Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

Rescuing an Ancient Gem From the Trash

Rescuing an Ancient Gem From the Trash

WHAT comes to your mind when you think of a rubbish heap? You likely associate such a sight with refuse and an unpleasant smell. So you would hardly expect to find anything of value there, much less a priceless gem.

Yet, a century ago a treasure of sorts was found in just such a place—the trash. The treasure was, not a literal gem, but something else of great value. What kind of treasure was uncovered? Why is its discovery important to us today?


At the turn of the 20th century, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, scholars at the University of Oxford, visited Egypt. There, among the garbage heaps close to the Nile Valley, they discovered a number of papyrus fragments. Later, in 1920, while the two colleagues were busy cataloging the collection, Grenfell acquired some additional fragments that had been dug up in Egypt. He acquired these on behalf of The John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. However, both men died before the catalog was finished.

Colin H. Roberts, another scholar at Oxford University, completed the task. While he was sorting the fragments, he spotted a papyrus scrap measuring 3.5 by 2.4 inches (9 x 6 cm). To his amazement, the Greek handwriting contained words that were familiar to him. On one side were words taken from John 18:31-33. The other side contained parts of verses 37 and 38. Roberts realized that he had stumbled upon a priceless gem.


Roberts suspected that this papyrus scrap was very old. But how old? To find out, he compared the handwriting on it with other dated ancient manuscripts—a discipline called paleography. * By applying this method, he was able to assign an approximate age. But he wanted to be sure. So he photographed the fragment, sent copies of it to three papyrologists, and asked them to determine its age. What did these experts conclude?

By studying the style of the script and the strokes, all three of the expert scholars agreed that the fragment had been written in the first half of the second century C.E.—just a few decades after the apostle John’s death! Paleography, however, is not a foolproof method of dating manuscripts, and another scholar believes that the text could have been written anytime during the second century. Yet, this tiny scrap of papyrus was—and still is—the oldest existing manuscript fragment of the Christian Greek Scriptures that has ever been found.


Why is this fragment of John’s Gospel so important to lovers of the Bible today? For at least two reasons. First of all, the format of the fragment gives us some insight into how the early Christians valued the Scriptures.

Why is this fragment of John’s Gospel so important to lovers of the Bible today?

In the second century C.E., written text came in two formats—the scroll and the codex. Scrolls were pieces of papyrus or parchment that were pasted or stitched together to form one long sheet. This sheet could then be rolled up and unrolled whenever needed. In most cases, only one side of a scroll was used for writing.

However, the tiny fragment that Roberts discovered has handwriting on both sides. This suggests that it came from a codex rather than a scroll. A codex was made from sheets of parchment or papyrus that were sewn together and folded in a format resembling a book.

What were the advantages of the codex over the scroll? Well, the early Christians were evangelizers. (Matthew 24:14; 28:19, 20) They spread the Bible’s message wherever they could find people—in homes, in marketplaces, and on the street. (Acts 5:42; 17:17; 20:20) So having access to the Scriptures in a compact format was much more practical.

The codex also made it easier for congregations and individuals to make their own copies of the Scriptures. Thus, the Gospels were copied over and over again, and this no doubt contributed to the rapid growth of Christianity.

The Rylands fragment, front and back

A second reason why the Rylands fragment is important to us today is that it reveals how reliably the original Bible text was transmitted. Though the fragment contains just a few verses from John’s Gospel, its contents agree almost exactly with what we read today in our own copies of the Bible. The Rylands fragment thus shows that the Bible has not been altered despite being copied and recopied over time.

Of course, the Rylands fragment of John’s Gospel is but one piece of evidence among the thousands of fragments and manuscripts that confirm the reliable transmission of the original Bible text. In his book The Bible as History, Werner Keller concluded: “These old [manuscripts] are the most convincing answer to all doubts as to the genuineness and reliability of the text that we have in our Bibles today.”

True, Christians do not base their faith on archaeological finds. They believe that “all Scripture is inspired of God.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Nonetheless, how reassuring it is when priceless gems from the past confirm what the Bible has said all along: “The saying of Jehovah endures forever”!1 Peter 1:25.

^ par. 8 According to the book Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, paleography “is the science that studies ancient writing.” Over a period of time, handwriting style changes. These changes can reveal the age of a manuscript if it can be compared to other reliably dated documents.