John Rylands Papyrus Collection
The John Rylands Papyrus Collection is one of the world's most important collections of papyri and consists of items written in a variety of different languages spoken in Egypt from the Pharaonic to the early Arabic period.
The Library also holds one of the three extant fragments of the uncanonical Gospel of Mary (2nd/3rd century AD), and one of the earliest copies of the Nicene Creed (6th century AD). Perhaps the most famous piece of papyri in the Library is a fragment of St John’s Gospel from the 2nd century AD, probably the earliest piece of the New Testament in the world.
Our papyri collections can also give us fresh insights into authors such as Homer, Cicero and Virgil. Personal annotations made by the ancient owners of these texts reveal their own interpretation of these classic texts and the world around them. They can also continue to change contemporary perceptions of the history of religions, particularly as the Library’s collection contains important documents relating to everyday activities of Egyptian priests, alongside scripts attesting religious practices.
Our current work with papyri focuses around a project by Dr Roberta Mazza which aims to test new approaches to conservation, imaging and digitisation of the papyri, and to produce critical editions of a select number of the Greek 'additional' papyri.
This project has already led to the remarkable discovery of a 1,500-year-old papyrus charm in an amulet thought to be the 'first ever found to refer to the Last Supper and use magic in the Christian context'.
The document, written in Greek, has been held by the Library since 1901, but was largely ignored until Dr Mazza came across it.
On one side, it has a combination of biblical passages from the books of Psalms and Matthew, while on the other is part of a receipt for payment of grain tax. The item is significant as it is an 'incredibly rare example of Christianity and the Bible becoming meaningful to ordinary people - not just priests and the elite'.
Dr Mazza said the amulet maker 'would have cut a piece of the receipt, written the charm on the other side and then folded the papyrus to be kept in a locket'.
This is an example of the use of written charms, which was an ancient Egyptian practice, being adopted by early Christians, who replaced prayers to Egyptian and Greco-Roman gods with passages from the Bible.
Despite the progress already made in this area, much of our papyri collection is yet to be catalogued so the potential for new discoveries is enormous. We hope that the learning from current projects will lead to wider and longer-term research work on our manuscripts from Egypt,, including Coptic, Demotic and Arabic papyri.