The papyrus book and the preservation of the earliest Christian voices

The papyrus book and the preservation of the earliest Christian voices Jesus reading from the rolls of the Torah, by JJ. Tissot.

It is often said that, in the West at least, this is an age which does not value religion. But one class of people certainly do: the leading auctioneers of the world, in Europe and North America, who are quite prepared to sell off civilisation’s most important relics for whatever they can get.

At the moment what has been well described as “one of the world’s oldest books”, the Crosby-Schøyen Codex, having been on view in Paris until this week, and soon will be in London, before being auctioned on June 11. The high estimate placed on it by Christie’s is some US$3.8 million (€3.6 million).


It was written on papyrus in the city of Alexandria, the leading place of learning in the world at the time, in the 3rd Century of our era (say about 250 AD). It was kept in the library of the Pachomina order at Few Quibi, near Dishna, in Western Egypt.

It was hidden at a time of danger in a large jar during the Muslim invasion in the 7th Century. This jar was found by a Muslim in 1952, changed hands several times before reaching an American university which in turn passed it on, ending up in the private collection in Norway which has now brought it to the market.

It is of an historical interest which deserves to be housed in a great international collection.

The main content is a version of the Book of Jonah; 2 Maccabees (5:27-7:105); and 1 Peter. It contains also a homily on Easter morning, but more importantly a text on the significance of Easter by Melito of Sardis now Izmir, a Bishop who died in 180 AD, and was later highly regarded by Tertullian and Jerome.

So here we have Christians voices from a period a mere 150 years after the time of Jesus expounding the beliefs of the third generation of Christians about the Resurrection.

This is part and parcel of the development and world-wide spread of the new religion”

The codex illustrates just how the spread of Christianity was dependent on papyrus, that is to say a form of paper created out of the material of the papyrus reed found along the Nile.

At the period when it was created in Alexandria these manuscripts were undergoing a change from the ancient form of rolls wound up on rods (like those we see in synagogues today, and which would have been used by Jesus when he read the Torah in the synagogues at Nazareth or Capernaum).

The pages were by now being laid on top of one on another, and sewn at the side to make an approximation of our modern book. The present codex, though created in Alexandria, was created in an early monastery.

This is a key to the history that Irene Vallejo, a Spanish classicist and philologist turned author, tells in the book under view.

This is part and parcel of the development and worldwide spread of the new religion. Her book has been an international best seller. For it was written by a scholar who has learnt, like Umberto Eco and others, to make their ideas accessible to newspaper readers.


The result, in a series of short chapters, tells with artful compression the whole history of the development of books, their content, and the nature of their readers down to modern times.

And this, all deriving from the Nile-side papyrus reed. So though on the whole not overwhelming academic, it is a wonderful read which is varied and insightful, and which many who already enjoy what books can provide will find an engaging read. It also provides a long view of what literary culture has been since late classical and early Christian times.