Ancient Egypt: 1,500-Year-Old Papyrus Contains Stories of Biblical Human Sacrifice

The 1,500-year-old papyrus contains biblical stories. Rogers Fund, 1934

Researchers have revealed the fascinating contents of a 1,500-year-old Egyptian papyrus, which was uncovered near the pyramid of Pharaoh Senusret I in 1934.

The papyrus contains formulas for prayers that seek the assistance of divine powers, as well as describing biblical events, including stories of human sacrifice, according to Michael Zellmann-Rohrer from the University of Oxford's classics department.

"The papyrus is tentatively dated to the sixth century CE," Zellmann-Rohrer told Newsweek. "At this time, Christianity was the official state religion in Egypt as throughout the rest of the Eastern (or Byzantine) and Western Roman Empires. There was an extensive infrastructure of ecclesiastical officials, churches, and monasteries."

It is written in Coptic, the latest written phase of the Egyptian language, which is still in use in the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, he said. "Coptic represents the adaptation of the Greek alphabet to the writing of the Egyptian language, and Greek loan-words are frequent: this text contains many of them."

The text was examined by Zellmann-Rohrer, who first came across it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's digital catalog. He describes the papyrus in a study published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde. The document has been held at the Met since its initial discovery, but had never been examined scientifically until now.

The writing makes several references to God as "the one who presides over the Mountain of the Murderer"—a nod towards the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac.

In Genesis, God prevented Abraham from carrying out the act. However, the papyrus text tells the story differently, suggesting that Isaac was indeed killed. This echoes the way the story is told in a number of other ancient texts, Zellmann-Rohrer said.

It is unclear who exactly produced the papyrus, but Zellmann-Rohrer thinks that it was likely a literate person who was probably not a professional scribe. The creator "likely resided in the vicinity of the pyramid complex, where the papyrus was presumably cached in antiquity before its discovery by the modern excavators."

"A working hypothesis is that the creator provided ritual services to paying clients, prayers and amulets of the sort that could be produced by this formulary, and that the present papyrus was this person's working copy," he said.

Zellmann-Rohrer also suggests that the text may have been copied from another book, possibly by multiple people based on the handwriting. These people could have been Christians who held some Gnostic beliefs. Gnosticism is a set of ancient religious ideas that mixes elements of Jewish and Christian traditions.

"Christianity was not a monolith," he said, "and many varieties of belief existed; this papyrus illustrates the extensive incorporation of Gnostic and other apocalyptic traditions in the cultic practice of one particular individual."