The city of Oxyrhynchus is in central Egypt, south of Cairo, west of the Nile, and bears its Greek name from the time of Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BC. In 1896, two young classicists from Oxford University, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, came to Oxyrhynchus to excavate the ancient, undisturbed rubbish mounds circling the city.

What Grenfell and Hunt found when they started digging would occupy them for most of the rest of their lives: thousands of Greek and Latin documents from the 1st century to the 6th. Whether in whole or in part, there were works by Pindar, Sappho, Euripides, Euclid and countless others. There were fragments of early non-canonical Gospels, parts of Matthew, the First Epistle of John and an entire work, Against Heresies, by the Church Father Irenaeus. In the words of Grenfell himself: “The flow of papyri soon became a torrent. Merely turning up the soil with one’s boot would frequently disclose a layer.”

The torrent continued for years and in 1918 it delivered what has come to be known as the Oxyrhynchus hymn, a fragment written in Greek at around the end of the 3rd century, making it contemporary with some of the earliest New Testament papyri. It is thought to be the oldest known manuscript of Christian music and takes the form of a frayed, faded, irregular strip of papyrus, around a foot in length, containing the conclusion only of the hymn. On the other side is a column of accounts relating to corn, written earlier in the same century.

The words of the hymn appear as long lines running parallel with the fibres, in a clear, upright hand. Above each line, in more cursive lettering, have been added the corresponding vocal notes. (Grenfell and Hunt found it difficult to determine whether the words and the notes had been written by the same scribe or two different people.)

The lyrics are not easy to decipher, with four of the five lines disfigured by gaps. Nevertheless, while there have been scholarly differences of view, the general purport seems clear and translation is possible. The hymn appears to call for Creation at large, the very cosmos itself, to fall silent while we, the worshippers, praise the Holy Trinity:

Let the rushings of winds, the sources of all surging rivers cease. While we hymn Father and Son and Holy Spirit, let all the powers answer, “Amen, amen, strength, praise, and glory forever to God, the sole giver of all good things. Amen, amen.

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