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An ancient manuscript up for sale gives a glimpse into the history of early Christianity

Ian N. Mills, Hamilton College, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

An important piece of early Christian history, the Crosby-Schøyen Codex, is up for auction at Christie’s in London. This codex is a mid-fourth century book from Egypt containing a combination of biblical and other early Christian texts.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex was discovered alongside more than 20 other codices near Dishna, Egypt, in 1952. These manuscripts are collectively known as “the Dishna Papers” or “the Bodmer Papyri,” after the Swiss collector Martin Bodmer.

Though often overshadowed by other 20th century discoveries, this trove of ancient manuscripts represents one of the most significant finds for understanding the history of early Christianity. As an expert on early Christian reading practices, I consider the Dishna Papers an invaluable witness to the formation of the Christian Bible. This ancient library shows how, before the consolidation of the Bible, early Christians read canonical and non-canonical scriptures – as well as pagan classics – side by side.

The middle decades of the 20th century were exciting years for scholars of early Christianity.

In 1945, a collection of 13 ancient codices was discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These contained dozens of otherwise unknown works, mostly associated with minority and marginalized forms of early Christianity. With titles like “The Gospel of Thomas” and “The Secret Revelation of John,” this cache of non-canonical scriptures captured the public’s imagination and inspired a bestseller.

The very next year, Bedouin shepherds discovered ancient Hebrew scrolls hidden in a cave at Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.

 

The “Dead Sea Scrolls” found in this and a dozen subsequently discovered caves constituted a massive library of Jewish texts, including biblical works and hitherto unknown texts with remarkable parallels to the writings of the New Testament. This find was celebrated in news stories, documentaries and other publications as among the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

At the very same time, the Dishna Papers were discovered, smuggled out of Egypt and sold to European collectors with considerably less fanfare. No headline hailed the discovery of the Dishna Papers. Instead, pieces of this collection were sold to the highest bidders, scattering the ancient library across the globe.

Though less exotic than Nag Hammadi or Qumran, the contents of the Crosby-Schøyen Codex and the 20-some additional codices discovered near Dishna have proved every bit as important for our understanding of early Christianity.

Two manuscripts of the canonical gospels, Luke and John, belonging to this ancient library predate almost every other surviving copy of these gospels. Scholars used these new manuscripts to revise the text of the New Testament.

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