The Oxyrhynchus Gospels

An arm of the Nile bathing nowadays el-Bahnasa, former Oxyrhyncus

More than a century ago, archaeologists unearthed piles of papyrus pieces in an ancient rubbish dump near an Egyptian city once known as Oxyrhynchus, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Cairo. The manuscripts have been dated to between the 1st and the 6th century, covering a time when Greek and Roman culture was dominant in Egypt. In this  part of Egypt it never rains, so perishables as long as they are out ofreaach of surfasse water, may survive for more than 1,000 years, like it happened with the Oxyrhynchus' papyrii.
The Oxyrhynchus Gospels are two fragmentary manuscripts (British Library accession numbers 840 and 1224), discovered among the rich finds of discarded papyri at Oxyrhynchus. Unknown to most laymen, they throw light on early non-canonical Gospel traditions.
Oxyrhynchus 840, found in 1905, is a single small vellum parchment leaf with 45 lines of text written on both sides in a tiny neat hand that dates it to the 4th century, almost square, less than 10 cm across; the text probably dates from before 200, but no more is determinable from this evidence. This fragment was likely a talisman text, kept as an amulet, perhaps worn around the neck. The text is similar to the New Testament gospels in its style and tone.
The fragment begins with the end of a warning to an evildoer who plans ahead, but who doesn't take the next life into account. There follows sections of a narrative unparalleled in any other known gospel tradition, about Jesus' encounter with "a Pharisee, a leading priest" who tries to order Jesus and the disciples out of the Temple as ritually unclean. Jesus responds by contrasting ritual cleanliness, gotten by bathing with water used by dogs and pigs, like a harlot, against the life-giving water that comes down from heaven in baptism. Jesus is called Saviour (Σωτήρ).


(01) "[. . .] earlier, before doing wrong, he slyly reasons everything out,
(02) but be careful that you do not also somehow
(03) suffer the same things as them. For not
(04) only among the living do
(05) the evil-doers of humanity receive retribution, but [a]lso
(06) they will undergo punishment and mu[c]h
(07) torture." And taking them along,
(08) he went into the place of purification itself and
(09) wandered about in the temple. And c[o]ming toward them,
(10) a certain high priest of the Pharisees - Le[vi]
(11) was his name - joined them and s[aid]
(12) to the savior, "Who permitted you to tram[ple]
(13) this place of purification and to see [the]se
(14) holy vessels, although you have not ba[th]e[d] n[o]r
(15) have the f[eet] of your disciples
(16) been [wa]shed? But after having def[iled] it,
(17) you trample this a[rea] of the temple which
(18) [i]s clean, which nobody e[lse except for]
(19) a person who has bathed and chan[ged his]
(20) [clot]hes tramples on. Nor does he dare to lo[ok upon these]
(21) holy vessels." And s[tanding nearby, the savior]
(22) wit[h his] disciple[s replied],


(23) "Then, being here in the temple, are you
(24) clean?" He said to him, "I am clean.
(25) For I bathed in the pool of David and
(26) after going down by one set of stairs, by another
(27) I came back [u]p. And I put on white clothes
(28) and they were clean and then I came
(29) and looked upon these holy
(30) vessels." Re[ply]ing to him, the savior
(31) said, "Woe to blind people who do not
(32) s[e]e! You bathed in those gushing
(33) w[a]ter[s] in which dogs and pigs have been
(34) ca[st] night and day. And wash[i]ng yourselves,
(35) you scrubbed the outer layer of skin which
(36) also prostitutes and th[e] flute-girls
(37) ano[int a]nd bathe and scrub
(38) [and p]ut make up on to become the desi[re]
(39) of [t]he men. But from within th[ey]
(40) [are fill]ed with scorpions and
(41) [all unr]ighteousness. But I and
(42) [my disciples], whom you say have not
(43) wa[shed], we [have wa]shed in waters of li[fe]
(44) [eternal co]ming from [the]
(45) [God of heaven. B]ut woe to [th]ose [. . .]
Oxyrhynchus 1224 consists of two small papyrus fragments from the late 3rd or early 4th century. It contains six passages, each about a sentence. Two of the longer ones are parallel to Mark 2:17 and Luke 9:50, but the differences in phrasing show they are textually independent of the canonical Gospels. A precise date for composition is unknown; 50 is possible, though a date of around 150 C.E. is more widely accepted by scholars.


Fragment 1: recto


01 [ . . . ] in everything

02 [ . . . ]. Truly,

03 [I say to you . . . ]


Fragment 1: verso

01 he will [ . . . ]. You [ . . . ]

02 [ . . . ]

03 [ . . . ]

Fragment 2: recto, col. ii


01 It weighed me down. And [approach-]

02 ing [i]n a vis[ion], Jesus [said,]

03 "Why are you dis[cour]aged? For not [ . . . ]

04 [y]ou, but the [ . . . ]

05 [ . . . ]


Fragment 2: verso, col. i


01 [ . . . ] "you [sai]d, although you are not answer-

02 [ing. What then did] you [re]nounce? W[h]at

03 [is] the ne[w] doct[rine] [that they say]

04 [you] te[ach, or what is the] new [b]a[ptism]

05 [that you proclaim? Ans]wer and . . .


Fragment 2: verso, col. ii


01 When the scribes an[d Pharisees]

02 and priests sa[w hi]m,

03 they were angry [that with sin]ners

04 (right in the middle of them) [he was reclining.]

05 But when Jesus heard, he said,

06 "Those who are [healthy ha]ve [no need]

07 [of a physician . . . ]


Fragment 2: recto, col. ii


01 [ . . . a]nd p[r]ay for

02 your [ene]mies. For the one who is not

03 [against yo]u is for you.

04 [The one who i]s far away [today], tomorrow

05 will be [near you] and in

06 [ . . . ] the advers[ary]

07 [ . . . ]



It seems an independent Gospel, not related to the discourse gospels involving the risen Jesus, but with sayings gospels involving the earthly Jesus (e.g., Source and the Gospel of Thomas). The document might have been written as early as the mid-first century.


Above, a papyrus from the 2nd or 3rd century with an ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia ("Ignorance"), from an illustrated edition of Menander's comedy "Perikeiromene," or "The Girl Who Had Her Hair Shorn."


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