P52 What is truth? Voiced by Canon Jim Foley

P52 What is truth? Voiced by Canon Jim Foley

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Let me introduce myself.   I am the anonymous author of the oldest copy of the Gospel of Saint John, known simply as P52. I’m afraid that amounts to only 14 lines of text. That is really all that is left of my original work comprising a few hundred pages. What follows is an attempt to explain how my text ended up in a rubbish dump in Egypt only to surface again, nearly two thousand years later, in a place of honour in an air-conditioned display cabinet in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. Quite an improvement on the rubbish dump.

I describe myself as ‘anonymous’ because all attempts to identify me have met with scant success. They say I probably came from Ephesus, now in modern Turkey, and must have been born into a relatively well-healed family. As my P52 indicates I had a command of the Greek language. Not everybody in those days could read and write and my writing may not be quite copperplate but it is clear and tidy and has been generally admired by palaeographers. It compares well with other contemporary texts. Handwriting so often tells you a lot about a person’s background and character. There is no means of knowing whether or not I was a professional scribe but at least I could write my name, which, unfortunately, I failed to do in this case.

There is reason to presume that my family were converts to Christianity and were fortunate in that we had, as our parish priest in Ephesus, a man who had been a disciple of Jesus and had Jesus’ mother, Mary, living under the same roof. He was generally referred to as the Beloved Disciple (John 19.26f). To cut a long story short, I was commissioned to make a copy of an earlier version of the life and teaching of Jesus, quite soon after it was first published. I decided to write on papyrus rather than on some of the other materials that were in use, and to produce a book rather than a scroll.

My copy was clearly popular and turned up all over the place, including on the other side of the Mediterranean, on the shores of Egypt. I can only speculate that some wealthy merchant had acquired it, and took it on his travels with him. All this happened between 100 and 150 AD and there my story might well have petered out. My codex simply disappeared for the best part 2000 years!

One day, however, two archaeologists, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, were rummaging in a rubbish dump, as archaeologists do, and chanced upon an ancient library buried in the rubble. That was in 1868 in a site in Egypt with the unusual name of Oxyrhynchus which evidently refers to a species of ‘sharp-nosed’ fish found in the nearby River Nile. Mind you, Oxyrhynchus was not always a rubbish dump, nor was there anything fishy about it. In its heyday it was a prosperous provincial capital and a Christian Diocese with ten parishes. The two archaeologists unearthed a massive collection of texts, mostly only fragments from classical Greek and Hebrew literature, mixed up with hymns and commercial accounts, billets-doux and not so billets-doux. Most of the documents were written on papyrus and were eventually catalogued under the letter P (for Papyrus).

Many years passed before anybody took a closer look at my P52. One enlightened scholar, Colin H.Roberts, got his pince-nez reading glasses on and, in no time, identified what was left of my text as a passage from the Gospel of Saint John. He published his findings in 1934. In fact P52 was composed of two passages from the same chapter because there was writing on both sides of the fragment: John18.31-33 (front) and 18.37-38 (back). Both were to do with the trial of Jesus before Pilate. Roberts reached the conclusion that all the evidence pointed to a date early in the second century AD.

Species of Oxyrhynchus fish

Species of Oxyrhynchus fish

Although the fragment contains only the words or parts of words that escaped the attentions of the Oxyrhynchus Cleansing Department, it is an easy matter to reconstruct the original text around them. This text corresponds exactly with the most modern Greek versions of the same passage. In other words, no matter how many thousands of times the Greek text was copied by scribes down the centuries, with myself among the first copyists, we have every reason to be confident that the text read today is substantially the same as this earliest copy from the beginning of the second century AD. It is equally reasonable to conclude that my copy corresponds exactly with the original passage as it came from the hand of the evangelist himself.

The following is a reconstructed translation of P52:

John 18.31-32

The Jews said to him: It is not lawful for us to put to death

any man This was to fulfil the word which Jesus had spoken

to show by what death he was to die.

Pilate entered the praetorium again

and called Jesus and said to him

Are you the King of the Jews?


John 18.37-38

Pilate said to him So you are a king

Jesus answered you say that I am a king.

For this I was born, for this I came into the world,

To bear witness to the truth

Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice

Pilate said to him What is truth?


Even if nothing more than this tiny fragment of the Gospel of Saint John had survived, we would surely be captivated by what it has to tell us about the world in which we live. It describes a situation that has repeated itself down the centuries – the confrontation between the abuse of absolute power and the fragile triumph of truth.

P52 is the arena in which this drama is acted out, as it records for posterity, the confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate is the embodiment of imperialism at its most manipulative. It fell to him to administer justice and all he can think to do is wash his hands of this case, even though he could find no trace of guilt. Little did he realise that in washing his hands he set a precedent for every devious tyrant and petty coward for centuries to come (Matthew 27.24).

He was under pressure from the establishment who were pressing for the death sentence. His wife was having nightmares and was breathing down his neck to ‘take nothing to do with this innocent man’ (Matthew 27.19). Pilate was more interested in saving his own skin than in administering justice. Indeed, he was even more scared of his wife and her tantrums than he was of the hostile crowd outside his palace door.

Pontius Pilate turned on his heels and got back into the security of his fortress as quickly as his legs would carry him without waiting for for an answer from Jesus to his final interrogation: What is truth?

We are left to answer that question ourselves.

Christ before Pilate by Tintoretto (1518-1594)

Christ before Pilate by Tintoretto (1518-1594)

Tintoretto captures well the drama of the scene acted out between Pilate and Jesus. I like to think that he had me in mind when he included, in the corner of his painting, the figure of a scribe taking careful note of that fateful dialogue.

To view this article in PDF click here.

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