CAIRO: A 1,500-year-old Egyptian papyrus that contains the earliest known reference to the Last Supper and “manna from heaven” as a protective charm has been rediscovered in the vaults of John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
Dr. Roberta Mazza, a research fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, told The Cairo Post Sunday she accidentally discovered the papyrus folded and placed inside a pendant while archiving unpublished historical documents that are kept in the library’s vaults.
“It is the earliest surviving document to use the Christian Eucharist liturgy—which outlines the Last Supper—as a protective charm,” Mazza said.
The papyrus, which has been amongst the collection of the library since 1901, was written on an ancient version of a recycled papyrus and was analyzed using spectral imaging techniques, Mazza said.
On the back of the papyrus sheet, a faint lettering, thought to be a grain tax payment receipt, is to be seen, which according to Mazza indicates that the papyrus had been reused by a local from the ancient city of Hermoupolis, modern Ashmunein, 270 kilometers south of Cairo.
“The signature of a tax collector from Ashmunein is to be seen on the back of the papyrus,” she added.
“The amulet maker would have cut a piece of the receipt, written the charm on the other side and then he would have folded the papyrus to be kept in a locket or pendant. It is for this reason the tax receipt on the exterior was damaged and faded,” she added.
The papyrus was written in ancient Greek script, which along with the Coptic script, was widely used in ancient Egypt, Mazza said.
“The papyrus, which was examined using radiocarbon dating, dates back to the period between 547 A.D. and 600 A.D.,” she said, adding that the text of the amulet is an original combination of biblical passages including Psalm 78:23-24 and Matthew 26:28-30 among others.
It was probably brought from Egypt by an antiquities collector before it was purchased by archaeologists in the U.K. in the early late 19th century, and had been held at the John Rylands Library since 1901, but no one had realized its significance, Mazza said.
“We do not know either the owner of the amulet and the papyrus or where it was found,” she added.
Mazza said that the fragment is also an example of Christianity and the Bible becoming meaningful to ordinary people, not just the priests and the elite.
“It’s doubly fascinating because the amulet maker clearly knew the Bible, but made lots of mistakes: some words are misspelled and others are in the wrong order,” she said. “This suggests that he was writing by heart rather than copying it.”