The early history of Christianity, because it occurred so many centuries ago, can seem somewhat remote and inaccessible. Over time that ancient history becomes shrouded in what is for many an almost ethereal character: more myth than reality. Rarely do we have access to tangible evidence of that which was created in antiquity.
Occasionally however, new remnants are discovered, thereby continually renewing and adding additional fiber to the historical record. Since its donation in 2007, there has been preserved in the Vatican Library something almost as foundational as the beginnings of the Church — a palpable object which confirms the historical, philosophical and literary premises of the Faith — a collection of papyri which bring to life the vibrant fidelity of our forebears.
Tradition says that these papyri, known as P75 by biblical scholars, were hand-delivered by St. Athanasius to St. Pachomius in present-day Egypt. While St. Pachomius is less known than St. Anthony of the desert and St Benedict, he was nevertheless the founder of Cenobitical monasticism, and one of the main fountainheads from which western monasticism sprung. Over the centuries, the gift of P75 from St. Athanasius to St. Pachomius would pass into memory and be buried in the sands of Egypt, where it lay preserved in clay jars before its discovery in the middle of the twentieth century.
The scholarly dating for P75 is between 175 and 225 AD; thus the papyri contain the oldest extant collection of the Gospels of Luke and John, indicating clear evidence of the ordering of the gospels as part of an ancient patrimony. Notably, while they predate the Codex Vaticanus (from which modern bibles are derived) by anywhere from 100 to 150 years, their remarkable consistency with that text lends significant authenticity to the historical integrity of our current Bibles.
The Hanna Papyrus also contains the oldest written copy of the Lord’s Prayer, and the oldest written copy of the Prologue to the Gospel of John. This Prologue, the words of which resonate with Christians around the world, summarizes in beautiful poetic language the Christian narrative of the universe, and our place within it.
As indicated earlier, P75 was found, after many centuries, in the Egyptian countryside. Originally deposited in the Bodmer Library in Switzerland, it was acquired in 2007 through the efforts of Frank, Sally, and Elizabeth Hanna, along with the Solidarity Association, and donated to the Vatican Library. It was subsequently named the Hanna Papyrus by scholars at the Library.