P137 Took So Long To Publish, Most People Forgot It Even Existed

Background information

For the textual critics and history nerds out there, you might recall that in some time around 2011 a new Greek papyrus manuscript of Mark was “discovered”. By discovered, I mean it was found already existing in a collection of manuscripts, where it has been housed since 1903. It was actually discovered by Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt. Unlike codex Sinaiticus, these documents were all literally retreated from a trash dump, outside of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

The reason why it took over 100 years to get news of this discovery was that the papyri collected from Egypt by Grenfell and Hunt contained thousands of fragment, some no bigger than a finger. Over the years (actually, a century) they have been translated, pieced together, and documented slowly. P137 was around for a long time, it’s just that no one had yet gotten around to translating it, analyzing it, and deciding if it needed further research. After all, only so many experts work in this field.

P137 Analysis

P137 is a single sheet fragment that would have comprised a codex quire leaf. For those not familiar with book binding or codices, a quire is a chunck of pages that are sewn down the middle to create a folded set of pages. Think of it as a multi-page church bulletin that is folded down the middle. Just like a church bulletin, if a full page is removed, the result is a full page with a left and right side and most likely unrelated text. This is because the pages are layered before being sewn and folded.

In the example below, leaf #1 (on the bottom) contains pages 1,2 & 11,12. Imagine that this is a codex of Mark; naturally, the text on pages 1 & 2 will be a few chapters before the text of 11 & 12. However, if the top leaf is removed, the top of the leaves will actually be a continuous reading, while the bottom side will be disconnected.

Quire folds
Quire folds
Bible Binding
Folds in quire book binding

P137 contains two different snippets of Mark’s gospel. It has a reading from chapter 1, verses 7-9 and verses 16-18. This means that p137 was not the top leaf in the quire but likely close to the top. Could more pieces of the quire be found within the collection of fragments from 1903? I think it is very likely that another fragment could be surfaced.

The translation of the passage is below. It should be mentioned that this fragment closely follows the Vaticanus codex which is an Alexandrian text type. Given the location that this papyrus was found, it should not be a surprise that it follows other texts from the Alexandrian family.


. . . . . . .
]μ̣ ̣
[ ] ̣
[ i 7
] τ̣ω̣ν̣[υ]π̣[οδημα
των αυτου εγ]ω εβαπτ̣ιϲα υμ̣α̣ϲ̣ υδ̣
[ατι 8
αυτοϲ δε βαπ]τ̣ιϲει ϋμ̣
[α]ϲ̣ π̣̅ν̣̅ι̅αγ̣
[ιω και 9
5 εγενετο εν εκε]ιναιϲ ̣ ̣[ται]ϲ η̣μερ̣

. . . . . . .
] ̣ ̣
[ [16]
εν] τ̣η θαλ̣α̣
[ϲϲη ηϲαν γαρ αλιειϲ
και ειπε]ν αυτοιϲ δευ̣τ̣ε̣ ο̣π̣[ιϲω μου και 17
ποιηϲω] ϋμαϲ γενεϲθαι αλι[̣ειϲ ανθρωπω(ν)
5 και ευθυ]ϲ̣ αϕεντε[ϲ] τ̣α δικ[τυα 18

Of his sandals, I baptize you in water but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.  And it happened in those days…..

In the sea.  For they were fishers.  And he said to them, come after me and I will make you fishers of People.  And immediately, leaving their nets….

Translation from Bart Ehrman’s personal blog.

The formatting of the text column is depicted by D. Obbink & D. Colomo, in “5345. MARK I 7–9, 16–18“, published by the Egyptian Exploration Society.

Text of P137
Text of P137: sourced from “https://www.ees.ac.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=45d9d9f7-8df4-4e8f-9eb5-9af2b048ef60

From looking at the passage, it appears to be of the most primitive form of Mark. Mark’s gospel, especially in the oldest manuscripts, tends to read choppy and often with only slight details. This fragment appears to read just like it would be expected to read; without later scribal refinements or harmonizations.

Dating P137

Paleographers have dated this fragment of Mark to the late 2nd century to the early 3rd century. A snippet on the dating was released by the EES and it indicated that the style of the font is similar to other Greek literature from the late 2nd century.

Dating this hand presents even more difficulties than usual, since the sample is so small
and damaged and the scribe inconsistent. Its most indicative feature is the juxtaposition of
wide and narrow letters. Th is appears, in a much more emphatic form, in Turner’s ‘Formal
Mixed’ style, whose objectively datable examples belong to the later second and the third century; it appears also in dated documents from the reign of Hadrian on (GMAW ² p. 22).

For the more informal version in 5345 we could compare III 454 (+ P. Laur. IV 134 + PSI II 119,
LDAB 3798; plate in GMAW ² no. 62), Plato, Gorgias, assigned to the later second century (the
military accounts on the recto, ChLA IV 264, postdate 111). But this is taller and more angular.
A closer parallel is XIII 1622 (pl. IV; LDAB 4052), Th ucydides II, assigned to the fi rst half of
the second century since the contract on the verso (XIV 1710) is dated 148: note the narrow ε
and ϲ, broad forms of the rounded letters, and in particular the shapes of μ and υ. Among New
Testament papyri we fi nd a similar script in LXIV 4403, Matthew (?¹0³, LDAB 2938, perhaps
the same codex as XXXIV 2683 + LXIV 4405), which the editor assigned to the late second
or early third century and P. Orsini and W. Clarysse to the third (ETh L 88 (2012) 471). P. Mich.
III 138, Acts (?³8, LDAB 2855), generally assigned to the later third or earlier fourth century,
off ers another parallel, but to our eye one more developed and therefore later than 5345. All in
all, we incline to assign 5345 to the (later) second or (earlier) third century.


Such a small sample of text can be difficult to date precisely, so the dating of this fragment is somewhat subjective. However, the use of Nomina sacra in the fragment suggest that it’s not a direct copy of what the original was. A Nomina sacra is when a scribe shortens a name or title that occurs quite frequently. This was common among scribes due to the long time it took to make copies as well as the cost of parchment. By shortening a name the scribe would save time and money.

Nomina Sacra in Codex Vaticanus John
Nomina Sacra in Codex Vaticanus John

Some may recognize the use of G-d as a way to not misprint or mess up the word God, however, this is a mythical practice. While it is true that at some point Hebrew scribes would change the name of YHWH to Adonai, in an effort to not mess up the sacred name; it is not correct to attribute the use of nomina sacra to this same function. Below is a list of common words and names that were typical to shorten using nomin sacra.

English Meaning Greek Word Nominative (Subject) Genitive (Possessive)
God Θεός ΘΣ ΘΥ
Lord Κύριος ΚΣ ΚΥ
Jesus Ἰησοῦς ΙΣ ΙΥ
Christ/Messiah Χριστός ΧΣ ΧΥ
Son Υἱός ΥΣ ΥΥ
Spirit/Ghost Πνεῦμα ΠΝΑ ΠΝΣ
David Δαυὶδ ΔΑΔ
Cross/Stake Σταυρός ΣΤΣ ΣΤΥ
Mother Μήτηρ ΜΗΡ ΜΗΣ
God Bearer i.e. Mother of God Θεοτόκος ΘΚΣ ΘΚΥ
Father Πατήρ ΠΗΡ ΠΡΣ
Israel Ἰσραήλ ΙΗΛ
Savior Σωτήρ ΣΗΡ ΣΡΣ
Human being/Man Ἄνθρωπος ΑΝΟΣ ΑΝΟΥ
Jerusalem Ἱερουσαλήμ ΙΛΗΜ
Heaven/Heavens Οὐρανός ΟΥΝΟΣ ΟΥΝΟΥ

(The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Philip Comfort and David Barrett [1999])

The reason why nomina sacra is a sign of a copy not an original or a copy of an original is because most scribes or authors who made original works did not need to use such a device because they were making just one copy. They were not employed to copy the same text over and over again. It would provide no gain to shorten a bunch of words, especially if the audience was not familiar with the material at hand. However, later scribes and the general Christian population could fill in the shortened words mentally because they knew the general flow of the stories and the contexts.

The importance of P137

While it would be nice to have a more complete quire to look at, we can still rest assured that this early fragment provides yet another attestation to Mark’s gospel and the rapid spread of it’s copies throughout the lands. Even though, Mark was not heavily used in many circles because nearly all of Mark was copied by Matthew, it’s witness was still important to early Christians.

PAPYRUS 137 (P137): The Recently Published Earliest Manuscript Fragment of Mark



All nomina sacra and dates of manuscripts taken from Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts – Philip Comfort and David Barrett (1999)

(Featured image P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345. Public Domain)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.