Deconstructing the Nash Papyrus

Seth Lipton

What is the Nash Papyrus?

The Nash Papyrus was named after W.L. Nash who acquired and presented it to Stanley A. Cook of Cambridge University in 1903.  It is a small piece of worn-out papyrus, upon which both the Ten Commandments and the Shema Yisrael (a Jewish prayer) are written in black ink.  “About one thing there can be no doubt.  There can be no doubt that it is a genuine relic of antiquity and not a forgery…  It may be safely said that no forger of antiquities has the palaeographical knowledge necessary for such work as this”. (Burkitt, p. 393)

The Nash Papyrus’ Appearance and Content:

Nash Papyrus

Image: Cambridge University Library (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Origin: Believed to have originated from Fayyum (Egypt).
Dates from: 150-100 BCE
Colour: Yellow papyrus with black ink
Language: Hebrew
Material: Papyrus
Condition: Some holes in the papyrus; 25th line partially visible
Preservation: The Nash Papyrus was folded rather than kept rolled as a scroll.  This is odd, since most papyri are in scrolls; papyrus tends to crack when folded.
Size: 140 mm(height) x 60 mm (width)
Format: Leaf (four fragments that make up the whole)
Content: Ten Commandments and Shema
Text Arrangement: In Columns

 

 

 

 

The Text

Nash Papyrus text

Text: Burkitt 395-396.

To the left you will find an English translation of the Nash Papyrus in its entirety.

The written text on the Nash Papyrus was difficult to photograph because the ink was too transparent, and cameras were not able to discern the ink through the papyrus.  For study purposes, a facsimile was created by F.C. Burkitt.  Once the facsimile was created, the work was translated into English.

In studying the text of the Nash Papyrus, paleographers realized that the text contained aspects of both Deuteronomy and Exodus, given the fact that it was common, in both Talmuds, to read the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) before the Shema.  This led scholars to believe that the Nash Papyrus must have been used in the daily worship of an Egyptian Jew.

The text of the Nash Papyrus helps us to better understand what the people of this ancient world held dear, some of which we continue to value to the present day. For example, to honour thy father, thy mother, and thy neighbour.  Phrases such as “Thou shalt not desire the house of thy neighbour, his field, or his slave, or his handmaid, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is thy neighbour’s”, help create a picture of human existence in the past which is fascinating.

Obvious Omission:

The version of the Ten Commandments used on the Nash Papyrus has an obvious omission in its wording.  The phrase that pertains to slavery or Exodus as a “house of bondage”, which can be found in other papyri from this era, is not included on the Nash Papyrus.  It is believed that this line was omitted because of the turbulence that existed in the Egyptian population of the time.  The authorities of the synagogue did not wish to refer to their homeland as a house of slaves, so it is believed that this line was deliberately excluded.

Why was the Nash Papyrus Folded?

Papyrus was typically kept as either a small flat sheet or glued together and rolled into a scroll or roll, so why was the Nash Papyrus folded?  With the brittle nature of papyrus, folding would be detrimental to its longevity.  We know, however, that the Nash Papyrus was folded.  We can infer from this that the papyrus was used for private use and that the individual preferred to keep the papyrus in a transportable format that was easily stored.  This supports Burkitt’s hypothesis that the Nash Papyrus was likely used by an Egyptian Jew for daily prayer.

Dating the Nash Papyrus

Albright table

Table from Albright, W. “A Biblical Fragment from the Maccabaean Age: The Nash Papyrus.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 56, No. 3 (1973): 145-176.

When scholars were trying to date the Nash Papyrus, they compared it to other known similar papyri, as seen in the following table, which demonstrates the lettering used on other known Hebrew papyri at the time.

When they noticed some inconsistencies with respect to letter shaping of the script on the Nash Papyrus, they compared these to other papyri.  This comparative study allowed them to date the Nash Papyrus to between 150-100 BCE.  Specifically, the bends that were seen in the Hebrew letters mem, kaf and nun were used to help determine its date.

 

 

What Have we Learned About the Nash Papyrus?

We have learned that the Nash Papyrus is an ancient Hebrew papyrus that is thought to have originated from Fayyum between 150-100 BCE.  It is a fascinating piece to explore, both in its form and its function.  The Nash Papyrus contains aspects of both Deuteronomy and Exodus in the contents of the text of the Ten Commandments and the Shema, with an obvious omission of the wording “house of bondage”, which help to provide clues of the time in which it was created.  The Nash Papyrus is likely to have existed during a turbulent time in Egypt, which explains the obvious omission of the phrase pertaining to slavery or Exodus.

The fact that the Nash Papyrus was folded rather than in the form of a scroll or roll helps to shed light on the assumption that it was likely used by an Egyptian Jew for daily worship.  A scroll or roll would have been far too bulky to use daily, while a folded papyrus would be easy to transport and store if need be.

Although researching the Nash Papyrus was not an easy feat, due to a limited amount of information surrounding it, it remains an extremely interesting paleographic and archeological discovery and I would highly recommend that we continue to explore the intricacies of the Nash Papyrus to find more of its hidden clues about the ancient society of Fayyum.

On a Personal Note

I had originally planned to research the stone slabs of the Ten Commandments, since the material form of the stones as a writing support was interesting to me.  However, after a few issues were pointed out to me by Professor Yin Liu, I decided to focus on a specific piece of work that contained the Ten Commandments.  This led me to focus on the Nash Papyrus, which I came across while looking for information on the Ten Commandments.

I am happy that I made the decision to research the Nash Papyrus.  It is an interesting piece of work to investigate.  Although limited information exists from previous scholars, this helped me to focus my research efforts.

Works Cited

Albright, W. “A Bliblical Fragment from the Macabaean Age: The Nash Papyrus.” Journal of Biblical Literature (1937): 145-176, No. 3.

Burkitt, F. “The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments.” The Jewish Quaterly Review 15 (1903): 392-408.

Creative Commons. https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-OR-00233. n.d. Image. 25 October 2020.

nttp://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk/petrie%20museum/pages/Petrie%2Museum%20(UCL)%20001.htm. n.d. Image. 25 October 2020.

 

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