brothers apprehensive about moving under his authority?

Think about the last time you changed churches, either from a body where you thrived or from a body that was … er … less thriving. Were you apprehensive? Early Christians felt the same things and did the same things. They weren’t super heroes (or super villians). They were just people, doing the best they could in the situations they were in. Just like us.

Stuff Early Christians Read: P. Fouad 203, Prayer for Protection


P. Fouad 203, transcription by Benoit.

P. Fouad 203 (TM 63231), published in 1951 by Pierre Benoit, is a “prayer for protection against unclean spirits.” I came across it because it is mentioned in Hurtado’s catalogue of “Christian Literary Texts in Manuscripts,” found in appendix one of his book The Earliest Christian Artifacts.

The very interesting thing about P. Fouad 203 is its early date. The record in Trismegistos gives a wide date (1–199) but articles consistently place it “to the end of the first or the beginning of the second century C.E.” (van der Horst 126) So that’s more like 50–150 or even 75–125, depending on how tightly you want to bound the date (I’m more comfy with a 100 year range, so 50–150).

Another very interesting thing about P. Fouad 203 is that most consider it to be Jewish, but can’t rule out Christian use or origin, especially if it is toward the later end of the date scale. van der Horst notes “Although it cannot be entirely ruled out that the text is of Christian origin, both the contents and the date of the papyrus make it much more probable that it has a Jewish provenance.”

The issue (well, from my view, I can’t say as I’ve seen this expressed in the literature) is that we’re smack dab in the middle of that weird time when Christians weren’t really a formal group. That is, there wasn’t really an institutional church. Many were still in the synagogue, and for these Christianity was an offshoot, or “splinter group” of Judaism. We see part of this even with the apostle Paul, who would go to synagogue but also meet outside of the synagogue with other Christians. At this point in time particularly, the difference between Christianity and Judaism (and how Christians and Jews practiced their faith) was much more of a spectrum than it was two poles that were easily defined. So I’m not so sure it is easy to define something as “Jewish” as opposed to “Christian” (or vice-versa) without explicit Christian material (allusion to NT, mention of Jesus, use of nomina sacra). And P.Fouad 203 has no NT allusion, no mention of Jesus, and no nomina sacra. But it does reference events from the OT, it does appeal to the power of God.

P. Fouad 203 is from a roll. This is another strike against viewing the text as explicitly Christian as most early Christian literary material is in a codex or it is written on the back of a used scroll. One mostly full column is extant, there are traces of letters from the surrounding columns, but not enough to reconstruct the text. Because it is from a roll, the (likely correct) supposition is that there were several other prayers and, perhaps, magical incantations (because, hey, we know there are all sorts of Jewish and Christian “magical” texts like this) collected in the same scroll.

Anyway, to the text of the papyrus itself. I was unable to locate an image of the papyrus, but I was able to “read” the ed. princeps (thanks, JSTOR for six free articles per month) by P. Benoit in Revue Biblique from 1951. (I say “read” because, of course, it is in French. I get the highlights, but any technical discussion is lost on me.) Benoit does include a transcription, which I reproduce below. Note I only reproduce the column, I do not include the traces of the bordering columns.

And here is a translation I banged out. It is overly literal, and (for the most part) respects word order of the Greek. I have not been able to give this much attention, so if you see something wacky, please let me know.

  1. the honored na[m]e.
  2. [A]ṇḍ ỵọụ are unclea[n], may he
  3. send out to us the*
  4. messenger of him, who gu-
  5. ided of the
  6. people this, who lead
  7. out, as he appeaṛẹḍ ṭọ Joshụạ the*
  8. son of Nun, ị[f̣] and who cạs*
  9. t uṣ into the abyss,*
  10. into the pḷạ[c]ẹ of destrucṭịon
  11. and covered up  ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣
  12. c̣ḥaọs, f̣ọṛ this reason no long̣ẹṛ [wi]ll be*
  13. seen, nor will you exist to
  14. do evil to a soụ[l the] ḅut
  15. honor and the glory ṭọ ̣ṭḥẹ ̣Ḷọ[r]ḍ
  16. through eternạḷ, ṭo solemnḷỵ*
  17. commandingͅ the [ ̣ ̣ ̣] and thọṣẹ
  18. from him all and
  19. p̣ṛẹṣent ạḷọṇg̣ṣịḍẹ[ ̣].*

The appeal is to the one who lead the Israelites out of Egypt. No mention of Moses, but a probable mention of Joshua, son of Nun (though this is muddled in the papyrus, it is the only logical possibility). van der Horst notes this God who freed Israel “is here invoked to use this power by throwing the unclean spirits who keep someone in their nefarious grip, into an abysmal place of annihilation” (125).

Would early Christians (and Jews) use prayer as a power formula to try to make God do what they wanted? Well, yes. Remember P. Oxy. 924, a prayer against fevers? Would we do the same thing? Sure. Is it right? Well, for my part, I think it is totally appropriate to glorify God and remember the great things he has done while praying to him. I also think it is totally appropriate to make requests of God in prayer. However, I don’t think it is appropriate to link the two (“God, you’re so awesome and powerful and one time you did this awesome thing, now do this thing for me because you’re awesome and powerful.”) If we treat God as a puppet whose strings we can pull by saying the right thing, or if we believe we can obligate God to act by recalling similar actions of his in the past, we make the same mistake the prayer in this papyrus makes.

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.