“Peter you’ve always been hot-tempered…” The Gospel of Mary in Manchester (P.Ryl. 463)

The case with the Gospel of Mary fragment in the Crawford room

P.Ryl. 463: The Gospel of Mary

I’ve recently realised that few people in Manchester know that one of the two extant Greek fragments of the Gospel of Mary is in the John Rylands Library, and now on exhibition. The gospel in question is an apocryphal (a writing that has not been included later in the Church canon of the Bible) where a Mary – possibly Mary of Magdala, but this is uncertain since other Christian women brought this name – has a central role in the inner circle of Jesus’ first disciples.

There’s no surviving extant copy of this book, but only three fragmentary manuscripts are preserved from antiquity (P.Ryl. 463, P.Oxy 3525 and P.Berol. 8502). On the basis of these, scholars have reconstructed the Gospel main content as follows. It started with Jesus, the Saviour, appearing to the disciples after the resurrection. He gives a speech and instructs them on how to preach the gospel, and then leaves. The disciples, however, feel discomforted and are afraid to go out. At this point Mary stands up and reassures the others. Under Peter’s invitation she reports some hidden teachings that the Saviour in a vision reserved only to her. At the end of her speech, Andrew and Peter react with disbelief, while Levi trusts Mary and goes out to preach her Gospel.

A closer look at the Rylands fragment

The Rylands fragment was purchased with others in Egypt on behalf of the library by J. Rendel Harris in 1917, but was recognised as “The Gospel of Mary” only later by C. Roberts when he published the third volume of the Catalogue (ed. 1938, pp. 18-23).

It came from Oxyrhynchus as some notes on the envelope where it was kept before edition and conservation revealed. It is tiny (ab. 8.9 x 9.9 cm) and written on both sides. This shows that it was originally part of a codex, a book composed by sheets of papyrus folded and then stitched together in a way to obtain an artefact very similar to our paper books. In fact the numbers of the pages, κα (21) and κβ (22), are still visible on top of each side. We have no idea of what the entire ancient codex-book contained originally. The Coptic version of the Gospel of Mary now in Berlin comes from a codex collecting also other three apocryphal works, the Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ and the Act of Peter (P. Berol. 8502). In the Berlin papyrus the title “Gospel of Mary” is added at the end of the last page as it sometimes happens in ancient manuscripts (colophon), our fragment unfortunately breaks at the end and the line reporting the title is supplied by scholars, but actually lost.

Thanks to the Coptic more extensive version, we now know that what is preserved in Manchester seems to be the final part of the gospel. On the basis of the Coptic text Roberts estimated that the writing on the Manchester pages should have occupied an area of about 7.5 x 12 cm therefore we may roughly estimate an original leaf measuring with margins just a little bit more than this. The Rylands papyrus and P.Oxy. 3525 have been dated to the early 3rd century, while the Berlin Coptic codex to the 5th century. All the copies are dated on palaeographical ground (i.e. analysing features of the handwriting and comparing it with that of firmly dated papyri, not an infallible method but the best we have…).

I played a little with the tiny fragment, making my own translation of it. I put in square brackets words that are not clearly preserved on the papyrus. I tried to respect the line division as much as possible. If you compare my translation with that of the Catalogue you’ll see that some words were more legible at the time of the first publication. In fact the ink seemed to have deteriorated or even faded away in some part of the papyrus.

When only three fragmentary copies of a work (of which the most extensive one is in a different language) are available it is a challenge to establish ‘the text’ as it should have been. To complicate the situation further, as noticed in an excellent book on the scribes who transmitted the first copies of early Christian literature, early Christian manuscripts show a very high rate of variations and differences.[1] We should bear in mind that texts were extremely fluid in antiquity, and what we have are fragmentary texts survived by chance, even thrown away at some point as it was the case of this fragment that comes from the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus.

On the right top of the first line of the text on the recto (p. 21) there are some traces of ink that will be investigated next year with the help of new imaging technologies.

English translation of P.Ryl. 463, images from the John Rylands Library database: 21 (recto) and 22 (verso).

21

for the remaining of the course of time

of the aeon, [I will find] rest in silence.”

When she had told these things, Mary went silent

as the saviour had spoken thus far.

Andrew said: “Brothers,

what do you think about these discourses? As [for myself]

I do not believe that [the sa-]

viour said these words, for it seems [to contra-]

dict his thoughts. When the saviour was asked about these matters, he [2]

spoke to a woman in secret and [not open-]

ly so that all of us would have lis[ten]

[at something] more worthy of mention[…]

(papyrus breaks off here)

22

of the savior.” Levi said to Peter:

“Peter you’ve always been hot-tempered

and so now you question this

woman [as] if we were her adversaries.

If the saviour deemed her worthy,

who are you to set her at naught?

For knowing her thoroughly, he

loved her steadily. Rather let us

be ashamed and having put on

the perfect man, we will accomplish

what has been ordered to us, to preach

the gospel without divisions or rules as

[the saviour said.”] Having said this, Le-

[vi left and] began pr[eaching]

[the Gospel according to Mary]

(the papyrus breaks off here)

If you want to know more about this Gospel and the other copies, I recommend C. Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, Oxford 2007 (with some differences in the reading and translations from what you have here and in the Catalogue) and K.L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, Santa Rosa Ca. 2003.

As you may already know, professor Karen King of Harvard University has recently announced the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment dating to the 4th century where according to her interpretation Jesus mentions his wife (you can read a pre-edition and interpretation of the fragment here). This gospel, if not a forgery as some scholars think, would belong to the same group of early Christian gospels as the Rylands fragment that gives us images of Jesus and his inner circle and family different from those later established as ‘normal’, ‘canonical’. Texts like the Gospel of Mary and many others did not find their way into the New Testament canon, were later declared deviant and therefore went lost till when they reappeared from the sands of Egypt. We are now more aware about diversities in the early Christian movement thanks to these discoveries.

You can have an overview on the current, lively debate on the so-called Jesus wife papyrus fragment in the excellent summary published on Rogueclassicism Blog. Challenges to the authenticity have been moved, among others, by Alin Suciu on his blog, that I recommend following.


[1] K. Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters. Literacy, Power, and the Transmission of Early Christian Literature, Oxford 2000, p. 106: ‘Among the 5,400 Greek manuscripts of New Testament texts, for example, no two are identical; more relevant, perhaps, is the fact that 52 extant manuscripts that can be dated to the period from the second century to the fourth exhibit more differences and variations than the thousands of later manuscripts.’

[2] The text here differs from the Coptic version. The Berlin papyrus reports Peter as the one who moves the following points while Peter is mentioned in our fragment only on the other side of the papyrus.  Some scholars solve this passage this way: Being asked, <Peter said>: “The saviour etc. …” However ‘Peter said’ is not in the text: was this a slip of the scribe while copying or are the two versions depending on different traditions? Maybe Peter appeared in the lines that now are lost, but this is not certain.

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