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!

Legends about what the Chronicon Pascale says

After Eusebius invented the idea of the “Chronicle of World History”, subsequent writers produced considerable numbers of these.  As a rule these start with Adam, using the Bible and Eusebius to cover stuff up to Constantine, and then whatever continuations and paraphrases were available.

The Chronicon Pascale is an example of this genre.  It’s a Greek World Chronicle, composed around 630 AD in the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius, just half a dozen years before the Arabs charge out of the desert and find no-one in any shape to resist them.  No translation of the whole thing exists, apart from the renaissance Latin version printed in the Patrologia Graeca 92.  Whitby and Whitby made an English translation of the portion from 284 AD onwards.

Bill Thayer of Lacus Curtius forwarded me an email in which someone raised an interesting query:

…in “The Story of Religious Controversy”, a book written in 1929 by Joseph McCabe. In the chapter entitled “Morals in Ancient Egypt,” he is speaking of the son of the goddess Isis–Horus–and says: “An early Christian work, the ‘Paschal Chronicle’ (Migne ed. xcii. col 385), tells us that every year the temples of Horus presented to worshippers, in mid-winter (or about December 25th), a scenic model of the birth of Horus. He was represented as a babe born in a stable, his mother Isis standing by.”

I hope we all know better than to believe the crude falsehoods about Christian origins circulated by bitter atheists online.  But does the CP say any such thing?  I went off to look.

Skimming over the Latin side , I find a discussion of Jeremiah’s prediction of Christ, starting in col. 383, “De Jeremia”.  This starts with one of the messianic passages, mirrored in Matthew – which he quotes – and then says is also in Hebrews.  Then he goes on (my own rough translation of key points):

“Jeremiah was from Anathoth, and was killed in Taphais in Egypt by being stoned by the people, and sleeps in the place where Pharaoh’s palace is, (..because he was very respected..) because when they were infested with the aquatic animals, called Menephoth in Egyptian and crocodiles in Greek. Even today those faithful to God who take some of the dust of that place can drive crocodiles away”

One may hope that no-one actually experimented with live crocodiles to verify this.

Then follows a story that Alexander, when he came to Egypt, and heard about the “arcana” which he had predicted, removed the prophet’s relics to Alexandria, for some other similar magic which I can’t quite make out.  It then continues:

“This sign Jeremiah gave to the priests of Aegypt, predicting the future, that their idols would be destroyed and ? by a boy saviour born of a virgin, and laid in a manger.” 

It goes on:

“Quapropter etiamvero ut deam colunt virginem puerperam, et infantem in praesepi adorant.

For which reason (?) they honour a pregnant virgin goddess and worship an infant in a manger.

When king Ptolemy asked why, they told him that they received this secret from the holy prophet handed down by their fathers. The same prophet Jeremiah, before the destruction of the temple, …”  (more stuff about prophecy).

Migne quotes a note by DuCange (25) which says that this bit about a virgin comes from Epiphanius and Simon Logothetes (who?).  No reference is given, unfortunately, and I was unable to find it in the Panarion.

This last bit is probably the kernel of the story that we see in highly embroidered form above.