by GEOFFREY S. SMITH
A Fragment Makes History
A few months ago, I received a much-anticipated email that read, “The courier is scheduled to deliver the Willoughby Papyrus to the Ransom Center tomorrow.” The next morning, I anxiously watched as members of the Center’s conservation staff carefully removed from the oversized shipping package a small black archival box, no more than 8 inches square. They slid off its sleeve, opened the protective cover, and placed the object on the table in front of me for inspection. Mounted between two plates of glass was an ancient papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, no larger than a credit card.
The manuscript was fragmentary, and some of the Greek letters were not easy to make out, but it had not suffered any damage since I had last seen it in person, nearly seven years earlier. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The “Willoughby Papyrus,” as it is known, had made it to The University of Texas safe and sound.
The world first learned about the Willoughby Papyrus in January of 2015, when it appeared for sale on eBay in a no-reserve auction with bidding starting at $99.99. Within hours, the listing caught the attention of scholars worldwide who blogged about it and shared links to the auction on social media. While manuscripts do appear on eBay from time to time, this was not a typical listing. In contrast to the crude forgeries that surface on the site, the Willoughby Papyrus looked authentic. It also did not resemble the illicit papyri that occasionally appear on eBay, unmounted, unidentified, and often sprinkled with a suspicious layer of dirt, as if recently pulled from the sands of Egypt.
Instead, the Willoughby Papyrus sat in an older professional mount and included a label identifying it as John 1:50-51. Greek papyri of the New Testament are rare—today only 141 have been published, and among these, only about 30 contain the Gospel of John. Yet because Greek papyri tend to be the earliest New Testament manuscripts, they are among the most important for establishing the original words written by the New Testament authors. Could this be an authentic and legitimate papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John? The listing seemed too good to be true, but I had to learn more about the manuscript.
I couldn’t let the papyrus slip into private hands. Something like this belongs at a university or in a museum, where it can be properly conserved and made available to experts for study.
I immediately contacted the seller. During the course of a lengthy email exchange, a fuller story began to emerge. The owner discovered the papyrus in his attic. It was among a jumble of papers he’d inherited years earlier but only recently decided to look through. In the owner’s words, “I recently took time to go through [the suitcase] and [the papyrus] fell out from a stack of letters/papers.” The owner thought it would fetch a few dollars on eBay, but he was not prepared for the onslaught of attention it received. His inbox was flooded with emails from scholars like me trying to find out more about the papyrus, as well as wealthy private collectors offering exorbitant amounts of money to “buy it now.”
The seller also disclosed that the papyrus once belonged to Harold Willoughby, professor of early Christian origins at the University of Chicago. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Willoughby worked with his colleague Edgar J. Goodspeed to acquire manuscripts from dealers and private collectors in the United States and abroad for the University of Chicago. Willoughby would even recall an experience that “brought gangland suddenly near,” when he purchased for the university a Greek lectionary that was formerly used as an oath Bible for patrons of Colosimo’s Cafe, a Chicago restaurant owned and operated by notorious mobster Jim Colosimo. The seller provided documentation that the papyrus belonged to Harold Willoughby, who died in 1962, which meant that the fragment fully complied with the 1970 UNESCO convention of cultural property.
I couldn’t let the papyrus slip into private hands. Something like this belongs at a university or in a museum, where it can be properly conserved and made available to experts for study. After further discussion, the seller agreed and ended the auction before it sold. He graciously allowed me to
inspect the fragment and publish some preliminary findings.
The papyrus itself turned out to be as exceptional as the circumstances of its discovery. One particularly interesting feature is its format: The Willoughby Papyrus is the first known example of a New Testament papyrus written on a scroll. The vast majority of New Testament papyri take the form of the codex, that is, the book in its modern format.
The few New Testament papyrus scrolls that do survive are written on the back of existing scrolls. They are not scrolls by design, but instead take the form of the book they are repurposing. But the scribe of our papyrus seems to have wanted his copy of the Gospel of John to be a scroll. Christians are well known to have been early adopters of the codex, even while Jews and non-Christian Romans seemed to prefer the scroll. But since the first Jesus followers were not yet members of a distinct Christian religion, but members of a sect within Judaism, scholars surmise that there must have been a time—very early on—when New Testament writings were routinely written on scrolls. As the sole example of a Greek New Testament papyrus copied onto the front side of a scroll, the Willoughby Papyrus has much to reveal about Jewish and Christian relations in the ancient world and the history of the early Christian book.
This fragment has much to teach us about Christianity’s early centuries, and thanks to the generous support of a UT alum, the Willoughby Papyrus now has a permanent home in the Harry Ransom Center, where scholars and visitors alike can view and study this remarkable early Christian artifact.
Image: The Willoughby Papyrus, a manuscript fragment from the third or fourth century CE containing text from John 1:49–2:1.