P52

The Miracle of Manuscript P52

Pontius Pilate, governor of the Roman province of Judaea, had an opportunity for which he will forever be the envy of men and angels. He asked God to His face: “What is truth?” John the Evangelist records this for us in terse, journalistic Greek prose. His description of the scene suggests the possibility that Pilate is asking the question rhetorically, speaking dismissively as he walks out the room to face a crowd that is baying for blood. There’s something cinematic about this scene – cinematic in the ancient, Greek sense of unimpeded motion (κίνημα) and in the modern sense: an experience that engrosses and surrounds the observer.

About 125 years after this event, an unknown scribe pens a manuscript on papyrus including John’s report on these events. He’s not the only one doing it. The Gospel has spread throughout the Mediterranean world like a fire through dry grassland. People aren’t waiting for permission from any centralized authority, they are simply making copies, illegally, and sometimes even a little ineptly. This constant motion, through multiple lines of transmission, without ever coming under the direct control of any man, will keep the message intact for generations living even millennia later. It will be covered with human fingerprints from beginning to end, but it will remain free, frustrating tyrants in all ages and in all places.

What is the Message?

The message of these books strikes Roman (and modern) ears as an absurd – even obscene – fantasy. When the message meets the conventional wisdom of the day, one of them must give way. The world has a maker – only one – who loves mankind. He has entered the fabric of his own creation and suffered, willingly, a total defeat. He has poured himself out. He will bring us with Him into victory and the life to come – and the time is now. The God of Hope is here, now, working salvation in the deep night-time of history.

The Personal God

One of the things that made this message so shocking (and enticing) was its insistence that the Creator is a person. It is a common belief that the ancients saw their deities as persons. This is only true to the extent that etymology – that vivid life that words enjoy – has played a trick on us. The word “person” enters human consciousness as a term for a wooden mask a player wears in a play. Ancient gods were certainly “personal” in this sense – a variety of colorful masks that nature wears. The best of this is the pale, warm light of Plato. The worst of it is the capricious, chaotic “mother nature” of the mystery cult (and of the grim bureaucratic materialists of our time).

The God that John is talking about is a “person” in the sense that we ungrateful moderns take for granted. Even more, He is a father, and that’s not merely an analogy. He creates, sustains and loves. He is “He” and emphatically not “it”. To much of the Roman audience of this time, the fact that the Gospel wastes precious ink on a peasant weeping for the fate of this friend, makes the whole thing absurd, even unintelligible. Only in a universe made by a truly personal God, can the story of Peter’s weakness make sense.

In exactly the same way, it is only in this universe that we can make claims about what is True, because the reality of objects presupposes the reality of the Subject. For Pilate, the blood-hungry crowd outside, and the Board of the Corporation alike, truth is what we say it is. It should not surprise us to see the evacuation of the Gospel in our times coinciding with the disappearance of the man in the onrush of the mass.

Manuscript P52: Decay and Renewal

In 1920 AD, Egyptologist Bernard Grenfell bought a scrap of papyrus in a market. About the size of a business card (9cm by 6cm), with writing on both sides, it clearly came from an old codex. This term comes from the Latin caudex, the wooden trunk and root of a tree. A codex is a book, comprising sheets of either vellum (thin leather) or papyrus (sheets made from the papyrus plant). It would take a few years, but paleographers, who study ancient writing, realized that this was a momentous find. Today, P52 is known as the oldest New Testament fragment that we have. Experts disagree, but a date of around 125 AD is within the realm of possibility. This is a relic of the first century after the death of Christ, that period of frenetic copying, preaching and martyrdom.

Recto (Front)

As you can imagine, the fragment is in bad shape. Even if you know a little Greek, you might find it hard to discern the letters. Early New Testament manuscripts, even more complete and intact ones, can be difficult to read. This is because scribes developed various ways to make copying more efficient. One of these was the use of majuscule (upper case) format, without punctuation or spaces between words. Another was the uncial style, which is a particular style of letter formation used in Greek and Latin. Yet another method was the system of Nomina Sacra, by which scribes abbreviated words of high frequency. The front (Recto) and back (Verso) sides of Manuscript P52 are completed and translated below:

ΟΙ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΟΙ ΗΜΙΝ ΟΥΚ ΕΞΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΠΟΚΤΕΙΝΑΙ
OYΔΕΝΑ ΙΝΑ Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΙΗΣΟΥ ΠΛΗΡΩΘΗ ΟΝ ΕΙ-
ΠΕΝ ΣHΜΑΙΝΩΝ ΠΟΙΩ ΘΑΝΑΤΩ ΗΜΕΛΛΕΝ ΑΠΟ-
ΘΝHΣΚΕΙΝ ΕΙΣΗΛΘΕΝ ΟΥΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΡΑΙΤΩ-
ΡΙΟΝ Ο ΠIΛΑΤΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΦΩΝΗΣΕΝ ΤΟΝ ΙΗΣΟΥΝ
ΚΑΙ ΕΙΠΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΣΥ ΕΙ O ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥ-
ΔAΙΩN

the Judaeans, “For us it is not permitted to kill
anyone,” so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he sp-
oke signifying what kind of death he was going to
die. Entered therefore again into the Praeto-
rium Pilate and summoned Jesus
and said to him, “Thou art king of the
Judaeans?”

Verso (back)

ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΕΙΜΙ ΕΓΩ ΕΙΣ TOΥΤΟ ΓΕΓΕΝΝΗΜΑΙ
ΚΑΙ (ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ) ΕΛΗΛΥΘΑ ΕΙΣ ΤΟΝ ΚΟΣΜΟΝ ΙΝΑ ΜΑΡΤY-
ΡΗΣΩ ΤΗ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΠΑΣ Ο ΩΝ EΚ ΤΗΣ ΑΛΗΘΕI-
ΑΣ ΑΚΟΥΕΙ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΣ ΦΩΝΗΣ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ
Ο ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ ΤΙ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΚAΙ ΤΟΥΤO
ΕΙΠΩΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΞΗΛΘΕΝ ΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΙΟΥ-
ΔΑΙΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ ΕΓΩ ΟΥΔEΜΙΑΝ
ΕΥΡΙΣΚΩ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΑΙΤΙΑΝ

a King I am. For this I have been born
and (for this) I have come into the world so that I would
testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth
hears of me my voice.” Said to him
Pilate, “What is truth?” and this
having said, again he went out unto the Jews
and said to them, “I find not one
fault in him.”

You could fill whole libraries with the meaning of these words. You could add to that the implications of these words in history. But for a simple man living in our times, the words themselves are more than enough. They have survived the eclipse of the Church in Egypt and the abattoireal piracy and violence of the 7th century, which engulfed most of the known world from the Pyrenees to India. The effects of this episode in history continue to test the tenacity of the Gospel. In an age in which truth is no defense and even the integrity of the body is up for grabs, this little scrap of papyrus is an act of defiance. It reminds us that Truth is all there is.

4 thoughts on “The Miracle of Manuscript P52”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: