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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.
The U.S. divinity school where it ended up sold the fragment in New York in 2003, and it fetched $400,000, which Sotheby's said was the highest price ever paid at public sale for an early Christian manuscript.
Another highlight at the London sale on December 3 is a large compendium containing a previously unknown, 14th century manuscript of Medieval traveler Marco Polo's adventures along the Silk Road and into China the century before.
According to the auctioneer, only six manuscripts of Polo's account have appeared on the market in the last century and none since one was sold by Sotheby's in 1930.
Bolton said the Latin volume was probably copied by a monk from a selection of manuscripts in the library of Glastonbury Abbey which are now almost completely lost or destroyed.
It is believed to have passed into the possession of the Earl of Devon in the 16th century and has passed by descent to the current owner, the 18th Earl of Devon.
As well as the Marco Polo account, there are sections on British history, near- and far-eastern affairs and a collection of prophecies.
"This thing has been in England since the 1380s and you could go to a Medieval library and pick this volume off the shelf, and read not only about China but about the whole world wrapped up in one document," said Bolton.
The compendium is expected to fetch 200-300,000 pounds
Editing by Paul Casciato