A recently discovered 1,500-year-old piece of Greek papyrus with writing contains the documented references to the biblical Last Supper and “manna from heaven” and may be one of the oldest Christian amulets, say researchers.
The world’s oldest surviving document was re-discovered by Dr Roberta Mazza looking through thousands of papyri in the library vault at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Research Institute in the UK.
The captivating papyrus document from Roman Egypt casts new light on early Christianity – just 300 years after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to the religion.
Mazza said that the oldest fragment was most probably worn inside a locket or into a pendant to protect wearers from danger.
In a statement, Mazza said, “This is an important and unexpected finding as it is one of the first recorded documents to use magic in the Christian context, while the first charm ever found to refer to the Eucharist – the Last Supper – as the manna of the Old Testament”.
The document, written in Greek, was under the possession of the library since 1901, but was largely ignored until Dr Mazza came across it.
The text on the papyrus is a combination of passages from Psalm 78:23-24 and Matthew 26:28-30, among others, said Mazza. “To this day, Christians use passages from the Bible as protective charms so our amulet marks the start of an important trend in Christianity.”
The translated text on the papyrus reads:
“Fear you all who rule over the earth.
Know you nations and peoples that Christ is our God.
For he spoke and they came to being, he commanded and they were created; he put everything under our feet and delivered us from the wish of our enemies.
Our God prepared a sacred table in the desert for the people and gave manna of the new covenant to eat, the Lord’s immortal body and the blood of Christ poured for us in remission of sins.”
Creases are clearly visible on the fragment, Mazza said, suggesting the papyrus was folded into a rectangular packet measuring 3 by 10.5 centimeters (1.2 by 4.1 inches), and may have either been placed in a box at home or worn around a person’s neck.
The amulet was written on the back of a receipt that seems to be for payment of a grain tax.
The almost illegible text says that the receipt was released in the village of Tertembuthis, which is now the Egyptian town of el-Ashmunein. Therefore we may reasonably guess that the person who re-used the back for writing the amulet was from that same village or the region nearby, although we cannot exclude other hypotheses,’ Mazza told.
Some words are misspelled and others are in the wrong order,’ Mazza said in the statement.
The work was presented by Mazza at this week’s international conference on papyri at the research institute of the varsity.