If you’ve celebrated Easter as a Christian, you’re familiar with the story as it is presented in the canonical gospels.
But you also probably have questions. What was the trial really like? Who were the other two dudes crucified next to Jesus? What was with Joseph of Arimathea and why did he want Jesus’ body? What was Hades like? How did the “harrowing of hell” happen? Was the repentant criminal on the cross actually saved?
Early Christians had these questions too. So they wrote about them. This is not canonical, this is not authoritative, but if you want to see some of the ways the early church filled these gaps, then you want to read the Acts of Pilate and the Descent of Christ to Hades.
Fortunately, I created a Greek reader for the Greek text of these writings a few years back. I also included a modernized version of an older translation.
If you’re not familiar with these stories, then take some time this Easter to read them. For those who don’t read Greek, I’m posting translations here today.
I recommend reading the first portion of the Acts of Pilate on Good Friday as it is focused on the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
I recommend reading the second portion of the Acts of Pilate, known also as the Descent of Christ to Hades, on Saturday as it focuses on what happens between the death and resurrection of Jesus and also the post-resurrection period.
P.Vindob. G 27290b (TM, Images) is a papyrus dated to AD 400–599 (5th–6th century). Treu and Diethart titled the papyrus “Osterlieder” (“Easter Songs”).
Treu, Kurt, and Johannes Diethart, eds. “39. Osterlieder.” Pages 74–75 in Griechische literarische Papyri christlichen Inhaltes II. Vol. 1 of MPER N.S. 17. Vienna: Hollinek, 1993.
P.Vindob. G 27290b verso, from the ONB
Treu and Diethart published the papyrus in the order verso then recto. This order is followed in the transcription below.
Suffering because of us, O Lord glory (be) to you.
He has risen from the dead, Savior, in three days … and all the unceasing forces of angels brought praise, saying, “You are blessed, O Lord, and praiseworthy!” and (were) singing forever †
The one who was raised from the dead and three days all the works …
(Sing the?) Trishagion together … the church … But you, the one who in holiness gives rest, guard all of us in faith. †
Several points can be deduced from the text.
- Jesus’ suffering was because “of us” and the author of the hymn ascribed glory to the Lord (κυριε, in the vocative) because of it.
- The hymn author testifies that the Savior rose from the dead “in three days.”
- One of my favorite lines: “… all the unceasing forces of angels brought praise … and [they] were singing forever!”
- The recto repeats the claim of being raised from the dead in three days.
- The use of τρισαγιος (“Trishagion” or “thrice-holy”) is a bit of a mystery.
- The rest-giver is asked to guard “all of us” in faith. Why “rest-giver”? Through his death and resurrection, Christ has provided eternal rest for us. He is the rest-giver, the rest was provided “in holiness,” and the prayer is to guard us all until we are able to enter the rest that was secured for us on that first Easter morning.
Christians in the first 500 years of Christianity were not all that different from us. Yes, they had access to some of the writings that later became NT canon. But they were also creative. They wrote and preached their own sermons based on their own understanding of the message of the gospel and the story of the Old Testament (the LXX for many). They composed their own hymns and own liturgical documents. They had an understanding of who God is and who Jesus and the Holy Spirit are in relation to God. They used the creative arts of writing, illustrating, composing, and singing to express their faith, much like we do today.
We are not all that different from them.
P.Berol. 21124 (aka BKT 9.24, TM, Images) is a papyrus that dates to AD 300–399. It is fairly fragmentary and small (not a lot of text, either) so it is difficult to translate in any sort of coherent manner. I’m using Kurt Treu’s transcription as basis for my translation.
Treu, Kurt. “Varia Christiana II.” AfP 32 (1986): 23–24.
My translation follows:
- […] who loosed tḥẹ body aṇḍ tḥẹ[…]
- […].[.]… to puniṣḥ light from heave[n…]*
- […]..[.]…. unbroken wall was .[…]*
- […]the F(ath)er . of us : Adam . having called [up…]
- […]and[.] . .[.]. the sons of [A]dam : that the f(ath)e[r…]
- […] ẉay out : … . […]..[…]
- […].̣… of the book : And I have found the .[…]
- […]..[..] summary with ….[…]*
- […]…. sun (and) the earth: ..[…]
Why is this seen as a hymn of Christ’s descent? The phrase “unbroken wall” in recto line 4 may have some relation with “gates of Hades” in Mt 16:18. That, set with light from heaven being punished, and other discussion of “Adam . having called up” and “the sons of Adam” may point to influence from the Acts of Pilate and Descent of Christ to Hades, a work classified as Christian Apocrypha (or New Testament Apocrypha) that puts forth a traditional view of what may have happened after Christ’s crucifixion that includes scenes in Hades of Old Testament luminaries telling stories about their lives and prophecies/looking forward to Christ’s triumph over death. Des. Hades 3 has Seth (Adam’s son) telling a story, at Adam’s behest, about when Adam died. In this section, there are occurrences of “Father” in close proximity to “Adam” and mention of “sons” and “Adam.”
P.Vindob. G 19931 (TM, Image) is a papyrus fragment dated to the 5th century (AD 400–499). It was originally published in 1924 by Carl Wessely.
Wessely, C. “5. Adoracion du sang de Jésus-Christ.” Page 435 in Les plus anciens monuments du Cristianisme écrits sur papyrus: Textes édites, traduits et annotés. Patrologia Orientalis 18.3. Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1924.
P.Vindob G 19931 is a hymn about the blood of Jesus. Sort of an early Christian “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” type thing. And you can begin to understand the Christology of at least the hymn writer as well as those who found the hymn worth copying (this appears to be a copy, at least to me; reasons given further below).
When I run into stuff like this little fragment that has so much to say, I’m always a little amazed it hasn’t had more press. Here’s a translation of Wessely’s transcription.
⸓ because of us
† Blood of the one made into flesh ⸓ from the holy virgin, Jesus Christ.
† Blood of the one who was born from the holy mother of God, Jesus Christ.
† Blood of the … being made to appear … Jesus Christ.
† Blood of the one who was baptized in the Jordan by John the forerunner, Jesus Christ, amen.
† Blood of the one who brought himself as a sacrifice for our sins, Jesus Christ, amen.
There are several theological assertions made in this tiny scrap.
- Jesus Christ was made into flesh and had blood. He was incarnated as a human from some other (deity, though the hymn is not explicit about this) state.
- The flesh is from the “holy virgin”
- Jesus Christ was born (so, not made). And born from the “holy mother of God.”
- It’s a pity this line is so fragmented. Is “being made to appear” in support of docetism, or is there text missing that would make this statement be an explicit refutation of docetism? I’d guess refutation because the blood of Jesus is so important in this material, but that’s just a guess.
- “John the forerunner” baptized Jesus in the Jordan.
- Jesus “brought himself” as a sacrifice for our sins. He actively did it, it did not just happen to him.
Now, why do I think this is a copy and not an original?
The very first line with the metobelus-like symbol appears to me to be a correction. The symbol on line 1 matches the symbol on line 2 and (to me, anyway) indicates a correction by addition. The scribe skipped the text inadvertently and made an addition note about it. So the first line is really: “Blood of the one made into flesh +because of us+ from the holy virgin, Jesus Christ.”
1500 years ago this material was used in some sort of Christian context. The blood of Jesus was (and is) important and crucial to the efficacy of his sacrifice.
PSI inv. 535 (TM, Image) is a papyrus fragment dated to a fairly narrow window, 450–499 AD. It might be better to extend that window to a hundred-year window, something like 425–524 AD, as I didn’t note any external information that would support a 50 year window. The papyrus was originally published by Naldini:
Naldini, Mario. “Nuovi papiri cristiani della raccolta fiorentina.” Aegyptus 38 (1958): 138–146.
The papyrus is not small; it is around 17.6cm by 12cm. And the letters are fairly legible outside of the places where the papyrus itself is damaged.
My draft translation is below.
- ḥearing̣ .[…]
- of judgment in the …. … […]*
- now For in thẹṃ have become a murderer tḥị[s one …]*
- [who] worked so that t[h]ey ḍịṣplay because the same […]*
- against But th(e) S(av)i(o)r shouting “Away! Away! Crucify ḥ[im!” …]*
- and since the cross going glory(?)[… king-]*
- ḍom to change the tribes in insolence …[…]
- [hav]ing confessed while suffering but king .[…]*
- ḥẹ was doing [abo]ve steadying himself, he for ..[…]*
- […]…. ** wanderi[ng] about he coverṣ[…]*
- […]… and the indeed he urgẹḍ ẉḥọṃ […]
Lines 5–6 are the primary lines that clue us in to a context regarding Christ’s crucifixion. The translation above largely keeps the word order of the papyrus, but a less restrictive translation could be like: “But shouting against the Savior, ‘Away! Away! Crucify him!'” This has some sort of relation with the first part of John 19:15:
Then those shouted, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests replied, “We do not have a king except Caesar!”
Line 3 perhaps points to those in the crowd being considered murderers of the crucified one, Christ.
So there you go. A late 5th century sermon that uses “Savior” immediately previous to describing the one condemed to crucifixion.
P.Berol. 21143 (TM, Images) is a 4th–5th century papyrus fragment with writing on the recto (front) and verso (back). It is approximately 10cm by 10cm, so it is not huge. It contains what may be two different writings (one on the verso, one on the recto). The editio princeps is:
Sarischouli, Panagiota. “1. Zwei christliche Text.” Pages 5–18 in Berliner Griechische Papyri. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1995.
Sarischouli’s transcription and my draft translation are available via my “Stuff Early Christians Read” project, but I reproduce the recto translation here:
- […rem]ẹmbering denial of Pet[er…]*
- […con]c̣ẹṛning the faith he found[…]*
- […]. the burning heat of the .[…]
- […it ]ẉịṭhered. // For the …[…]*
- […] making payment of the fo[r]mer proceeḍṣ*
- […so that ourse]lves we must cry out, “patience!”*
- […]..[….] ọf̣ a master trụṭ[h]
- […].[…..]. in the one to deny
- […]…. in rememb[rance…]
- […]. in misfortune. Alle[leuia]
- […]..[..]..he will wash the .[…]
- […]. Master G[od…]
- […]., my of̣ [sins/sins/misfortunes]
For our purposes here, the interesting portion is the recto as it has a reference to “remembering the denial of Peter,” an obvious allusion to New Testament material (Mt 26:69–75 and parallels). There is too much missing text to do much more, though some phrases available elsewhere in the NT (“concerning the faith,” cf. 2Ti 3:8; 1Ti 1:19; 6:21; Ac 24:24) with the “he found” very possibly referring to Peter. Was there mention of him being restored? And what was withered by the burning heat?
The verso side of P.Berol. 21143 also has some phraseology reminiscent of Easter:
- […]. fleec(e) .. be(comes) .[…]*
- [was bor]n of a virgin a(nd) became li[ght? ]*
- [the pain of death] having ended a(nd) having ris[en the third day from the dead]*
- Giṿẹṛ ọf̣ Ḷịg̣ḥṭ, Ch(ris)t, the unapproach[able light]
- the e[y]ẹs in the mị[nd having opened]
- …. praise.[……..]. .[…]
- …. F(ath)er of the wor[ld…]*
- […]. .[.].. we glorify dai[ly…]
- […in the] temple of hoḷy glor[y … Jesus Christ who]
- [from the dead r]ọse up. We sin[g into all the ages…]
- […so that we] may worship the one who ṛọ[se up…]
- […] J(esu)s, tḥe stone rọḷḷẹḍ [away…]*
Here we have further doctrinal testimony: Jesus (likely the subject of the clauses at the start) being born of a virgin and becoming light. How he ended “the pain of death” and rose from the dead on the third day. Christ, equated with “Giver of light” and testimony about the “eyes in the mind” opening “the unapproachable light” (cf. 1Ti 6:16). While the easy place to go is to a gnostic reference of some sort, I’m not so sure because I think NT folks are to easy to paint stuff with a gnostic brush when the situation was likely more complicated. Following this, there is testimony of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, that the one risen from the dead is worshipped, and reference to “the stone rolled away.”
This is incredible stuff!
We’re listening in on either a sermon or a hymn from the fourth or fifth century. This is 1500 years ago, at least. And people were testifying to the same story of Jesus’ death (complete with Peter’s denial) and his resurrection (with worship of the resurrected one).
Hi folks. As many of you know, I’ve been researching early Christian papyri (dated from the 5th century AD and before) for awhile. As Easter approaches, I noticed that some of the papyri I’ve translated describe some of the traditionally-held events of Holy Week.
I thought it would be good to write about some of these Easter-related papyri and their contents throughout the week. I think there will be four or five posts, starting on Thursday if all goes well.
from The Hague Medieval illuminated manuscripts, The Hague, KB, 78 D 38 II Gospels Fol. 186v