Ancient evidence about the accuracy of the New Testament ...

II. A Sheaf of Old Letters from Egypt

James Hope Moulton: Yesterday I was talking to you about words. This morning I am going to begin with [alphabetical] letters - letters, that is, in the way in which they were used among the Greeks. It is a way unfamiliar to us, because we use letters for one purpose only. In counting - one, two, three, four, and so on - we use a separate set of symbols, the Arabic numerals which enable us to represent these numbers independently. But the Greeks lacked numerals, so they had to use letters for the purpose, and a very definite and elaborate system theirs was.

They had four series of letters : the first, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and so on, until the letters ran up to nine; then they went on, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and so on, up to ninety; then on again, one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, and up to nine hundred; and then they used the first nine of these symbols over again with a little point on the end of the letter in order to represent the thousands. The result was, you see, that any sum up to 9,999 could be represented in Greek letters. But that was not getting very far. So in order to get further they would write a very big M, and in the top angle of that M they repeated the symbols used before. Now they were worth a Myriad, ten thousand times as much as before. By that notation the old Greek could represent any number up to 99,999,999.

Now, if we add one to 99,999,999 we get 100,000,000, otherwise `ten thousand times ten thousand,' which you will remember in the Book of the Revelation (Rev. 5:11), where it describes `a multitude which no man can number' (Rev. 7:9). It is one beyond the biggest sum that can be represented by the Greek notation.

There is another curious and much-discussed passage in the Apocalypse which gets light from this subject of Greek notation. On the walls of Pompeii, when that city, buried by the terrible eruption of Vesuvius in the year A.D. 79, was uncovered, was found a vast number of graffiti, or scribblings, which tell much of the life and customs of that ancient time, when the people of Pompeii going about their daily life were suddenly overwhelmed by the streams of boiling lava.

These scribblings give us a picture of the shamelessness of some of the ancient life, such as we shall hardly get from any other place; yet among them are many things beautiful and deeply interesting.

One runs thus : `I love her the number of whose honorable name is five hundred and forty-seven.' Now you see the bearing of that. Since the letters of the Greek alphabet had their numerical value, there was a tendency to add up the number of the letters of one's name. Take, for a simple illustration, the name Ada.

A is one, D is four, so that the number of that `honorable name' comes to six. Well, the number of some other honorable lady's name totalled up to five hundred and forty-seven. And that lady, going by and seeing this graffito on the wall, mentally adds up her own letters, and should they come to five hundred and forty-seven - well, she might find it quite interesting.

So much for the number of Beauty. Let us turn now to the number of the Beast, which naturally comes in association with it. In the thirteenth chapter of the Book of the Revelation we read `Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixteen' - for such probably is the most ancient reading. We must try to find a name that adds up to six hundred and sixteen.

People all through the ages have put in answers to the puzzle. Absolutely everything has been tried. If anybody has a particular objection to some particular person, he sets to work to fit the number of the beast to him; and if only he takes fair latitude and is not too particular about the spelling, he usually succeeds.

If I take another line this morning, it is not because I think we can say positively that this is the right exposition. But I myself am very much helped by what my friend Professor Deissmann has pointed out. He claims that the Greek words Kaisar theos, whose letters add up to 616, represent best the idea that is behind John's enigma. - Most Britons to-day would entirely agree that `Kaiser is divine' suits the number of the Beast remarkably well! [A reference to Kaiser Wilhelm of WWI Germany.] Possibly such a view is not unknown in America also. Whether Deissmann's theory is right or wrong, there can be no question that the battle-cry of that tremendous conflict, which began at the end of the first century and went on intermittently until the fourth, was, on the one side, `Caesar is god,' while on the other side were the people who proclaimed that there was `another Emperor, one Jesus.'

There was the greatest fight that the world has ever seen - one in which all the killing was done on one side, and all the dying on the other side, and that was the side that won! This strife, which we may recall to-day, had as the watchword on the side of the prince of this world, `Caesar is god.'

Then what happened to the number six hundred and sixteen? It was altered to the more symmetrical number `six hundred and sixty-six,' the reason being, Deissmann suggests, that it is a caricature of another name, the `name that is above every name' - Jesus. For the Greek letters of the name Jesus come to just eight hundred and eighty-eight, each digit one above the perfect `seven'; and `six hundred and sixty-six' Deissmann thinks is the hellish caricature of it. These things may seem very fanciful to you and to me, but they were extremely interesting to people who had to do continuously with letters all of which had a numerical value.

Yesterday, if I had had time, I was going to take up a few additional words. I will mention, one of them now, as it is very closely connected with our subject this morning. Our Lord in speaking of His coming again uses the word parousia, which in the later parts of the New Testament becomes almost a technical term. Now that word so used, denoting `advent' or `presence,' had something very much deeper in its meaning.

Egyptian papyri of the third and second centuries B.C. give some allusions which utterly puzzled the first editors. I remember one phrase in which even the acuteness of Grenfell and Hunt seemed to be baffled. Two words came together, stephanouparousias, which we have now learned how to read. The Ptolemies, kings of Egypt after Alexander's time, were not popular, generally speaking, and I must say I do not think they deserved popularity.

Our British sovereign, King George, has lately been up in Lancashire, riding all around the country, going into the cottages and talking with the people, and leaving behind him the most gracious memories. That is one sort of a royal visit.

But the royal visits of the Ptolemies were quite different. When they came to distant parts of the country there were appropriate manifestations of enthusiasm, but it was all worked up beforehand. The tax-collector came round and extracted from people's pockets money for what was called a `crown tax.' A free-will offering of a golden crown was made to the king on such occasions, to represent the spontaneous loyalty of the people. That was the type of thing that gives the setting for this word parousia. By getting the meaning of `royal visit,' unconsciously the word was prepared beforehand for the time when the King of kings came in great humility, and they called His coming the Parousia. And we are relying faithfully upon the promise of another visit, the last and greatest, some day, we know not when.

But now let me go on to my sheaf of old letters. This first letter, dating from the second or third century A.D., is written by a schoolboy, and is spelt most atrociously. Both spelling and grammar are, however, highly instructive to us who are concerned with New Testament Greek. I wish we knew more about this young man.

He has evidently kept his father and mother in extremely good order. But `even a worm will turn,' and the father has decided that he will go away and get a holiday from this enfant terrible (horrible child). He has therefore slipped away to Alexandria, whereupon the young rascal writes his father the scathing letter which I am going to read to you. I will translate it into the English which represents his style most nearly

`Theon to his father: So good of you not to take me with you to town! If you won't take me with you to Alexandria, I won't write you a letter or speak to you or wish you health no more, and if you go to Alexandria I won't take your hand or greet you back ever again. If you won't take me, that's what's up. And mother said to Archelaus, "He quite upsets me. Off with him!" Oh, it was good of you to send me a present! Such a beauty - husks!'

You see the circumstances. He had expected a hamper of good things to eat; and when he opened it he did not find the cake he liked. So he called it an opprobrious name - `husks!'

Then follows some more:

`They fooled us there on the 12th when you sailed. But send for me, do! If you won't send, I won't eat, I won't drink. There now! I pray you may be well.'

Now that is a specimen of the vernacular. There is nothing cultivated about that letter, nothing artificial. I can assure you it is not in the Greek of ancient Athens in her prime. But the letter means more for the student of New Testament Greek than any other piece of Greek of equal length anywhere, not only in grammar, but also in vocabulary. I turn your attention to one of the sentences I read just now. The young rascal declares that there is an excellent reason why he should go to Alexandria with his father.

His mother had said: `He quite upsets me.' Well, if he went to Alexandria he would be out of her way. Now do you remember what is said in the Book of Acts about the visit of Paul and Silas to Thessalonica : `These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also' (Acts 17:6)? It is the same word.

I might recall to your minds that word as it was used of Wesley's early ministry. It was said that he was turning the world upside down. You know the sermon preached by some of Wesley's men on those words. The main heads of the sermon were:

`First, the world is the wrong way up; second, it has got to be turned upside down; third, we's the men to do it.'

I am rather inclined to think they were, and that they did their job uncommonly well.

Now that is a specimen of the vernacular, which is not brought in merely for a story's sake. I think you will be able to see that that word `upset' has, even in English, a popular nuance about it. It is not a refined literary word at all. Nor was it in the Greek. If you turn to the great New Testament Greek dictionary of your countryman J. H. Thayer, you will find this word anastato described as occurring `nowhere in profane writers.' The suggestion is that it is a purely biblical word. Why biblical writers should want to invent a word of that kind is not very obvious. I think the letter I have just read will show you that it is not taken out of this classical literature; that it is just a common, ordinary word from common, ordinary life, and in the letter of this young man we find it just where we should expect it. So there it is, a word out of the popular vocabulary, having just that rough-and-ready vivid touch to it that we like.

And that is not all we get out of this letter. `Off with him!' Put that into literary English - `Away with him!' Does not that suggest anything to you? Why, it is the very phrase that came from those hoarse, savage throats on Good Friday morning. Here we have it again in the rude schoolboy's letter. I think that will illustrate the close contact there is between the language of the New Testament and the language of daily life as we have picked it up from under the sands of Egypt.

Let me read one or two more of these letters. Here is part of a letter from a husband to his wife. The wife is away on a visit, and has prolonged her stay more than he thinks she should, and he has been trying very hard to get her to come home. Apparently she was not as appreciative of his company as he was of hers. He says, among other things:

`I want you to know that since you went away from me I have kept lamenting by night and wailing by day. Since you and I went to the baths together on July 12, 1 never bathed nor anointed until August 12. And you sent me letters that could shake a stone, so much have you moved me.'

You will remember what our Lord says about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. He is speaking of the way in which the hypocrites fast. Note what He says. He does not say that they shall fast; He does not say that they shall not fast. What He says is, that if they fast they are to take care that it is absolutely sincere, like every other part of their life. Do not be like the hypocrites, for they parade their fasting that they may be seen of men; `but thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face' (Matt. 6:17). That was just what the hypocrite did not do - he did not anoint his head, he did not wash his face. Our Egyptian husband gives us a sample of this kind of `fasting.'

We have another letter in which the writer, who is in great trouble because he has just had the news that his house has been robbed while he was in Alexandria, uses much the same expression: `I shall not even wash myself until I hear the news.'

Here is another letter which I will read entire:

Antonius, son of Ptolemaeus, invites you to dine with him at the table of the Lord Sarapis in the house of Claudius Serapion on the 16th at three o'clock.'

I could comment on that letter for the rest of this hour. Brief though it is, it has a number of points of contact with the New Testament. In the first place, in this invitation to dinner, though it is a normal and ordinary invitation, we have the statement that the dinner is [not] to be in a private house, but `at the table of Lord Sarapis,' the most widely worshipped god of the Egyptians. If the name Sarapis had been left out, one might think this a Christian letter. How well that illustrates what Bishop Lightfoot says in his Historical Essays in the passage in which he describes `the intrusiveness, the obtrusiveness, and the ubiquity of Paganism'! You can understand how it was that Christians were so unpopular in those early days. For a Christian could not accept an invitation to go out to dinner without compromising his faith. If he went he had to join in the worship. The table at which he sat was the table of a `Lord' - not Jesus, but another. And for that reason the Christians had to keep out of social intercourse. When they were called `haters of the human race' and had all manner of other bad things said about them in those days, we can quite understand it, for the heathen simply saw in them people who, because of religious prejudices, kept away from their kind.

The next point in the letter is in that word `house.' You remember that the first reported words of Jesus - when found as a boy in the temple, in answer to His mother, who said to Him, `Don't you know that your father and I have been looking for you with distress?' - are given in our Authorized Version as: `How is it that ye sought Me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father's business?' (Luke 2:49) That is quite a natural translation, but it is absolutely wrong. To prove that it is wrong we have to take not a literal rendering of the words, but the rendering of them as it comes from usage. It happens that the phrase in this letter is one among a good many examples we have of this very idiom in which there is no question whatever that the meaning is `in the house.' So this document, and those like it, clearly prove that the Revisers were right. when they changed the translation to `in My Father's house.'

Next, let us notice the time-table. The man, you observe, is invited to dine at three o'clock in the afternoon. If that hour of dining was in vogue in Palestine as well, we are reminded of that parable of our Lord in which He talks about the great `supper' (Luke 14:16). The point in question is that it begins in daylight and it ends in the night. The people, you remember, who are invited to it, instead of coming at once, go on with the day's work, and then the king comes in to see his guests in the evening. It must be evening, because the man who had no wedding garment was taken by the hands and feet (so we should read) and thrown out into `the darkness outside.'

Now we come to a letter of a prodigal son. It illustrates in some way the matchless parable which we always think of as containing the very marrow of the gospel:

`Antonius Longus to Nilous, his mother: Many greetings. I continually pray that you are in good health, and make supplication for you before our Lord Serapis.'

Let me state, in passing, that here we have another example of the formulae of letter-writing. All letters were dominated by formula to a very large extent, just as young people's letters from school are still. The formula with which this letter starts is one that is extremely common. You will notice at once that it is one which the Apostle Paul himself is able to take up. A great many things in Paul's letters are things found in this way in the formulae of the heathen letters. `Making continuous mention of you in my prayers' (Rom. 1:9) is one that you will find in a so-called heathen letter. The god to whom these prayers were made was not by name the same; but when the prayer was earnest, and when it came from one who knew no better, I fancy that the fact that the address was wrong did not cause the letter to go into the dead-letter office. It was safely delivered in the place where prayer is heard.

Then the prodigal goes on:

`I would have you know that I never expected you were coming up to the city. This was why I never came into it. But I was ashamed to come up to Karanis, for I am going about in rags.'

The word `in rags' is the word which, if it were classical Greek, would be rottenly. The word in the New Testament Greek has lost that sense. `Every bad tree brings forth bad fruit.' (Matt. 7:17). That does not mean a rotten tree. The word has the same sort of history as the word `rotten' has in English slang. If a schoolboy wants to say that he does not like the food at school, he says it is `rotten.'

But let us get back to our prodigal:

`I write to tell you that I have not any clothes. I entreat you, mother, to be reconciled to me. But I know what I have brought on myself. I have been chastised as I have been because I have sinned.'

It is very interesting to gather together the word sin as it appears in the papyri and similar documents. We have made as complete a collection as we can of it, and it gives us quite a vivid idea of what the people to whom Paul wrote meant by it. This letter particularly shows that it implies a very definite picture of wrong-doing. There are only a few words more of continuous sense, and then the letter relapses into fragments:

`I heard from Postumus, who found you in Arsinoe county, and he has unseasonably told you all. Don't you know I would rather become a cripple than know that I owed anybody two pence?'

After that we have only the ends of lines left, with more of this abject entreaty:

`... come yourself ... I beseech ... don't fail ...' and then: `... mother, from her son Antonius Longus.'

Of course, we don't know what the result was, any more than we know whether there was any real penitence behind all this fine show.

Here is another letter that instructs us very much as to the manners and customs of the times:

`To Alis, his sister.'

Sister here means wife. Even in the New Testament the term meant that sometimes; you remember Paul said it was his right to lead about a `sister.' (1 Cor. 9:5)

`Let me tell you that we are still in Alexandria. Do not fret even though they do start, and I stay on in Alexandria. I beg and beseech you to look after the child, and as soon as ever we get wages I will send you up something. If you have a child - good luck to you! - if it is a boy, let it alone. If it is a girl, throw it away.'

Now remember that that was one of the great points upon which the early Christians had something to say to the heathen. Justin Martyr, who turned Christian before the middle of the second century A.D., has a scathing paragraph in which he talks about the habits prevailing in the heathen world. When a child was born it was taken and laid at the feet of the father. He, if he desired to keep it, stepped out and picked it up in his arms. If he did not want to keep it, he let it lie. Then the child was taken away and put in some public place where it would be sure to be seen, and it was picked up by people who made a regular trade of collecting derelict babies. This was a very cheap way of getting slaves, and they were reared often for unspeakable lives.

We have a great sheaf of documents from Alexandria, dating very closely around the appearing of Christ, which are contracts with women for acting as nurses of little children picked off the rubbish heap and kept for slave purposes.

And so here this man with absolute hard-heartedness says to his wife: `If it is a boy, let it alone. If it is a girl, throw it away.'

Listen again [to the same letter]:

`You say, "Do not forget me." How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry. In the twenty-ninth year of Caesar [i.e., 1 B.C.], June 17.'

Next we have a budget of letters from an educated family of Egypt of the middle of the second century B.C. They are evidently a family bound together by very close and affectionate ties. The father is an `architect,' though in a much wider sense than we use that word. He is in charge of canal works and irrigation. His sons and his wife write to him, and he writes to them. We have quite a bundle of their letters. Here is one:

`Polycrates to his father, greeting : It is good if you are well and everything else is to your mind. We are well ourselves. I have often written to you to introduce me to the King - '

The word `introduce' is the same word that the Apostle Paul uses in 2 Cor. 3:1 `Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?'

- `that I may get myself released from the business I am now engaged upon. And now if it is possible, and none of your duties keeps you, try to come up for the Arsinoe festival, for if you do come I am sure I shall easily be introduced to the King. Let me tell you that I have seventy shillings from Philonides, of which I have kept half for necessaries, and paid the rest as an instalment of interest. This is because we don't get our money in a lump sum, but only in small amounts. Write us yourself that we may know how you are and may not worry; and take care of yourself to keep well and come to us in good health. Yours dutifully,

Here is another letter from Polycrates to his father. It begins with the same formulae as the last. He goes on:

`Let me tell you I have now carried through my religious duties and am now apprenticed at the surveyor's.'

The word is geometer, for geometry was originally simply land survey.

`I have sent into the customs office a report of the site -'

The word used here for `customs office' is the same as `receipt of custom' at which the Apostle Matthew was found (Matt. 9:9).

- `as bearing a house duty of sixteen shillings, that we may pay the five per cent. tax on this assessment and not on thirty as heretofore.'

To us in England who are greatly interested in the taxation of land value that passage suggests the old lesson that there is nothing new under the sun. But it is time to close my mailbag and be gone.

from "Egyptian Rubbish Heaps", Five Popular Lectures on the New Testament with a Sermon, delivered at Northfield, Massachusetts, in August, 1914, by James Hope Moulton, Professor in Manchester University and Tutor at Didsbury Wesleyan College.

James Hope Moulton: "From Egyptian Rubbish Heaps", Northfield, 1914
I. Egyptian Rubbish-Heaps and the Study of the New Testament
II. A Sheaf of Old Letters from Egypt
III. Some Sidelights upon Paul
IV. How We Got Our Gospels
V. The Fullness of the Time
VI. The New Song

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