St John Fragment

The Fragment of the Gospel of John

Greek P 457 (Greek P 457)
Greek P 457 (Greek P 457)

The Fragment of the Gospel of John is one of the Library’s most famous artefacts. This small scrap of papyrus only measures 8.9 x 6.0 cm, but provides a wealth of information.

The first side of the fragment contains the beginning of seven lines from John 18:31-33.
The reverse of the fragment contains the end of seven lines from John 18:37-38.

Where can I see the St John Fragment?

High quality digital images are available in the Library's image collections:

The Fragment was on display in the Rylands Gallery until 2 April 2022. Due to the fragility of the item, it was necessary to remove it from display. We hope to return the item to display in early 2023.

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What is the significance of this fragment?

The Fragment of the Gospel of John is one of The John Rylands Library's most famous artefacts. This small scrap of papyrus only measures 8.9 x 6.0 cm, but provides a wealth of information.

The Fragment is widely regarded as the earliest portion of any New Testament writing ever found. It provides us with invaluable evidence on the spread of Christianity in the provinces of the Roman Empire in the first centuries of our era. The first editor dated the Fragment to the first half of the second century (between 100-150 AD). The date was estimated palaeographically, by comparing the handwriting with other manuscripts. However, palaeography is not an exact science - none of the comparable Biblical manuscripts are dated and most papyri bearing a secure date are administrative documents. Recent research points to a date nearer to 200 AD, but there is as yet no convincing evidence that any earlier fragments from the New Testament survive. Carbon-dating is a destructive method and has not been used on the Fragment.

The majority of papyri which survive from this date are in the form of book-rolls, written in a series of columns on one side of the papyrus sheet. This fragment has writing from the same work on both sides, so would have been part of a codex (a book with turning pages).The codex form was taken up by early Christian writers and quickly became the usual format for Christian texts. In a codex where we know the size of the margin and roughly what text is missing between two sides of a page, we can infer the approximate size of the original manuscript. In this case, the pages probably would have been about 210x200mm, with eighteen lines on each page. If the manuscript contained only the Gospel of John, it would have been about 130 pages long.

How was the Fragment discovered?

The John Rylands Library has been an international centre for Biblical studies since it opened in 1900. Some of its most significant and ancient items are small fragments of papyrus from Egypt containing lines from the first copies of the Christian scriptures. These papyri help us to understand how the Bible was copied, used and transmitted. 

The St John Fragment was identified by the papyrologist Colin H. Roberts in 1935 while he was preparing the third volume of the Catalogue of Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library. Recognising the importance of the manuscript, he immediately published a description and transcription of the fragment. 

The Fragment was part of a selection of papyri purchased on behalf of the John Rylands Library by Bernard P. Grenfell during a trip to Egypt in 1920. Grenfell, along with his friend and colleague Arthur S. Hunt, had been excavating papyri in Egypt since the early 1890s for the Egypt Exploration Society and other institutions. They also acquired papyri for Lord Crawford and later for Enriqueta Rylands and the John Rylands Library. 

The bulk of the Rylands papyri are administrative documents and everyday writings in a variety of languages which record the lives of people living in Egypt from the fourteenth century BC to the early Middle Ages. However, there are a number of important literary, scientific and religious texts. The collection of Greek papyri, for instance, also contains some fragments of Deuteronomy which are the earliest found writing of the Greek Old Testament. Papyri from Egypt have given access to early Christian writings beyond the Old and New Testament. Many of these had been lost for centuries, being outside the Christian canon and often condemned by the official Church as apocryphal and heretical. One of the most famous examples is the Gospel of Mary, the Library holds one of only two surviving Greek fragments. 

Related items

Further reading

Editions of the Fragment of the Gospel of John

The Fragment of the Gospel of John in the context of Early Christian writing

The John Rylands Library Collections

  • Summary description of Greek Papyri in the Guide to Special Collections, available online.
  • J.K. Elliott, 'The Biblical manuscripts of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 1999; Vol. 81 (2), p. 3-50.