Ancient ‘Last Supper’ papyrus gives glimpse into early Christianity

A 1,500-year old piece of papyrus recently re-discovered in a U.K. university library contains some of the earliest documented references to the Last Supper and ‘manna from heaven.’

The papyrus fragment with Greek writing, held by the University of Manchester’s John Rylands library since 1901, has also been identified as one of the world’s earliest Christian charms. Experts believe that the fragment originated near the ancient Egyptian town of Hermoupolis.

The fragment formed part of an amulet, according to academics at the University of Manchester, making it the earliest surviving document to use the Christian Eucharist liturgy as a protective charm. Wearing amulets to protect against dangers was an ancient Egyptian practice adopted by Christians.

Dr. Roberta Mazza, a research fellow at the university’s John Rylands Research Institute, found the fragment as part of her studies on thousands of unpublished historical documents in the library’s vaults. The papyrus, she says, sheds light on the lives of early Christians.

“This is an important and unexpected discovery as it’s one of the first recorded documents to use magic in the Christian context and the first charm ever found to refer to the Eucharist – the last supper – as the manna of the Old Testament,” said Mazza, in a statement. “The text of the amulet is an original combination of biblical passages including Psalm 78:23-24 and Matthew 26:28-30 among others.”

Mazza notes that the fragment is also an example of Christianity and the Bible becoming meaningful to ordinary people, not just the priests and the elite. “It’s doubly fascinating because the amulet maker clearly knew the Bible, but made lots of mistakes: some words are misspelled and others are in the wrong order,” she said. “This suggests that he was writing by heart rather than copying it.”

Intriguingly, the charm is also an early example of paper recycling. By using spectral imaging technology, Mazza discovered faint lettering on the back of the papyrus, which is thought to be a receipt for payment of grain tax.

“The amulet maker would have cut a piece of the receipt, written the charm on the other side and then he would have folded the papyrus to be kept in a locket or pendant,” she said. “It is for this reason the tax receipt on the exterior was damaged and faded away.”