Irenaeus and P. Oxy. 405

Here’s something neat from the early Christian world:

P. Oxy. 405

Like the lion’s share of papyri, this fragment (P. Oxy. 405) turned up in Egypt. The text belongs to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies Book III. (See my discussion of Irenaeus and his importance here.) The fragment also contains one of our oldest attestations of the NT in a quotation of Matthew. I’ll quote Charles Hill’s summary:

P.Oxy. 405 (van Haelst 671), consisting of fragments of a papyrus roll containing parts of Against Heresies III.9.3, was first published in 1903. At that time, Grenfell and Hunt could say that “it is probably the oldest Christian fragment yet published.” This of course is no longer the case, though P. Oxy. 405 can still claim the distinction of being the oldest Christian fragment yet published that contains a New Testament quotation. Written in what C. H. Roberts calls “a handsome professional hand,” the fragment has also gained notoriety for its being so close chronologically to its original. Book III of Against Heresies was written sometime in the 180s, and Roberts was very confident that P.Oxy. 405 should be dated to the late second century. In his memorable words the manuscript “reached Oxyrhynchus not long after the ink was dry on the author’s manuscript.” Peter Rodgers thinks, “It is not impossible that Irenaeus himself had written the fragment.” If P.Oxy. 405 did not actually originate in Lyons (penned by Irenaeus himself or not), the manuscript surely will be a first, or at latest, second generation copy.”[1]

The intrigue, then, is that we have a copy so close to the production of the original text. Certainly, there were figures in Christian Egypt who would have been receptive to Irenaeus’ program: bishop Demetrius of Alexandria (sedit 189–233) was making parallel claims about apostolic succession at precisely the same time and in conflict with the sort of gnostics Irenaeus criticized. Indeed, Egypt tended to be the hotbed for the kinds of ideas favored by the gnostics. We also know that in Demetrius’ long tenure, Christianity was spreading with some rapidity even in non-urban areas, which might explain why this document made its way further up the Nile.[2] The idea that Demetrius (or someone in his orbit) would have obtained and sent along a copy to Oxyrhynchus is highly plausible, if not probable, since Demetrius was known both for his correspondence and influence with Christians far beyond the borders of Egypt itself.[3] About another decade or so after P. Oxy. 405 might have arrived in Egypt, further west on the African continent, Tertullian explicitly cited Irenaeus’ criticisms of the Valentinians in his own polemic against them.[4] These witnesses suggest a rapid dissemination and an eager readership, indicating Irenaeus’ work had purchase far beyond Lyons and Rome, the latter of which was probably his main intended audience.

  1. Charles E. Hill, “Irenaeus, the Scribes, and the Scriptures: Papyrological and Theological Observations from P.Oxy. 405,” in Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy, ed. Paul Foster and Sara Parvis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 120.

  2. Sabine R. Huebner, “The First Christian Family of Egypt,” in Empire and Religion in the Roman World, ed. Harriet I. Flower (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 117–38.

  3. Stephen J. Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity, Popes of Egypt, vol. 1 (Cairo ; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004), 21–7.

  4. See Adversus Valentinianos 5 (E. Kroymann and E. Evans, eds., CCSL 2 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1954), for which Barnes proposes a date of 206/7. T. D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 47, 127.


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