Was Phillipps 16402 the oldest manuscript that Sir Thomas Phillipps ever acquired? His own catalogue describes it as “Coptic Papyri. 19 leaves pasted in fragments between glasses. Supposed to be of saec. iv”. He bought it in 1862, as part of the Sotheby’s sale of the “reserved and most valuable portion” of the collection of the notorious Guglielmo Libri. Sotheby’s dated it to the fourth century. The Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts repeats this information, but gives no other clue as to the previous and later history of these fragments. If the description is accurate, this was the oldest Phillipps manuscript, by about three centuries.
Thanks to a century of research by Coptic scholars like W.E. Crum, Jacques Van Vliet, Florence Calamet, Renate Dekker and others, we now know a lot more about these fragments and about what happened to them after they left the Phillipps Collection. They are part of the archive of St. Pesynthios, Bishop of Koptos/Keft (569–632), and were probably found at a monastic site in Western Thebes in Upper Egypt. They include letters and documents (among them a list of clothes and information about the wages paid to two carpenters), as well as literary and liturgical texts. The papyri in the Phillipps Collection are closely connected to a larger set of similar materials in the Musée du Louvre.
The nineteen Phillipps papyrus fragments were included in the sale of the residue of his collection to the Robinson Brothers in 1946. By the early 1970s, these documents were being offered for sale by the London antiquities dealer (and founder of The Folio Society) Charles Ede. Their subsequent dispersal around the world can only be partly traced. Two are now in the art collection of the Antwerp-based shipping and logistics company Katoen Natie (685/01-02). One is in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley (P. Berk. 01). Another is owned by the Classics Museum of the Australian National University in Canberra (75.01), where its connection with Phillipps was undocumented until fairly recently.
From 7th-century Egypt across Europe to 19th-century England, and then on to the United States and Australia in the 20th century: these papyri have come a long way through space and time! Still among the oldest manuscripts to have passed through the hands of Sir Thomas Phillipps, they now serve as fragmentary witnesses to the daily life of the Coptic Church in Byzantine Egypt, shortly before it was overrun by the Muslim Arabs.