Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1242

Alexandrians and Jews before Trajan
Original Location/Place: 
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Department of Manuscripts, The British Museum, London
Physical Characteristics: 

Parts of four consecutive columns of this papyrus remain, the first three of which are reasonably well preserved. However, the tops of all the columns are lost. After the point at which the transcription below ends, the papyrus has just some scant remains of the following column, which mentions the emperor Claudius. It is therefore thought that this may be in reference to an earlier Alexandrian envoy sent to Claudius, which is referred to, for example, in P.Cairo 10448 (see Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume X, p. 113).

3d CE
15.8 x 53.9 cm

P.Oxy. X 1242

CPJ 2 157 (Tcherikover, Victor A. / Fuks, Alexander; 1960; transcription, translation)

P. Lond. Lit. 117 descr. (Milne, H. J. M.; 1927)


This papyrus is classified among the Acts of the Alexandrian (or Pagan) Martyrs, a collection of texts which narrate confrontations between the Roman imperial government and various Alexandrian representatives. Contrary to what the name might suggest (bringing to mind the Acts of the Christian Martyrs), the trials that are narrated in these papyri, spanning a time period of one-hundred and fifty years (the earliest associated with the emperor Caligula, who reigned between 37 and 41 CE, and the latest thought to be associated with Commodus, who reigned between 180 and 192 CE), are not centred around the religious convictions of the Alexandrians in question. Religion is nonetheless a major theme in the Acts, however, as the collection is extremely anti-Jewish. However, scholars disagree as to just how central the role of this feature is; some argue that it is of paramount importance, while others believe it to be more of a tool in a wider aim to criticise the Roman emperors whose perceived affable relationships with the Jews were despised by the Alexandrian authors of the texts. It is thought by most modern commentators that rather than being official documents representing historical trials, the accounts are largely works of fiction which have adopted this form as a rhetorical device.

The present papyrus documents a confrontation before the emperor Trajan (reigned 98-117 CE) between Alexandrian and Jewish embassies. The anti-Judaism that is characteristic of the corpus is undeniably central in this narrative, with the empress Plotina also portrayed as acting specifically in favour of the Jews. For John Collins, the animosity shown between the Alexandrians and the Jews in this account evidences the continued conflict that continued in the late-first and early-second century CE, but should not be over interpreted as evidencing the level of hostility which led to the revolt which spread through the Diaspora between 115 and 117 CE (Between Athens and Jerusalem, p. 140-141). Joseph Modrzejewski, however, has argued that this account was composed after the onset of the revolt (see below). The exact sequence of events of the revolt are somewhat uncertain, and we have limited evidence to work with. There is a papyrus which appears to contain an edict from the governor of Egypt, and claiming that a judge came from Rome to investigate the current situation. The Jews were supposedly warned by the governor not to cause a commotion (this may have simply been an isolated incident, however; see Collins, Between Athens and Jerusalem, p. 141). The major confrontation occurred when rebels from Cyrene invaded the Egyptian countryside (on the revolt, see Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism; see p. 133 for a discussion of the present papyrus). Even if, as Collins argues, the events in the present text are not reflective of the level of antagonism which led to the revolt, a clear tension between the Greeks and Jews is certainly evident. The question remains as to whether this was predominantly a device for attacking the Roman emperor.

The Alexandrians were a party of twelve delegates, including three gymnasiarchs, and from their names, it appears that several of them were Roman citizens. The Jews had six envoys from their “nation” (ἔθνος; Musurillo translates less literally, “from their own group”), and a synēgoros (συνήγορος, “advocate”), making a party of seven in total. It has been argued that the choice to include seven Jewish advocates might be intentional symbolism related to the Sabbath, but this is uncertain (see Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt, p. 193). The rhetor speaking on behalf of the Jews, Sopatros, would have been a Jew from Antioch, or a Greek brought in because of his oratory skills. Hermaiscus, with whom Trajan engages with in the central dialogue of the episode, is not actually named among the Alexandrian envoys, but it is presumed that his name was included in column i, and has been lost. The section of the papyrus documenting the gods which the parties supposedly took with them on their sea voyage is very fragmentary, but we can infer from later on in the text, when a bust of Serapis which the Alexandrians are carrying is said to sweat, that this was the protective deity that they had brought with them. It likely also functioned to impress the audience and the council judging the case. What it was that the Jews supposedly took is more of a mystery, especially as the concept of taking an idol runs counter to Jewish belief. It might be that the author of the text was somewhat ignorant of Jewish customs, and was simply attempting to present a narrative whereby each of the parties are shown to be concerned for their wellbeing on their journey to Rome. Alternatively, Modrzejewski hypothesises that the Jews may have taken a scroll of the Torah with them, or perhaps a menorah, and this is interpreted by the author as the equivalent to the Alexandrians’ bust of Serapis (The Jews of Egypt, p. 194). This is merely conjecture, however.

That both Paulus of Tyre and Sopatros of Antioch (the advocates for the Alexandrians and Jews respectively) are described with the term synēgoros indicates that the author was styling his narrative as a legal dispute, perhaps to mimic the famous account of a trial before the emperor Claudius, where the Alexandrians Isidorus and Lampo bring Agrippa II to the imperial gardens in Rome to defend a charge that is not particularly clear. Their plan backfires, and Isidorus and Lampo are condemned instead; insults are exchanged, including Isidorus and Lampo claiming that Claudius’s mother was Jewish (this is one of the most famous of the Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs, which is witnessed in various Greek fragments from three different recensions).

Returning to the anti-Jewish sentiment in the present text, the phrase “impious Jews” (anosioi Ioudaioi), which Hermaiscus uses to insult Trajan’s council, is argued by Modrzejewski to indicate that the text was composed after the start of the Diaspora revolt, when the term was used of Jewish rebels (e.g. CPJ 438) (The Jews of Egypt, p. 194). However, as mentioned above, the direct relevance of this text for the revolt is debated. Hermaiscus accuses Trajan of disloyalty to his “own people,” instead favouring Jews for important roles. This argument that the emperor’s council was “filled with Jews,” however, is of course not to be taken literally, especially given the fact that at the time of this text’s redaction antagonism between Jews and Romans was high. It is possible that the council referred to could be the Senate (the term used is συνέδριον, synedrion, which was used of the Senate). Alternatively, it could be referring to the Imperial Council (Consilium Principis), which was frequently called the συμβούλιον (symboulion). There were no Jewish senators in reality. However, this is not the point; the author is clearly less concerned here with historical fact, and more concerned with portraying the emperor Trajan as excessively supportive to the Jews, possibly to discredit him not only in the eyes of Alexandrians, but also Romans.

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