A collection of 31 (?) rolls and codices found in a jar: the Bodmer / Chester Beatty “papyri”

Sometime in the 1940s, an Egyptian peasant found a large jar full of ancient gnostic books, at a place today known as Nag Hammadi.  The books passed into the art market, and caused a sensation, and various dealers made money on the find. The news made its way back to the region.  This stirred other peasants to go looking for more treasure of the same kind.

In late 1952, another peasant made a similar discovery not that far away.  A jar was found, which contained something like 31 (?) volumes in various formats, roll and codex, papyrus and parchment, Greek and Coptic, although scholars disagree on the list of what the find originally contained.  They passed into the hands of a village strongman named Riyad Jirgis Fam, who lived at Dishna.  The collection is therefore known in Egypt as the Dishna “papyri”.  Riyad sold material piece by piece to a Cairo dealer, a Cypriot Greek named Phocion John Tano, or locally as “Phoqué”.  Tano then smuggled the material out of Egypt using either the diplomatic bag of the Tunisian embassy, or by bribing customs officials.

A large part of the collection was bought by a wealthy Swiss collector named Martin Bodmer.  What Bodmer chose not to buy, as of inferior interest, was in the main purchased by another collector, Sir Chester Beatty and is today in Dublin.  But the story is far more complex than that, and parts of the collection were also sold to American buyers, and then sold on.  Also, on the death of Martin Bodmer his executors began to sell his collection, until a foundation was created and the sales stopped.

But what was in the collection?  In the main it was biblical materials, but also rolls of Homer, lost plays by Menander, lost patristic material such as Melito’s De pascha, and much else.  It includes a codex of John’s gospel, P66, dated to 200 AD, in Greek.  But the older Greek material was rebound in the 4th century in a way that made it impossible to read – the books had become relics.  Newer material was in Coptic.  And, in addition, there were Greek and Coptic versions of some of the letters of Pachomius, the founder of Egyptian monasticism, previous known only in Jerome’s Latin translation.  The collection, plainly, had come from a Pachomian monastery.  The latest material was 6th century, and the burial of it in a jar perhaps relates to Justinian’s “tidying up” exercise on heresies of all sorts.

I suspect that many of us have heard of the “Bodmer papyri” and the “Chester Beatty papyri”, without ever being clear that this is a single find, like that at Nag Hammadi, dispersed around the world.

All this I take from reading James M. Robinson’s fascinating account, The Story of the Bodmer Papyri: from the First Monastery’s library in Upper Egypt to Geneva and Dublin.  It is very cheap, so very worthwhile for anyone interested in the finds of books in the sands of Egypt.

Robinson also gives a list of what, as far as can be told, the collection contained!  This is worth giving here, simpy because the dispersion of the collection means that few today have any context on what it was.

The contents of the discovery, including the quite fragmentary items and those listed only with hesitation, are as follows (they are Greek papyrus codices, unless otherwise indicated):20

1. Homer, Iliad, Book 5 = P. Bodmer I, a roll on the verso of a roll of documentary papyri, = P. Bodmer L.

2. Homer, Iliad, Book 6 = P. Bodmer I, a roll on the verso of the same roll of documentary papyri, = P. Bodmer L.

3. Gospel of John = P. Bodmer II + a fragment from the Chester Beatty Library, ac. 2555, + P. Koln 214, = P66.

4. Gospel of John and Genesis 1:1—4:2 in Bohairic = P. Bodmer III.

5. Menander, Samia, Dyskolos, Aspis = P. Bodmer XXV, IV, XXVI + P. Bare. 45 + Cologne inv. 904 = P. Koln 3 + P. Rob. 38.

6. Nativity of Mary = Apocalypse of James (Protevangelium of James) -, Apocryphal Correspondence of Paul with the Corinthians; Odes of Solomon 11; the Epistle of Jude; Melito of Sardis On the Passover, a fragment of a liturgical hymn; the Apology of Phileas; Psalms 33-34; 1 and 2 Peter = P. Bodmer V; X; XI; VII; XIII; XII; XX (+ a fragment from the Chester Beatty Library, ac. 2555); IX; VIII.

7. Proverbs in Proto-Sahidic on parchment = P. Bodmer VI.

8. Gospels of Luke and John = P. Bodmer XIV-XV = P75.

9. Exodus 1:1—15:21 in Sahidic on parchment = P. Bodmer XVI. (P. Bodmer XVII is generally agreed not to come from the same discovery.)

10. Deuteronomy 1:1—10:7 in Sahidic = P. Bodmer XVIII.

11. Matthew 14:28—28:20 + Romans 1:1—2:3, both in Sahidic on parchment, = P. Bodmer XIX.

12. Joshua in Sahidic = P. Bodmer XXI + Chester Beatty ac. 1389.

13. Jeremiah 40:3—52:34; Lamentations; Epistle of Jeremy; Baruch 1:1— 5:5, all in Sahidic on parchment, = P. Bodmer XXII + Mississippi Coptic Codex II.

14. Isaiah 47:1—66:24 in Sahidic = P. Bodmer XXIII.

15. Psalms 17—118 = P. Bodmer XXIV.

16. Thucydides; Suzanna; Daniel; Moral Exhortations = P. Bodmer XXVII, XLV, XLVI, XLVII.

17. A satyr play on the confrontation of Heracles and Atlas, a papyrus roll, = P. Bodmer XXVIII.

18. Codex Visionum = P. Bodmer XXIX — XXXVIII. (For P. Bodmer XXXIX see the inventory of specifically Pachomian material below.)

19. Song of Songs in Sahidic on parchment = P. Bodmer XL.

20. The Acts of Paul, Ephesus Episode, in Subachmimic, = P. Bodmer XLI.

21. Fragments of the Iliad from a papyrus roll = P. Bodmer XLVIII.

22. Fragments of the Odyssey from a papyrus roll = P. Bodmer XLIX.

23. Mathematical exercises in Greek; John 10:7 —13:38 in Subachmimic = Chester Beatty ac. 1390.

24. The Apocalypse of Elijah in Sahidic = Chester Beatty ac. 1493 = P. Chester Beatty 2018.

25. A Greek grammar; a Graeco-Latin lexicon on Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians = Chester Beatty ac. 1499.

26. Psalms 72:6—23, 25—76:1; 77:1—18, 20—81:7; 82:2—84:14; 85:2—88:20 = Chester Beatty ac. 1501 = P. Chester Beatty XIII = Rahlfs 2149.

27. Psalms 31:8-11; 26:1-6, 8-14; 2:1-8 = Chester Beatty ac. 1501 = P. Chester Beatty XIV = Rahlfs 2150.

28. Tax receipts of 339-47 A.D. from Panopolis (Achmim) in a largely uninscribed and unbound quire constructed from two papyrus rolls with correspondence of the Strategus of the Panopolitan nome of 298-300 A.D. = P. Beatty Panopolitanus = Chester Beatty ac. 2554.

29. Melito of Sardis On the Passover, 2 Maccabees 5:27—7:41; 1 Peter; Jonah; a homily or hymn, = The Crosby-Schoyen Codex = ms. 193 of The Schoyen Collection of Western Manuscripts.

30. Scholia to the Odyssey 1 from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 32 + P. Colon, inv. 906.

31. Achilles Tatius from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 35 + P. Colon, inv. 901.

32. Odyssey 3-4 from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 43 + P. Colon, inv. 902.

33. A piece of ethnography or a philosophical treatise from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 37 + P. Colon, inv. 903.

34. Cicero, In Catilinam; Psalmus Responsorius; Greek liturgical text; Alcestis, all in Latin except the Greek liturgical text, = Codex Miscellani = P. Barcinonenses inv. 149-61 + P. Duke in L 1 [ex P. Rob. inv. 201].

35. Gospels of Luke; John; Mark, all in Sahidic = P. Palau Ribes 181-83.

The total quantity of material would involve what remains of some 37 books. They consist of 9 Greek classical papyrus rolls (numbers 1, 2, 17, 23, 24, 32-35) and 28 codices (numbers 3-16,18-22, 25-31, 36, 37). The codices maybe subdivided as follows: 21 are on papyrus (numbers 3-6, 8, 10, 12, 14-16, 18, 20, 22, 25-31, 36, 37), 5 on parchment  (numbers 7, 9, 11, 13, 19), and of 1 the Bibliotheque Bodmer has not divulged the material (number 22). 10 are in Greek (numbers 3, 5, 6, 8, 15, 16, 18, 28-30), 2 in Greek and Latin (numbers 27, 36), and 1 in Greek and Subachmimic (number 25). 15 are in Coptic (numbers 4, 7, 9-14,19-22, 26, 31, 37), of which 10 are in Sahidic (numbers 9-14,19, 26, 31, 37), 1 in Bohairic (number 4), 1 in Proto-Sahidic (number 7), 1 in Subachmimic (number 20), and of 1 the Bibliotheque Bodmer has not divulged the dialect (number 22). 2 are non-Christian (numbers 5, 30), 21 Christian (numbers 3, 4, 6-15, 18-21, 26, 28, 29, 31, 37) and 4 partly each (numbers 16,25, 27, 36). 11 contain something from the Old Testament (numbers 7, 9, 10, 12-16, 19, 28, 29) and 6 something from the New Testament (numbers 3, 8,11, 21, 25, 37) and 3 something from each (numbers 4, 6, 31).

A distinctive part of this discovery consists of archival copies of official letters of Abbots of the Pachomian Monastic Order:

  1. Pachomius’ Letter 11b in Sahidic, a small parchment roll, = P. Bodmer XXXIX.
  2. Pachomius’ Letters 9a, 9b, 10,11 b, from a papyrus codex, in Sahidic = Chester Beatty Glass Container No. 54 = ac. 2556.
  3. Pachomius’ Letters 1-3, 7,10,11a in Greek, a small parchment roll in rotuli format, = Chester Beatty Ms. W. 145 + Cologne inv. 3288 = P. Koln 174 = three fragments from Letter 7.
  4. Theodore’s Letter 2 in Sahidic, a small parchment roll in rotuli format, = Chester Beatty Library ac. i486.
  5. A second copy of Theodore’s Letter 2, a small parchment roll in rotuli format in an unidentified private German collection, published by Martin Krause.
  6. Horsiesios’ Letter 3 in Sahidic, a small papyrus roll, = Chester Beatty Library ac. 1494.
  7. Horsiesios’ Letter 4 in Sahidic, a small papyrus roll, = Chester Beatty Library ac. 1495.
  8. Pachomius’ Letter 8 in Sahidic, a small parchment roll, = Cologne inv. 3286 = P. Colon. Copt. 2 = P. Koln agypt. 8.
  9. Pachomius’ Letters 10-11a in Sahidic, a small parchment roll, = Cologne inv. 3287 = P. Colon. Copt. 1 = P. Koln agypt. 9.

Dr R. also went to the trouble of going to the site and doing fieldwork among the villagers to find out what was found, when, by whom, and what happened to it.  This incredibly necessary task tends to be shirked, when a find has gone underground, and his statements will inevitably be primary source material ever afterwards.

UPDATE: A correspondent has asked me to clarify that both the Bodmer collection and the Chester Beatty collection include many other papyri, not part of this collection found near Dishna.  There is an article by Brent Nongbri here which discusses the classification problems in the second half.

6 thoughts on “A collection of 31 (?) rolls and codices found in a jar: the Bodmer / Chester Beatty “papyri”

  1. ‘I suspect that many of us have heard of the “Bodmer papyri” and the “Chester Beatty papyri”, without ever being clear that this is a single find’.

    Indeed! Thank you for clearing that up so lucidly in such detail!

    (How big must the jar have been – or how small the codices?)

  2. I think I saw something on Paleojudaica speculating that they were actually grave goods, but the list makes that sound unlikely. It actually sounds more like auxiliary storage when the library gets too big for the shelves/pigeonhole cubbies, rather than the way one would go about hiding mss.

    I mean, it literally sounds like the kind of assortment you get on a rummage sale table, all stuffed into jars with no organization.

  3. Good question, David. I don’t know.

    One item also in the find was some tweezers for removing thorns. Interestingly the presence of this item in the alcove used as a library is mentioned in the Pachomian letters. The tweezers were also sold on the art market – can’t recall if Bodmer bought them.

    @suburbanbanshee: Robinson tells us that the monks were monophysite. Justinian quartered some Scythian troops on them, to dragoon them, and so most of them just left the monastery. It’s a viable theory as to why the library ended up in a jar. (The oldest Greek volumes predate the monastery, of course).

  4. The Apology of Phileas is a very interesting little piece (there was another version the Acts of Phileas among the finds that ended up in Dublin I think). Essentially our earliest martyrology if I recall correctly. Eusebius also includes a version of it in his Church history.

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