Extracts from Peter of Alexandria (d.311) and the original copy of the Gospel of John

In the 10th century one or more scribes created what is now a parchment manuscript with the shelfmark Vatican gr. 1941 (scanned microfilm online here).  The majority of the pages today (folios 19r-290v) are occupied by an anonymous chronicle of the 7th century, written, as it tells us, by a contemporary of Heraclius.  This world chronicle is known today as the Chronicon Paschale, bcause the manuscript starts with a long preface dedicated to discussing differing methods of calculating Easter.  The only copies known to us of the work are three of the 16th century – Munich 557 (written 1573), “Holmensis e. 30. I. 21, and Upsala 2; and there are some extracts in two manuscripts of the 15th and 18th century, Ambrosian 814 f.1-14, and Athos mon. Lavra 1866, f. 265-279.[1]  But largely the work was ignored.[2]

The text, including the prefatory material about Easter, was edited by L. Dindorf under the title “Chronicon Paschale” in the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (=CSHB) series in Bonn in 1832, with the Latin translation of Du Cange.  Vol. 1 is online here. Dindorf basically reprinted Du Cange’s Paris edition of 1688 (reprinted in Venice in 1729), and made corrections from the Vatican manuscript.[3]  This is most noticeable in the page of Greek text at the start, where there is no Latin translation.

But the start of the work contains something else altogether.  The horrible microfilm is too poor for me to make out what is actually in the Vatican manuscript.  The work starts with an extract from Philo, On the Life of Moses, book 3.  Then it says, “So much for Philo”, and tells us that after the fall of Jerusalem under Vespasian, various church writers discussed the question of the date of Easter, including Peter of Alexandria, an unknown Tricentius, the great Athanasius, and Epiphanius. (p.4, ll.1-5).  We then pass into material on the subject itself, which Du Cange headed as being by Peter of Alexandria from his lost work on Easter.  This has all been translated in the ANF 6, where it appears as fragment 5, ending in the CSHB on p.12, line 7.  What follows seems to be editorial, and then there is material from Hippolytus and then Apollinaris.

Nothing in the text actually identifies this material as being by Peter of Alexandria, but it is a reasonable inference – by Du Cange? – from the list of names just before it.

One portion of the text, however, is very interesting, on page 11, lines 5-10:

ἤ δὲ παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα· ὥρα ἦν ὡσεὶ τρίτη”· καθὼς τὰ ἀκριβῆ βιβλία περιέχει, αὐτό τε τὸ ἰδιόχειρον τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ, ὅπερ μέχρι νῦν πεφύλακται χάριτι θεοῦ ἐν τῇ Ἐφεσίων ἁγιωτάτῃ ἐκκλησίᾳ, καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν πιστῶν ἐκεῖσε προσκυνεῖται.

And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.[4]

The evangelist here is John.  This is a claim that the autograph copy of John’s gospel was preserved at Ephesus at the time of the writer.

The context is the discrepancy between Mark 15:25, which says that Jesus was crucified at the third hour; and John 19:14, which says that Pilate sentenced Jesus to death at the sixth hour.  [5]

Peter is saying that the text of John 19:14 is corrupt, and should read “third hour”, rather than “sixth hour”; and he is appealing to the original copy of John’s gospel.This is extraordinary!

This passage was mentioned in a controversial article by Craig Evans, “How Long were Late Antique Books in Use?”, in: Bulletin of Biblical Research  (BBR) 25.1 (2015), 25-37.  I have no access to this, but it drew excited responses such as this by G.W. Schwendner[6] and this by Brice C. Jones.  Evans suggested, I believe that this was evidence that the autographs of the NT were accessible for centuries and were used to correct the text.

In a way, the statement of Peter of Alexandria is inscrutable.  It says what it says.  What can we make of it?

Firstly, Peter does not say that he has seen the autograph.  Rather he says that it is the treasured possession of the church of Ephesus.

There is nothing at all improbable about this.  Indeed modern cathedrals across Europe preserve a great many relics of the apostles, such as their heads, and other body parts.  The authenticity of many of these may be doubtful – and indeed should be subject to DNA testing – but they do boast of holding such relics.  No doubt the church of Ephesus did indeed boast of such a thing.

Did they actually have the autograph, in the late 3rd century?  The autograph would have been a papyrus roll, perhaps; and by that date would have been rather fragile.  But it could be.  If it did exist, possibly it perished during the persecution of Diocletian, when such things were sought out.

But does the testimony of Peter actually suppose that this item existed in his time?  I think of Tertullian referring to the Acts of Pilate, probably copying Justin Martyr.  Peter may simply be using the testimony of a now lost earlier writer, such as a lost work of Origen.  He’s not saying he saw it himself.  Likewise his testimony as to what the reading of this passage was may be derived from his source.  But if we suppose that his source was around 200 AD – picking a random date – there is nothing at all impossible about supposing that the autograph existed at that date.

Was this reading really to be found in it?  Who can now tell?  But let us guess that the volume existed.  If so, it would be treasured, and it would be frail.  Anybody with any experience of dealing with “treasures” will know how the keepers would respond to requests to see it; with hostility.  In such a situation I would imagine that an “authorised” copy of the original might be made available in the church, to save wear and tear on the frail original.  Such a copy, “guaranteed” to be an “exact copy”, is what visitors would have access to.  The actual accuracy of the copy might be less than perfect.

In the end it is all speculation.  But it is certainly interesting to reflect on the longevity of ancient books.

  1. [1]Moravcsik, Byzantinoturcica (Berlin 1958) i. 241-2.
  2. [2]Whitby and Whitby, Chronicon Paschale: 284-628 AD, TTH7 (1989), p.xiv.
  3. [3]As indeed he states on p.4.
  4. [4]ANF 6 p.280 translation.  The references given in the ANF are very strange.  They read, “5 Apud Galland, Ex Chronico Paschal., p. 1, seqq., edit. Venet., 1729.” and “31 Apud Galland, Ex Chronico Paschal., p. 175, D.”  The introduction, on the other hand, says “(4) A passage from the Sermo in Sanctum Pascha, or from some other work of Peter’s on the same subject, is given in the Diatriba de Paschate, prefixed to the Chronicon Alexandrinum S. Paschale, and published separately in the Uranologion of Petavius, fol. Paris, 1630, p. 396.”  P.396 of the Uranologion can be found here, but only contains a Greek text. No work of Galland entitled “Ex Chronico Paschal.” exists, and the truth is that the translator was actually working from the Patrologia Graeca, vol. 18, col. 512, where the following screen shot explains all: The actual source used by the translator is the PG; the 1729 edition mention in it is not by Galland, but simply the reprint of Du Cange’s edition of the Chronicon Paschale that we saw earlier. This error has confused others; the same mistake is found on p.67 in Sacha, Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, 2nd Century BCE to 10th Century CE, Clarendon, 2001, p.67, in the otherwise excellent footnote 261: “261.  This letter, preserved in the preface of the Chronicon Paschale, was published separately by Migne, PG 18. 512 b—520 b, following Galland, Ex Chron. Pasch. (Venice, 1729), which itself follows Du Cange’s first edition of the Chronikon Paschale (Paris, 1688), and on which was based the English translation by Hawkins (1869: 325-32). However, a better edition of this text, based on MS Vat. gr. 1941, was published by Dindorf (1832) and followed by Migne, PG 92. 73 b-c.”
  5. [5]Stephan Witetschek, “The hour of the Lamb? Some remarks on John 19:14 and the hour of Jesus’s condemnation and crucifixion”, in: P. N. Anderson &c, John, Jesus, and History, Volume 3: Glimpses of Jesus through the Johannine Lens, SBL Press, 2016, p. 95f.  Preview here.
  6. [6]This also repeats the “Galland” mistake.  It is terrifying to consider just how many publications must have trusted that lazy editor from the ANF06!

8 thoughts on “Extracts from Peter of Alexandria (d.311) and the original copy of the Gospel of John

  1. Actually, Migne did get his text verbatim from Galland’s Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum, vol. IV pp. 110ss:


    though of course Galland took it in turn from the 1729 reprint of Du Cange’s edition. Note that Migne’s text is closer to Galland’s, e.g. in the section numbers, which are not found in Du Cange. R.H. Bloch writes: “a seminary sold him [Migne], according to a letter of May 21, 1842, the collection of Galland, which he sometimes reprinted when better editions were too difficult to procure” (“God’s Plagiarist. Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne”, pp. 63-4).

    (I’ve been struggling for some time to identify and find online copies of the direct source of each text in the PG. His references are so often inconsistent, obscure and even (intentionally?) misleading that it’s no wonder that confusions like the one you’ve pointed out abound.)

  2. Thank you! I never pinned down the Galland connection, except that I realised that perhaps there was an edition in his “Bibliotheca”. Thank you very for rounding that out, and the link!

    The combination of the “Apud Gallandum” and the “Ex chronico pasch.” must reflect the layout of the Migne text, I think.

    I have read Bloch, but I did not remember that. That’s useful to know. I think Bloch refers to a French life of Migne, which sounds as if it would repay a read.

  3. Eusebios and Epiphanios also mention the corruption from the correct “third” to “sixth”. It is also interesting that the only two manuscripts (I think) that contain “third” are the codex Bezae (which also seems to be of the family that Eirenaios used) and a corrector to Sinaticus.

  4. Roger. To me, it seems that it all hangs on the Greek particle τε in the sentence: αὐτό τε τὸ ἰδιόχειρον τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ.

    The Greek is literally: “itself and the original [Or: “the autograph”] of-the Evangelist”. The translation: “that was written by the hand of” is a paraphrase. I’m sure you would agree, that when we are trying to find out the facts about history, the safest course would not be to try and read something into a historical text that may not be there. Better to stick to the literal sense.

    So, the question is, does Greek: τε mean: “and” here? Or is it a causal connective to what precedes καθὼς τὰ ἀκριβῆ βιβλία περιέχει Literally: “Just-as the accurate books are-containing”.

    Should the sense in English run:

    1. “itself AND the original [Or: “the autograph”] of-the Evangelist”? or:
    2. “AND the original it-self of the Evangelist”?

    If 1, then there are two manuscripts, one a copy “itself” (= αὐτό), “and” (= τε) another “the original” (= τὸ ἰδιόχειρον).

    If 2, then there is one manuscript, and it is simply the original Gospel written by John itself.

    Your thoughts? Please do not read any hostility in these comments. I’m just trying to make sense of the text.

  5. When “τε” is used, in an English translation it would always get placed before the previous Greek word. “te” does not start a sentence, the same way that “de” does not start a sentence, yet would be understood as the first word in the sentence if translated into English.

    “αὐτό τε τὸ ἰδιόχειρον τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ”. So. “te” (“also”, “as-well-as”) would be placed before “auto” in a translation. (This is also the case when “te” is to be understood as “both.”). The sentence you gave would NEVER be rendered “itself AND the original.”

    “itself AND the original” would be rendered in Greek as something like “αὐτό τε KAI τὸ ἰδιόχειρον τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ” or simply “αὐτό KAI τὸ ἰδιόχειρον τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ”. “te” does not function as “and” like “kai” does.

    So the Greek should be translated. “Exactly-as the precise books are including, as-well-as the autograph itself of the good-messenger.” The other option you stated is a completely incorrect translation.

  6. Additional pedantic detail: Greek τε works most of the time the same as Latin -que; etymologically they are the same word. Translators often render τε as -que, like Du Cange in this case: “ipsumque Evangelistae manu descriptum exemplar”.

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