THE NASH PAPYRUS: The Hebrew Manuscript

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How do paleographers place an accurate date on very old ancient Hebrew Old Testament Bible manuscripts? In 1948, this was the problem that was before Dr. John C. Trever (1916 – 2006) was a Biblical scholar and archaeologist, who was involved in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Dr. Trever first laid eyes on the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, he pondered just this question. He was well aware that it was the intriguing Hebrew letters themselves that would give him the age of the manuscript. Yet, with what manuscripts could it be compared. He rightly concluded that he must compare them with the script of the Nash Papyrus. You are likely asking, why, what is the Nash Papyrus?

The Nash Papyrus is a collection of four papyrus fragments acquired in Egypt in 1898,[1] inscribed with a Hebrew text which mainly contains the Ten Commandments and the first part of the Shema Yisrael prayer,[2] in a form that differs substantially from the later, canonical Masoretic text and is in parts more similar to the chronologically closer Septuagint. It has been suggested that the text might have been the daily worship of a Jew living in Egypt at the time.[3] The fragments comprise a single sheet and are not part of a scroll. The papyrus is of unknown provenance, although it is allegedly from Fayyum.[4] The text was first described by Stanley A. Cook in 1903. The value of this papyrus fragment is its age. Though dated by Cook to the second century C.E., subsequent reappraisals have pushed the date of the fragments back to about 150-100 B.C.E.[5] The papyrus was by far the oldest Hebrew manuscript fragment known at that time, before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.[6] The papyrus fragments were acquired by W. L. Nash in 1902, the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, who attained them from an Egyptian dealer. It was published by S. A. Cooke in 1903 in that society’s Proceedings and was presented to Cambridge University Library, England, where it has continued until this day.[7]

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The Contents of the Nash Papyrus

The Nash Papyrus merely contains four fragments of 24 lines of Hebrew text, measuring some three by five inches [7.5 by 12.5 cm]. These 24 lines with a few letters missing at each edge contain the Ten Commandments in Hebrew and a short middle text, followed by the start of the Shema Yisrael prayer.[8] The text of the Ten Commandments combines parts of the version from Exodus 20:2-17 with parts from Deuteronomy 5:6-21. A curiosity is its omission of the phrase “house of bondage,” used in both versions, about Egypt — perhaps a reflection of where the papyrus was composed.

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Textual Basis

Some (but not all) of the papyrus’ substitutions from Deuteronomy are also found in the version of Exodus in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Pentateuch from about 280-150 B.C.E, made in Alexandria. The Septuagint also interpolates before Deuteronomy 6:4 the preamble to the Shema found in the papyrus, and the Septuagint also agrees with a couple of the other variant readings where the papyrus departs from the standard Hebrew Masoretic text. The ordering of the later commandments in the papyrus (Adultery-Murder-Steal, rather than Murder-Adultery-Steal) is also that found in most texts of the Septuagint.

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The papyrus preamble before Shema Yisrael,[9] also found in the Septuagint, is taken from Deuteronomy 4:45, which is the only time the recurring formula “This is the commandment(s) and rules and teachings…” mentions the Exodus from Egypt. The Nash preamble correctly cites Moses as the speaker rather than God, as in the Septuagint. The insertion of Deuteronomy 4:45 before Shema Yisrael in the papyrus and especially the Septuagint, which has two preambles in the same section: Deuteronomy 6:1 and the interpolation to Deuteronomy 6:3, was probably done to distance the central Shema Yisrael prayer from its context: sections dealing with the entry to the Promised Land of Canaan. A section of scripture beginning with Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema, was frequently repeated. The verse reads: “Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.” The Tetragrammaton (four letters), JHVH, “Jehovah,” in this verse is observable twice on the last line of the papyrus. It can also be found in five other places. In addition, it appears once with its first letter missing.

The Nash Papyrus is 2,200 years old and is a collection of four papyrus fragments acquired in Egypt in 1898, inscribed with a Hebrew text which mainly contains the Ten Commandments and portions of Exodus and Deuteronomy. God’s personal name in Hebrew characters (the Tetragrammaton) appears seven times in the fragment.

Likely Use

According to the Talmud, it was once customary to read the Ten Commandments before saying the Shema. As Burkitt put it, “it is therefore reasonable to conjecture that this Papyrus contains the daily worship of a pious Egyptian Jew, who lived before the custom came to an end.”[10] It is thus believed that the papyrus probably consisted of a liturgical document, specifically the constituents of a Phylactery,[11] which may have purposely synthesized the two versions of the Commandments, rather than directly from Scripture. However, the papyrus’ similarities with the Septuagint, support a possibility that a Hebrew text of the Pentateuch was in circulation in Egypt in the 2nd century B.C.E., and served both the Nash papyrus and the Septuagint translation as a source, but which differs significantly from the modern Jewish Masoretic Text. Even though the Nash Papyrus is no longer the earliest-known Hebrew Old Testament manuscript, it is still of great interest and very valuable.

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We now return to 1948, when Dr. Trever was examining a color slide of the Nash Papyrus with the Dead Sea Isaiah scroll, he meticulously paid special attention at how the individual letters were formed and shaped. Beyond any reasonable doubt, they were very similar to one another. Yet, the skeptic part of his mind was in overload that this incredible newly discovered manuscript could perhaps be dated as early in date as the Nash Papyrus. However, in time, this would prove to be the case, as the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah also dated to the second century B.C.E.!

By Edward D. Andrews and Wikipedia

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[1] “Nash Papyrus”. Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

[2] F. C. Burkitt (April 1904). “The Nash Papyrus. A New Photograph”. The Jewish Quarterly Review. University of Pennsylvania Press. Vol. 16, No. 3: 559–561.

[3] Burkitt, F.C.The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten CommandmentsThe Jewish Quarterly Review15, 392-408 (1903)

[4] “Encyclopedia Judaica: Nash Papyrus”Jewish Virtually Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

[5] “The Nash Papyrus – An Ancient Witness”. United Israel World Union. Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

[6] “The Christian canon”Enciclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

[7] “Nash Papyrus”. Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

[8] F. C. Burkitt (April 1904). “The Nash Papyrus. A New Photograph”. The Jewish Quarterly Review. University of Pennsylvania Press. Vol. 16, No. 3: 559–561.

[9] Shema Yisrael (or Sh’ma Yisrael; Hebrew: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; “Hear, [O] Israel”) is a prayer. It is also the first two words of a section of the Torah and is the title (better known as The Shema) of a prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services.

[10] Burkitt, F.C.The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten CommandmentsThe Jewish Quarterly Review15, 392-408 (1903)

[11] “Nash Papyrus”. Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

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