You could have bought an ancient religious text online for less than $100.
The papyrus — called the “Willoughby Papyrus” since it belonged to Harold Willoughby, a University of Chicago professor, according to the eBay listing — didn’t stay there for long. Dr. Geoffrey Smith, who researches Christianity at the University of Texas, contacted the seller and asked if he could research the fragment, The Times reported.
“I thought, 'This can’t be allowed to sell on eBay,'” Smith told The Times. “It will just disappear into a private collection.”
After receiving the papyrus, Smith presented his findings this past week at a conference in Atlanta.
The papyrus, which is from around 250 to 350 A.D, is about the size of a credit card and contains about six lines from the Gospel of John.
The text is unique since it is written on an “unused school rather than a codex,” which was the new technology of book writing for Christian believers during that time period, The Times reported.
It’s also unique since it was discovered on the Internet, which Smith said is a sign of the times.
“The fact that this one came to light on the Internet speaks to the reality for all of us who deal with manuscripts and antiquities,” Smith told The Times. “We’re all trying to come to terms with these things we study, our prized scholarly possessions, are now coming up for sale online.”
There are still many questions about the papyrus, though, including where it originated from, how Willoughby came into possession of it and its validity.
Biblical text scholar Brice C. Jones wrote in a blog post that there are some confusing elements to the text that makes him question whether it’s authentic. For example, at first, Jones noticed that the papyrus only had writing on one side of the fragment — which would have been “very odd for a Greek New Testament papyrus.”
Though the eBay lister later added pictures of the back of the papyrus showing a piece of writing, it was still “rather shotty” and, as The New York Times reported, is still unidentified.
As researchers continue work on the newly found papyrus, it’s important to remember that New Testament artifacts like this are extremely rare, according to Christian Today. In fact, there are only about 130 total registered manuscripts from throughout world history, Christian Today reported.
But there has been an outpouring of discovered religious artifacts overall in the last few years. Researchers found artifacts like the oldest Jewish prayer book, Jesus’ home and a 3,000-year-old seal from the times of kings David and Solomon.
Earlier this year, the earliest known draft of the King James Bible was discovered by professor Alan Miller of Montclair State University in New Jersey, according to The New York Times. The draft is believed to be written between 1604 and 1608, with the King James Bible having been published in 1611, The Times reported.
But like with any religious artifact, there are still questions for researchers about the King James Bible discovery. Miller, who found the relic, said these manuscripts and religious documents are always great discoveries, but there’s so much work to be done to confirm their validity.
“There was a kind of thunderstruck, leap-out-of-bathtub moment,” Miller told The Times. “But then comes the more laborious process of making sure you are 100 percent correct.”
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Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret News National. Send him an email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @herbscribner.