Rare fragment of early copy of Gospel goes on sale

Fri Nov 28, 2008 12:32pm EST
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - An unusually large fragment from possibly the oldest copy of part of the Gospel of John will go on sale next month, when the torn piece of papyrus with Greek writing is expected to fetch up to 300,000 pounds ($460,000).

The fragment is believed to date to 200 AD, less than 170 years after the crucifixion of Christ, when Christianity was still illegal and around 100 years after experts believe the original Gospel was first written.

"This is either the first or the second oldest copy of this part of the text of the Gospel of John," Sotheby's specialist Timothy Bolton told Reuters as he held the document displayed between two sheets of clear plastic.

"It is one of the finest and most celebrated of Gospel fragments, as there are very few pieces of this spectacular quality."

The appearance of page number 74 in one corner shows the leaf came from a relatively large volume of the whole Gospel, he explained, and adds to the rarity of the piece.

Its Greek text is an account of Jesus preaching in the temple, where people challenge his right to give evidence on his own behalf. It includes the cryptic and prophetic words: "Whither I go, ye cannot come."

The fragment was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt at the site of the important early Christian community at Oxyrhynchus, about 120 miles from Cairo. It is believed to have been written in Alexandria.

Most finds from the site ended up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum, although some pieces, including the fragment, were sent to seminaries and colleges.   Continued...

<p>A fragment from a copy of the Gospel of John, circa 200AD, is displayed at Sotheby's auctioneers in London, November 28, 2008. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett</p>