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Christian Treasures from the Trash Heap at Oxyrhynchus

A Bible and Beyond Discussion

Monday, March 25, 2024
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With guest scholar Adeline Harrington and host Dr. Shirley Paulson

Featuring Adeline Harrington and host Dr. Shirley Paulson

Much of what we know about ancient Christianity comes from New Testament and early Christian manuscripts. Most people are not aware, however, that most of our surviving early Christian manuscripts (including about 50% of our New Testament fragments) come from a single site—the ancient garbage mounds of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt! Historians of early Christianity have traditionally overlooked this mid-sized city, despite the wealth of manuscript evidence that it offers.

This discussion underscores the crucial significance of Oxyrhynchus in reshaping our perception of early Christian practices, beliefs, and the dynamic interplay of diverse traditions. It calls for a reevaluation of traditional assumptions and offers a compelling glimpse into the multifaceted world of early Christianity beyond the New Testament.

Adeline Harrington shared her research on the remarkable trash heap in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt that had been preserved since the second through fifth centuries or so. Even though the original discovery of this extraordinarily rich resource took place in 1896, there are still thousands of small scraps of papyri to be analyzed and published. Harrington (who was to obtain her doctorate degree in just a few weeks after this presentation) found that a careful analysis of the themes, cost of production, chronology of scraps, and context of these ancient texts reveal a great deal of new insights into the development of the early Christian movements.

There was quite a variety of interests and interpretations of Jesus, but with the passage of time, noticeable shifts in ideas and practices among Christians became apparent. An important example was Harrington’s descriptions of the evolving healing practices. Oxyrhynchus was apparently one of the healing centers where a variety of amulets, magical sayings, and records of healing practices were prevalent.

Another image of the Christ movement that took place in Oxyrhynchus was the importance of the texts made known through the patronage of the textual production. Harrington studied in great detail the size of each of the several hundred Christian texts she knows of and determined their relative value in terms of investment in them. Women appeared prominently in these texts, probably for several reasons. They were truly involved in Jesus’s inner circle of disciples, and they were the wealthy benefactors that enabled the movement to thrive.

Another major conclusion was that there was a great deal of interest in the Gospel of John, and it appears this interest may have been closely related to the texts that later were considered heretical. So-called gnostic texts were prevalent until orthodox ideas began to dominate, and the interest in the Gospel of John appears to have lessened at the same time.

Harrington roused our curiosity about the discoveries that are yet to be made, and we appreciated her research and willingness to share her conclusions. We look forward to learning more about Oxyrhyncus and what it will tell us about the early Christian world.

Texts:

Skim the following texts or read as much as interests you.

Gospel of Mary

The Sophia of Jesus Christ

The Gospel of Thomas

First Apocalypse of James