Phenomenal Discoveries of Papyri and the New Testament -- By: Merrill Frederick Unger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 116:464 (Oct 1959)
Article: Phenomenal Discoveries of Papyri and the New Testament
Author: Merrill Frederick Unger


Phenomenal Discoveries of Papyri and the New Testament

Merrill F. Unger

Perhaps the most important archaeological discoveries that have affected the understanding and critical evaluation of the New Testament as literature are the papyri. Ostraca (inscribed pieces of pottery) and inscriptions are also of first-rate significance. But the papyri, both for abundance and importance, are unexcelled in elucidating the philological and literary aspects of the New Testament writings.

The papyri are inscribed bits of paper from antiquity, since papyrus was the paper of the ancient world. It was made from a reed cultivated in the marshy delta of Egypt. The plant is now extinct in lower Egypt. It is still found, however, in upper Egypt and the region of Abyssinia. Theophrastus, Herodotus, and other writers of antiquity enumerate the various uses of this plant in the manufacture of mats, sails, and for fuel and food, etc. But the most celebrated of all of the uses of papyrus was the making of paper.It is as a writing material that papyrus is most significant in New Testament archaeology.

Manufacture of papyrus. Ancient paper was made by cutting the stem of the papyrus plant into longitudinal strips. These strips were placed side by side to form a layer. Across this another layer of shorter strips was woven. The resultant sheet was then soaked in the water of the Nile, hammered, and dried in the sun. Any ridges were removed by polishing with ivory or a smooth shell. The quality of the final product varied considerably according to the kind of strips used and the care taken in treating and polishing.

The widespread use of papyrus as a writing medium in the ancient world is abundantly attested by archaeological evidence in the form of documents, paintings, and sculptures. The papyri discovered in Egypt have frequently been recovered in tombs in the hands of the deceased or as wrappings

of the bodies of mummies. Funerary ritual is commonly the subject of Egyptian papyri, but numerous also are the hieratic, civil, and literary documents, and the demotic and enchorial papyri, dealing with commercial transactions. Coptic papyri are concerned with Biblical and religious texts or ecclesiastical matters.

Modern recovery of papyrus documents. Perhaps no other area of archaeological discovery has been so richly rewarding to New Testament studies as the recovery of large quantities of papyri from the arid sands of Egypt, where the dry climate has preserved these priceless documents for the researches of the technical Biblical scholar. Papyrology, the science or study of the papyri, is now an invaluable branch of scientific Biblical inquiry, particul...

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