The Chester Beatty Papyrus of Revelation (P47): New Finds from an Old Treasure Trove

11/3/2020

By: Peter Malik, PhD, Guest Contributer

Peter Malik is Research Associate, Institut für Septuaginta- und biblische Textforschung, Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal/Bethel. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge (Peterhouse), focusing on the transmission of the New Testament in general and of the Book of Revelation in particular.

As a group, the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri remain the single most important find of early Christian manuscripts so far discovered and individually they have provided scholarship, and by extension the laity, with direct contact with the formative years of Christianity.1

So writes Charles Horton, the erstwhile curator of the Western Collection of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, over seven decades after Sir Frederic Kenyon first introduced the Beatty find to the general public. Penned in 2004, Horton’s bold statement still rings true today. Though biblical papyri do continue to be edited and published, as regards the extent and state of preservation there’s nothing quite like the Beatty and, to a slightly lesser degree, Bodmer collections.

Generally speaking, the Beatty biblical papyri have received a good deal of attention, particularly the manuscripts that New Testament scholars refer to as P45 and P46. The former preserves portions of the four canonical Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, while the latter preserves most of the Pauline corpus virtually intact. The third extensive New Testament papyrus in the Beatty collection is known as P47, which contains just about the middle third of the book of Revelation.

Just like the book of Revelation has been something of an outlier within the Christian canon, so also P47 has received comparatively little scholarly attention. This void in our knowledge of this important manuscript caught my attention in 2013, when I decided to make it the subject of my Cambridge doctoral thesis.

Papyrus 47—Late third century manuscript of Revelation on papyrus, Chester Beatty, Dublin.

Now, studying an ancient manuscript, especially to such an extent as I set out to do, can hardly be done without an autopsy, that is, an in-person study of the manuscript itself. At that time, I knew that Dan Wallace with his team at the CSNTM were planning to digitise the collection, which meant I’d have images to work with. What I didn’t know was that Tommy Wasserman, a senior colleague in the field and a member of the CSNTM board, had conspired with Dan to bring me to Dublin during the shoot! Thus, I was allowed to work with the team for the duration of three days to inspect the manuscript’s text and thus get me started in my initial thesis preparation.

One aspect of this stay that I would like to highlight is the inspection of problematic areas, where I had discovered (or I thought I had discovered) new readings on the basis of older images I had been using. For each of these, Dan was able to shoot the difficult areas using a microscope. Places that had seemed illegible or puzzling could now be read with much greater clarity. Most interestingly, using this technology we were able to confirm that, at a number of places, the scribe corrected his errors-in-the-making as he was copying the text. As a result, my edition of P47 attained a higher level of accuracy and the textual studies deriving from it can stand on a much firmer footing than has been possible hitherto. Here’s hoping that more people will take up the challenge and use the new data to extend our knowledge of these fascinating texts.

 

1Charles Horton, ‘The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri: A Find of the Greatest Importance’, in The Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels – The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel P45 (ed. Charles Horton; JSNTSup 285; London: T&T Clark, 2004), 149.