A Princeton University researcher has identified the owner of a New Testament papyrus that dates to the time of Constantine the Great.
Constantine was the Roman emperor who allowed Christians to practice freely, ending hundreds of years of persecution. His decision led people throughout the empire to convert and disseminate the New Testament.
Now, thanks to this new discovery, we know the story of one of these Christians.
“It is the first and only ancient instance where we know the owner of a Greek New Testament papyrus,” writes Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk in an article recently published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. “For most early New Testament manuscripts, we do not know where they were found, let alone who had owned them.”
The papyrus was discovered in the late 19th century at the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, located roughly 160 kilometres south of Cairo. The document contains the first seven verses of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
“There are several mistakes in spelling and part of verse 6 is omitted” wrote site excavators Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt in 1899. They concluded that the papyrus was “no doubt a schoolboy’s exercise.”
Who owned it?
To find the ancient owner of this papyrus Professor Luijendijk engaged in some archaeological detective work. Grenfell and Hunt mentioned in 1899 that “the papyrus was found tied up with a contract dating to 316 AD.” Unfortunately they did not specify which document this is.
“They were not particularly interested in the social context of the texts they had unearthed, or perhaps they were too busy editing their enormous find,” writes Luijendijk.
To find this missing document Luijendijk turned to a modern day papyrus database called the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis or HGV. She searched for examples from Oxyrhynchus that date to AD 316.
She found 13 examples but only two of them were contracts. One discussed a “lease of a plot of land” while the other was “a contract for the sale of a donkey.”
Luijendijk determined that the donkey sale could not be the missing contract. “Grenfell and Hunt cannot have referred to the latter papyrus, for it did not come from their excavations.”
This left only the land lease document. Further investigation revealed that it was excavated during the same field season as the New Testament papyrus. This meant that it had to be the one.
From there the discovery got even more interesting.
The land lease contract had a name on it – that of a man named Aurelius Leonides, a flax merchant from Egypt. He must have owned both the contract and the New Testament papyrus.
Further research revealed that there are more than a dozen papyri from Oxyrhynchus that belonged to Leonides. This gave Luijendijk the opportunity to reconstruct this man’s past – and give some clues as to how Christianity may have spread in his community.
We don’t know much about Leonides family life. His father’s name is Theon, while his mother remains nameless. It is unknown whether he had a wife or children. Luijendijk said that the man’s earliest document dates from AD 315 and the latest is from AD 334. It “is likely that the New Testament papyrus was written early in the second quarter of the fourth century, that is, in the 320s or 330s,” she writes.
This is a date that puts the document in the time of Constantine.
Luijendijk also writes that Leonides “probably came from a somewhat well-to-do family.” We know this because his documents include at least one letter that he penned with his own hand saying “I, the same Leonides, have signed.”
In the modern world we tend to take literacy for granted. But in the ancient world only a small proportion of the population was able to read and write. “Leonides was thus a literate man, who had enjoyed an education,” writes Luijendijk.
The documents reveal that Leonides did business in two villages in the area. “Most documents in the archive are applications for the lease of land for the cultivation of flax; another records Leonides’ purchase of flax,” said Luijendijk in her article.
They also indicate that Leonides was a leader in the local guild. He “even occupied a rotating leadership position in this professional association, for he functioned repeatedly as its monthly president.” The relationships he formed in this guild may have helped spread Christianity throughout the community.
The documents reveal a business relationship Leonides had with a member of the early church.
They say that Leonides did business with a man named Ammonius. Together the two of them “leased five arouras of land for cultivating flax in the upper toparchy of the Oxyrhynchite nome in the year 318.”
Records indicate that 14 years prior to this deal, in AD 304, Ammonius was caught up in persecution against the early church. “This same Ammonius appears in another document, which pertains to the confiscation of church property during the so-called Great Persecution,” writes Luijendijk. He is identified as “Ammonius, son of Copres, lector of the former church of the village of Chysis.” The job of a lector was to “recite biblical passages during worship.” This is a job that would have required Ammonius to be literate.
“Thus, through his business relationship with a church reader, we detect another, albeit more indirect, connection between Leonides and Christian manuscripts,” writes Luijendijk.
It also opens up another possibility – that Leonides could have been a lector himself, using his literacy skills to read the gospel to a church congregation.
Did Leonides write the New Testament papyrus himself?
We cannot know for sure if Leonides wrote it. Just underneath the scripture there is a name scribbled in, that of someone named Aurelius Paulus. None of Leonides other documents mentions this man.
It is unknown why his name appears just below the first seven verses of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Luijendijk suggested several possibilities in her article. “Was it penned in relation to the apostle Paul’s letter quoted above? Was a fourth-century Paul himself the writer of the scribbles, or was he the subject of a document that the scribe was about to compose?”
Indeed we may never know who wrote this papyrus. But, thanks to this bit of detective work, we now know who owned it, a first for an ancient New Testament text.