The discovery of the Chester Beatty Papyri
- The following was new information to me and might be interesting to all. It is taken from:
Charles Horton "The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri: A Find of the Greatest Importance" in "The Earliest Gospels", p. 149-160, London, 2004, JSNT, Supplement series, no. 258
A memorandum in the Chester Beatty archives, 're Discovery of the Chester Betty Biblical Papyri' and dated 20 April 1934, provides some further detail:
** start memorandum **
The Papyri in question were found in three earthenware jars about 1928-1930 by some Arabs that were digging near the monastery [here the text is followed by blank spaces]. The jars [ ... ] were found a few feet below the surface in the sand. They were on top of a wooden coffin [ ... ] in approximately the position shown in the sketch below [ ... ]
The jars were about 14 to 15 [inches] high and about 8-10 [inches] wide [ ... ] One of the jars contained the Papyri in more or less dust. I understand that a few fragments were picked out but broadly speaking this jar yielded practically nothing.
The other two jars contained papyri in fairly good condition. They were placed upright in the jars. They were shoved in rather loosely and there were no bindings. The leaves, however. were held together in some cases by binding cord, the holes of which are shown in the margins of many of the papyri leaves.
There are a series of pages from the New Testament that seem to have had originally about 26 lines and they were in pretty good condition, the bottom margin and a few lines being missing. These apparently were found in one of the jars.
The other jar contained a portion of the Old Testament on very long sheets of papyri. These had been bent double and put in the jar [ ... ] These were taken out of the jar and placed in moist (Berseem) [Egyptian clover] which made the papyri moist enough to straighten out. This was done. These pages are still in the hands of the Egyptian. A few have been photographed and before photographing they were shown to a bishop of the Greek Church who pronounced them Third Century and stated that they were portions of the Prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah. I have seen fifteen leaves and I understand he has a number more but he will not state how many. They are in fine condition (outside of being slightly damaged in the centre where they were bent.)
The coffin on which the three jars were found was of wood and broken, and close to the coffin a glass lamp was found. Plain glass (not colored) with date of glass on the outside of the lamp.25
** end memorandum **
[The memorandum includes several rough sketches, which depict the jars on the coffin, the folded codex and a sample page layout showing dimensions, positioning of binding cord and size of margins. It was compiled by an unknown author 'based on a conference with Shaker Farag. March 17 and 18 1934'. An annotation by Beatty's secretary records that it was sent to Beatty on 20 November 1934.]
This memorandum, with its carefully omitted details regarding the exact location, raises several questions. one of which concerns early Christian burial practices and in particular, the status of the individual who was buried with the equivalent in effect of carefully positioned canopic jars, the contents of which would surely have been as vital for the afterlife as any embalmed organ in ancient Egyptian belief. If this account is correct, it would also appear to dismiss the suggestion that the papyri formed part of an early Christian library, or if they did, then these books were redundant as scribal exemplars at the time of the burial. It would also certainly follow that these books were not casually hidden away during some period of persecution or disturbance with the intention of retrieval but were part of the funerary process.
Kenyon's vague description of the discovery and his inference that they came from the Fayum, must be viewed against Beatty's fear of competition from other private and academic collectors. the desire to obtain the complete find and the shady world of the Egyptian dealers, 'whose statements as to provenance are not always reliable'. [Kenyon, I, p. 5. In a reply to a query where Beatty obtained his books, his Librarian replied: 'Sir Chester buys in many places [ ... ] and from many sources, and for various reasons it is not advisable to disclose the position of the pool in which a big fish has been caught. There are too many anglers about!']
[ ... ] Later Professor Carl Schmidt made his own enquires and he concluded that the papyri had in fact came from Aphroditopolis (modern Atfih), situated on the opposite bank of the Nile to the Fayum. His account claimed that they were found in clay pots', not in a grave but in a cave.
Wieland Willker, Bremen, Germany