Similar Hands

Timothy J. Finney

Table of Contents

1. P.Oxy. 4496
2. Schøyen Collection MS 2634/2
3. Comparison
4. Dates

1. P.Oxy. 4496

One of the highlights of my academic life was to participate in the Papyrology Summer School conducted at Oxford University in 1997. The organizers were most generous in giving each participant an unpublished papyrus fragment to identify. (No doubt our mentors had already examined the fragments and assigned them according to what they knew about the interests of the participants.) As a further kindness, we were given the option to publish our fragments in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series.

I was given a high quality colour photocopy of my papyrus and allowed to examine the original in the papyrology rooms. One of the first things I noticed about my papyrus was the beauty of its writing:

I also noticed a line drawn above some of the letters. Could this be a Christian manuscript? Christians were in the habit of contracting certain words, just writing one or two initial and final letters, leaving out the central ones, then drawing a line above. The technical term for words written in this fashion is nomina sacra, meaning sacred names. Some not very sacred names are treated like this too. Here, the contraction is of ὁ ἀνθρωποσ (i.e. the man), with only the letters OANOC written out. The last letter is a lunate sigma. This contraction is unusual because it includes the preceding article, ὁ, under the line.

Next, I tried to make out some other words. One of the first that I noticed was δεσμων. I looked it up (I'm not very good at Greek) and found out that it means chains. On the other side, it was easy to see the word Italian. No, it couldn't be! Had I been given a New Testament papyrus? At the time, not many more than a hundred were known to exist. Some further checks confirmed it. The man in chains is Paul and the little fragment is from a copy of the Acts of the Apostles. This is how I was granted the rare privilege of editing a New Testament papyrus. P.Oxy. 4496 is now registered as a New Testament manuscript with Gregory-Aland number P112.

I had the distinct impression that I had seen the handwriting of this fragment before but couldn't remember where. I tried to find out but finally gave up, thinking that my mind must be playing tricks on me. Eleven years elapsed before serendipity led me back to where I had first seen the writing.

2. Schøyen Collection MS 2634/2

Another highlight of my academic life was visiting the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany. An hour spent talking to its researchers is as good as months reading books on the topic. I was there for two months in 1993-4 and went back for a colloquium in 2008. While at a gathering in the Institute's Bible Museum during the colloquium, I happened to spot what I had been searching for. It is a papyrus fragment of Origen's commentary on Genesis, a part of the Schøyen Collection, on permanent exhibit at the Institute:[1]

The Schøyen Collection MS 2634/2 (→). This image is reproduced by kind permission of the Schøyen Collection.[2]

3. Comparison

Comparing the two manuscripts letter by letter shows how similar their writing is:

Table 1. Comparison
Letter P.Oxy. 4496 Schøyen MS 2634/2

4. Dates

Dating manuscripts is an inexact art. In many cases the only guide is the style of handwriting, and that is true of these two manuscripts. When speculating on the date of P.Oxy. 4496, my first impression was that it belonged to the fourth century because its writing was similar to that found in the famous biblical codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. However, I was advised that the date was more likely to be fifth century, as reflected in the final text of my piece in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri:[3]

The hand is a large and carefully executed Biblical Majuscule... Although somewhat reminiscent of fourth-century hands, e.g. Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, it is heavier and more mannered, with marked chiaroscuro, and is thus closer to several hands assigned to the fifth century, e.g. Cavallo and Maehler, GBEBP (1987) 18a, 18b, 24a, and Codex Alexandrinus. On the other hand, the shading is less extreme, and the finials on horizontal elements less marked, than in the Vienna Dioscorides (GBEBP 25b), which can be dated c. AD 513.

It was therefore interesting to read that the editor of Schøyen MS 2634/2, M. Gronewald, preferred an early fourth century date for that manuscript, based on its handwriting:[4]

In der ist auf Turner, Greek Manuscripts 26 verwiesen, einen Aischylospapyrus, den Turner dem 3.-4.Jhdt., Cavallo dem 4.Jhdt. zuweist. Vielleicht empfiehlt sich für den Origenespapyrus eine präzisere Datierung ins frühe 4.Jhdt.

Whether these two manuscripts were copied by the same individual remains a mystery. If not by the same person, the writing represents a uniform style, perhaps the speciality of a particular school of calligraphers. Apart from scholarly consensus about when this style of handwriting flourished, there is nothing to prevent the manuscripts being dated even earlier. Eusebius (Church History 6.23.2) wrote this about the production of Origen's commentaries: For he dictated to more than seven amanuenses, who relieved each other at appointed times. And he employed no fewer copyists, besides girls who were skilled in elegant writing.

Would an equally beautiful copy of Origen's commentary on Genesis ever have been produced outside his workshop? It is not impossible that these two manuscripts are actual examples of the art practised by those girls skilled in elegant writing.


Cavallo, G. and H. Maehler. Greek Bookhands of the Early Byzantine Period A.D. 300-800. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 47. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1987.

Finney, Timothy J. 4496. Acts of the Apostles XXVI 31-32; XXVII 6-7. In The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 66, edited by N. Gonis, J. Chapa, W. E. H. Cockle, D. Obbink, P. J. Parsons, and J. D. Thomas, 5-7. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1999.

Gronewald, M. Ein patristischer Papyrus über die Willensfreiheit. ZPE 28, 1978, 272-273.

———. Origenes, Comm. in Gen. 1,14. ZPE 67, 1987, 56-58.

[1] M. Gronewald, Ein patristischer Papyrus über die Willensfreiheit, ZPE 28 (1978) 272-273; also by Gronewald, Origenes, Comm. in Gen. 1,14, ZPE 67 (1987) 56-58.

[2] Unfortunately, no image of the verso is available.

[3] 4496. Acts of the Apostles XXVI 31-32; XXVII 6-7, 5. "Chiaroscuro" refers to contrast between light and dark achieved by thin and broad ink strokes.

[4] Gronewald, Origenes, Comm. in Gen. 1,14, 56, note 3.