Archive Page 2
July 6th, 2016 by Roger Pearse
Anthony Alcock has sent me another translation from Coptic. There is a collection of 10th century Coptic poems, which were published in Oriens Christianus (the volumes are online at Archive.org). One of these is about the martyr Archellites. Here it is:
There is no historical content to this, but it is useful to have this material in English – thank you!
I remember long ago transcribing the English translation of the Legend of Hilaria, a story about a female monk, who supposedly lived in the late 5th century, in the time of the Emperor Zeno. There is also a Legend of Archellites. In fact a translation of these two prose narratives, and the Coptic version of the Legend of the Seven Sleepers, was made in 1947 by James Drescher. A rather clumsy site has the book here.
UPDATE: There is a useful short article on Coptic poetry online here. It is only two pages long. It comes from the Coptic Encyclopedia.
July 4th, 2016 by Roger Pearse
On the first Saturday of Lent, the Greek church prescribes the reading of two sermons from the Fathers, both of them in praise of an obscure saint, Theodore Tiro, of Amasea. The first sermon is by Gregory of Nyssa; the second by the much more obscure Nectarius of Constantinople (d. 397 AD). The latter work is listed in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum as #4300; and in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca as #1768.
Nectarius is a very obscure figure. A few of his letters appear among the correspondence of Gregory Nazianzen, itself largely untranslated. Apparently the subject is arguments about Apollinarism. The only other work known to me is this homily, which praises a miracle of St Theodore in the time of Julian the Apostate. It appears in Migne in PG 39, 1821-1840, reprinted from the edition of Gallandius.
According to the story – that seems like the right word – the Christians were fasting for Easter in the town. After a week, they were hungry. Julian then gave orders that all the food in the market should be offered to idols or sprinkled with the blood of sacrificed animals. In a dream, on 17th February, St Theodore revealed that the Christians should stay home and boil grain and season it with honey, creating a dish named koliva or kolyba, still part of Orthodox ritual today.
Is this story genuine? Well nobody today would deny that spiteful people do try to think up ways to force Christians to violate their conscience. One need only think of the bakers in the USA, targeted by gay activists, who demanded that the Christians bake a cake promoting unnatural vice. When they refused, the activists dragged them into court and had them punished. Such things are increasingly common in these unhappy times; and they must have been common in the Roman empire also. Spite is spite.
But even one as unacquainted with hagiographical narratives as myself knows that they routinely tend to contain stuff like this. I don’t really like the sound of the story. It sounds apocryphal. I have not seen the text of BHG 1768, but apparently this marks the sermon as spurious.
We may also ask: is the sermon of Nectarius genuine? It’s always a question, with these liturgical or hagiographical sermons, copied endlessly as part of service books. To this I do not know the answer.
The question was posed to me by Jack Lake, who did a fairly extensive literature search – more than I have been able to do -, without finding very much. L. Petit, in “La grande controverse des Colybes”, suggested that the narrative might have been invented as a way to move a pre-existing feast of St Theodore from 17th February to the first Saturday of Lent. The reason for this, he argues, is that St Theodore and his kolliva was popular; but 17 February often fell within Lent. Feast days that fall in Lent are not celebrated, unless they appear on Saturday and Sunday. So Petit suggested that someone invented the whole thing, and back-projected it onto the obscure Nectarius.
I don’t think that I can resolve that one. No critical edition exists, so we can’t even rely on statements in older authors that “all the manuscripts” attribute it to Nectarius.
Jack Lake has kindly translated the conclusion of the homily for us, from the Patrologia Graeca 39, cols. 1837-8 and 1839-40. This is a reprint of the older edition of Gallandius. Here it is:
We with these concordant praises follow the martyr [Theodore]. And, always carrying around the source of a recent miracle for us [i.e., his relic], let us always proclaim the extraordinary victory of the martyr: O splendor of the martyrs and beauty of the saints, O gift of God indeed, O guardian and invincible defender of the faithful! Do not forget our poverty and dejection; but always interceding for us, do not tire, O wonder-worker. O most glorious one, do not despise our souls, attacked every day with spiritual warfare by the spiritual Julian [viz., Satan, who is compared to Julian the Apostate], who both was once and is now the enemy and author of all evils. For we have believed also that you live after death, as the Lord says: ‘He that believers in Me, although he be dead, shall live’ [Jn. 11:25]. But you, not simply believing, but also submitting to death for Him, O martyr worthy of all praise, live that life in God, which does not know the feebleness of age or an end. Since, therefore, living in Christ, and specially assisting Him, deliver to His servants this favor by your prayers, that through you we may be snatched from these calamities and brought to a partaking of those goods, by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and dominion now and forever, and unto ages of ages.
June 30th, 2016 by Roger Pearse
Here are some photographs that I found online about the massive pleasure barges of Caligula, excavated from Lake Nemi during the 30s, on the orders of Mussolini, placed in a “Museum of Roman navigation” by him, and then destroyed in 1944 during the fighting. Worth looking at… and feeling sad about.
There were two barges, each in its own museum. I’m not sure which is which in these photographs.
The hull of this one seems deeper.
The same image, with some processing, I think.
Visitors queue to see the immense hulk.
In the museum.
A side shot of the bow.
Really very deep hull, this.
Mussolini comes with his Fascists to open the museum. Little did he know…
June 30th, 2016 by Roger Pearse
More and more early printed books are becoming available online. Fortunately the German libraries are scanning them at high resolution. This includes the line-drawings, which have hitherto been difficult to access, and often only available under incredibly restrictive terms that meant only publishers could use them, and only a few. But now, suddenly, a wealth of drawings is becoming available.
Among these are historically valuable records of now vanished classical monuments. A couple of days ago there was an interesting series of tweets by @VeraCausa9, including old drawings of the serpent column in the Hippodrome in Constantinople.
This bronze column consists – for it still stands – of three serpent bodies twisted together. Originally three serpent heads came out of the top, supporting a golden dish. The column was made to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, and originally stood at Delphi. It was moved to Constantinople by Constantine; and there it has been ever since. It is quite incredible that it still survives.
Sadly it is damaged. But the old drawings show it before the heads were snapped off! Twitter is a little ephemeral, and I think this series deserves a little more permanence and prominence.
Here are the pictures posted. As ever, click on them to see the full size picture. Thankfully the author posted references. I’ve not had the chance to look these up, sadly. Nor is it clear to what extent these are contemporary truth, or antiquarian imagination.
Here’s the first:
Thevet – 1556
The first is this one, from André Thevet, Cosmographie de Levant par F. André Thevet d’Angoulême. Revue et augmentée de plusieurs figures, Lyon, 1556. It shows from the left the obelisk of Theodosius, the serpent column, and the column of Arcadius.
Salomon Schweigger, Ein newe Reiss Beschreibung auss Teutschland nach Constantinopel und Jerusalem, Nuremberg 1608. This shows: A. column of Constantine I; Β. Obelisk of Theodosius I; C. Serpent Column; D. Column of Arcadius.
George Wheler, A Journey into Greece… In Company of Dr Spon of Lyons. In 6 books. William Cademan,Robert Kettlewell /Awnsham Churchill,1682. Evidently from book 2.
La Mottraye, 1727
Aubry de la Mottraye, Voyages du Sr. A. de La Motraye, en Europe, Asie & Afrique…Recherches géographiques, historiques & politiques, 1727. Also on Wikimedia Commons.
By 1810 the heads were definitely gone:
Luigi Mayer, Views in the Ottoman Dominions…from the Original Drawings taken for Sir Robert Ainslie, London, P. Bowyee, 1810.
There is an interesting Wikipedia article, which reveals that – unknown to me – the column is actually inscribed with the names of the Greek cities that fought at Plataea. It also contains some other pictures. It also gives the literary sources for the column.
I hope that we will get yet more pictures made available to us.
June 28th, 2016 by Roger Pearse
I must have missed the announcement, but Csaba Szabo kindly drew my attention to his report on an international conference on Mithraic studies in Italy. About 50 people attended. Sadly the long-exploded Cumont theory was in evidence in some papers. But it sounds as if it was an interesting event.
The main impression that I gained from Dr S.’s report, was that the sub-discipline is in limbo. The field is too small to support as regular journal, as the ill-fated Journal of Mithraic Studies discovered. Likewise those studying Mithras are invariably drawn to look at related cults. It is troubling that at such a conference there was limited discussion of recent archaeology; for it is from archaeology that progress in understanding will be made.
Dr S. also put on his blog some nice photos of the Mithraeum of Vulci. I am deeply envious – it is impossible to get hold of any printed material about this place – all in Italian – and even a google search on the booklet he mentions, Vulci e i misteri di Mitra: Culti orientali in Etruria, will quickly reveal … no hits! Oh well. It’s good to see some interesting pots, tho. It also clarified that the tauroctony in place in the Mithraeum is clearly a restored copy. Pity they got the head wrong – Mithras always looks back over his shoulder!
Plaster copy and restoration of the tauroctony. The head is wrong, tho.
June 23rd, 2016 by Roger Pearse
I found this marvellous photograph of a Roman fortlet in the Jordanian desert on Twitter here. The tweeter also added:
Great photos & interesting survey diagrams of Qasr Bashir done by Brunnow & Domaszewsky in 1897 here.
More useful to most of us is a nice blog post here, with many photographs and plans, to which I am indebted for the details that follow.
The walls stand up to 20 feet tall. It was built at the start of the 4th century AD, as part of defensive works for a limes Arabicus, and held a cavalry unit of perhaps 120-150 men. The building inscription survives:
Optimis maximisque principibus nostris Caio Aurelio
Valerio Diocletiano Pio Felici Invicto Augusto et
Marco Aurelio Valerio Maximiano Pio Felici Invicto Augusto et
Flavio Valerio Constantio et Galerio Valerio Maximiano
nobilissimis Caesaribus Castra Praetorii Mobeni fossamentis
Aurelius Asclepiades praeses provinciae Arabiae
perfici curavit .
Which tells us that the fort was called Mobene, and was constructed by the Praeses of the province of Arabia, a chap named Aurelius Asclepiades, in the reign of the tetrarchy, Diocletian and friends.
One question the blog leaves unclear is where exactly the fort is. Funnily enough, Google Maps will tell us rather well! Just search for Jordan, and the Qasr Bashir!
I’d never thought of Google as a tourist guide; but of course Jordan is a civilised country, and aerial photographs and much else are available.
I’d love to go and see it.
June 22nd, 2016 by Roger Pearse
In 2005 a bored PhD student, left hanging around the catalogue desk at the Vlatades Monastery in Thessalonika, looked through the catalogue and discovered a previously unknown Greek manuscript of the works of the 2nd century medical writer, Galen. The Ms. Thessalonicensis Vlatadon 14 contained complete Greek texts of several works previously known only from fragments or translations into Arabic, as well as a new and important work, the Peri Alupias (On Grief), about which I have written elsewhere.
One of the works whose complete Greek text is now accessible is On my own opinions. Immediately after the prologue, we find that Galen discusses his opinion of the gods, as I learn from an interesting article by A. Pietrobelli. The passages are also extant in Latin, translating an Arabic version now lost; and in Hebrew, also translating a different Arabic version, also now lost.
The Latin version, made from Arabic, is entitled De sententiis, made at Toledo in the school of Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century AD. There are five manuscripts of this work, all mutilated at the end. (Another Latin translation does exist, made from Greek; but it only covers the last two sections of the work, whereas our material is from the beginning.)
The Arabic version, from which the Latin was made, is lost.
Hunain Ibn Ishaq was a 9th century Nestorian Christian writer. He was commissioned with others to translate Greek technical works into Arabic. The method used was to translate the Greek texts into Syriac, as there were well-established procedures to do this. Then the Syriac, a semitic language, could easily be translated on into Arabic.
Hunain tells us, in his work on the translations of Galen, that two Syriac translations of Galen’s On my own opinions existed at that time. The first was made by “Job”, presumably Job of Edessa, the second by Hunain himself for his son Ishaq. Thabit ibn Qurra then translated the latter version into Arabic. In addition a 13th century Hebrew translation exists, again made from someArabic version.
But the text has undergone some revision in transmission. Let’s have a look at the different versions, and see how. Pietrobelli gives the text and a French translation – I have rendered the latter into English so that we can see what is said.
Here’s the first passage:
Whether the universe is uncreated or created, whether there is something after it or outside it or indeed nothing, because I say that I am in ignorance faced with such questions, I also do not know of course what is the nature of the creator of all things in the universe, if he is incorporeal or corporeal, and more, in what place he resides.
So I say that I do not know whether the world is created, if there is something outside of it or not. And because I say I do not know these things, so it is clear that I do not know about the creator of all things in this world, whether he is corporeal or incorporeal, nor where he is located, namely the divinity, or rather the power of the divinity. This power is of him whose works are revealed in this world through acts that can only come from a creator. Thus these themselves demonstrate God.
He said: I do not know if the world is created or not, and if there is something else outside of it, or nothing. And as I say that I am ignorant about these things, it is also clear that I do not know about the creator of all things in the world, whether he is a body or incorporeal, nor what is the place of his residence. As for God and the divine powers, that is to say the powers whose activities are manifested in the world, they can only come from the Creator, so they reveal Him and they are attributed to Him.
In this case, the text has been augmented, somewhere along the line. Somebody has added some extra explanatory text on the end. Where Galen is ambivalent about the Creator, etc, the editor has firmly asserted the existence of a creator.
Here’s the second:
Is it only about the gods I also affirm that I am in uncertainty, as Protagoras said, or in fact that I say about them that I am ignorant of their essence, while recognizing their existence from their works? For the constitution of living beings is the work of the gods, and also all the warnings that they send, by omens, signs and dreams.
And I will not speak like Pictagoras who denied having any knowledge about them, but I say that I have no knowledge of their essence; but that such powers exist, I know through their works because the organization of living beings is their doing, and they are revealed by divination and dreams.
I do not say of them like Protagoras: “I do not know anything about them,” but I say I do not know what is their essence. That they exist, on the other hand, I know from their activities, and from their activities appear the composition of animals and that which is manifested through divination, omens, and the interpretation of dreams.
These three are more similar – although the name Protagoras has turned into Pictagoras! All the same, the change is subtle. A question that Galen leaves open becomes a positive statement.
Here’s the third passage adduced by Pietrobelli:
The god who is honoured at home in Pergamum has shown his power and providence on many other occasions but especially on the day he nursed me.
At sea, I experienced not only the providence, but also the power of the Dioscuri.
In fact, I do not think it is wrong for men to be ignorant of the essence of the gods, although I decided to honour them by following the ancient custom, in the manner of Socrates who advised people to obey the precepts of Pythios.
That is my position regarding the gods.
Concerning the works of God in us … † † they appeared by his power, because he nursed me once through an illness I had and because he manifests himself at sea in delivering those who are about to be wrecked thanks to the signs that they see and those who firmly believe in their salvation. That clearly indicates an admirable power that I have myself experienced. And I do not see what is harmful for men if they ignore the essence of divinity, and I see that I must accept and follow the law on this point and accept what Socrates prescribed who expressed himself quite strongly on this subject.
That’s what I have to say about the deity.
And among the actions of God, blessed and praised be He, which reveal his power and his providence for his creatures, there is the fact that He healed me from an illness I had, and what can be seen at sea after the rescue of those who embark on the ships; after believing they will be shipwrecked and drowned, <they are saved> by the signs that they see and that they believe and by which they are saved. This gives a clear indication of a great power, and I do not think that does harm to people if they do not know what is the essence of the divine powers. That’s why I think I need to exalt and praise them, as religion ordains.
The differences here are considerable. Galen’s own text acknowledges the favour of Asclepius, the god of Pergamum, Galen’s home city; of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, and the teachings of Apollo (Pythios). All this pagan material has been removed, in favour of acknowledgement of the intervention of God.
Furthermore, the Hebrew reveals yet more intervention – “God, praised and blessed be He” has a distinctly Islamic flavour.
What are we to make of all this?
The changes may have been made at any point in the transmission. Without a general knowledge of changes of this kind in the Arabic translation movement, we cannot say if any of this reflects the Greek text before Hunain and Job; or is conventional, in Syriac translations; or is their own work, in adapting a medical textbook for the needs of a capricious Muslim despot; or is the work of later Arabic editors, or indeed of the Latin and Hebrew translators in Europe. But somewhere along the line, someone got creative.
The changes, in fairness, are mild. They adjust paganism to monotheism, and remove an irrelevant irritant for the reader. They are probably no worse than some modern editors are doing to old but politically incorrect childrens’ classics like Biggles.
All the same, it does highlight that the transmission of texts is sometimes less than faithful, on ideological grounds. It would be most interesting to see if there is any general pattern available in the data. I suspect that there might be.
June 21st, 2016 by Roger Pearse
On June 21 2016 I wrote a post here to the effect that fragments of the lost play, “Palamedes”, by Euripides had been found in a manuscript in Jerusalem by Dr Felix Albrecht. This I based on other internet reports, in German, which themselves seem to misunderstand the sitiuation.
But after communicating with Dr Albrecht, I find that this is NOT the case. No fragments of unknown plays have been found. But the actual find is itself very exciting, and the technology used is a clear advance.
What are the facts? The manuscript is Cod. Hierosolymitanus Sancti Sepulcri 36, which was written in the 13th century, and contains 556 leaves, on which may be found the text of the Minor Prophets from the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint). But the manuscript was written on reused parchment. With the aid of a new multi-spectral imaging system, called “Revelator” (for which see below), some extraordinary results can be achieved!
Some of the parchment came from a now destroyed 11th century copy of The Phoenician Women by Euripides, made as a school copy with explanatory marginalia. That makes it very old, compared to most of our Greek manuscripts, and it is the most important witness to the text. This itself is an important discovery. And there are others, as we shall see.
The manuscript has been known for a century, but it was rediscovered by Felix Albrecht, as part of his work to produce a critical edition of the Greek Old Testament. He has set up “Project Palamedes” to support this work, and he has also published an article on the subject, which he has kindly sent to me.
The manuscript is located in the library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and comes from the library of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I found an image of a page of the palimpsest here, from the Euripides section. It shows clearly the marvellous results of this new multi-spectral imaging technique:
Among the under-texts are also portions of Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, from a manuscript of the 8th century. This is lost in the Greek original, and preserved only in Syriac. (I remember scanning the English translation of this, years ago, and placing it online!) This too is a valuable find.
Other finds are pages from: a 7th century copy of Basil of Caesarea’s Asceticon Magna, CPG 2875; 8th century copy of Maximus the Confessor, Capita de Caritate, CPG 7693; an unknown text in 8th century uncial; a 10th c. copy of Gregory Nazianzen’s Carmina Moralia, CPG 3035; a 10th century copy of Isaiah; and some pages in 7th century hand, of unknown content, reused in the 11th century to contain a school copy of Euripides.
One quaternion of the manuscript managed to end up in St Petersburg.
Nor is this all. The project is also working on another palimpsest, Codex Parisinus Graecus 1330 from the library of Colbert. The upper text is a colourful nomocanon, but it reused pages from a majuscule manuscript ca. 500 AD containing a previously unknown ancient commentary on the works of Aristotle. There are also ancient diagrams of the highest quality. Any discovery gives us something, although this one will perhaps be more for the students of philosophy.
I also found a bibliography for Felix Albrecht, here, which suggested other finds of unknown material that ought to be better known.
UPDATE: Dr Albrecht wrote to me as follows:
Concerning Euripides, we did not find any unknown Euripides texts, unfortunately.
However, the Jerusalem palimpsest contains four new discovered pages of known Euripides text with scholia, which seem to be very interesting, because:
- The Jerusalem palimpsest is the most important witness to Euripides.
- Many folios of the Jerusalem palimpsest, and so the new discovered pages, are re-written twice, i.e. bis rescriptus.
From a scientific point of view, the decipherment of these double palimpsested (bis rescriptus) folios, using a special multispectral imaging system is the most important result of our work.
The multispectral imaging system is called “Revelator” (cf. http://www.mwa-nova.com/revelator.html). The system, which is definitely amazing, allows the user to make images in the full spectrum of light from UV to IR; it collects the data in a way that the results can be processed in 3D, cf. the following example.
A prototype of that system, invented by Jonathan Albrecht, has been used for the PALAMEDES project.
PALAMEDES volume 1 will be published in 2017: “Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Holy Sepulchre Ms 36. A Semi-diplomatic Edition of the Euripides Fragments by Felix Albrecht and Agamemnon Tselikas” (PALAMEDES 1), Athens 2017.
Since few will click through, I do want to say that the “example” included this quite amazing image of a page moving and showing both texts. It is very clear that a considerable technical advance has taken place!
June 18th, 2016 by Roger Pearse
The reign of the Caliph Omar continues, with the seige of Damascus. The Roman garrison defends the city against what is seen at the time as merely a large-scale raid. But in the end, after six months, the governor surrenders.
6. When the Muslims arrived at Damascus, Khalid ibn al-Walid camped near the “Bab ash-Sharqi”, Abu Ubayda ibn al-Garrah near the “Bāb al-Gābiyah”, Amr ibn al-As near the “Bāb Tuma”, and Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan near the the “Bāb as-Saghir (71)” and the “Bāb Kisan”. They besieged Damascus for six months less one day. The Rum made raids against them every day, coming out now from one gate or another, keeping them engaged in combat. Then the Muslims wrote to Omar ibn al-Khattab, informing him of the progress of affairs. Omar ibn al-Khattab replied, sending a letter with which he removed the supreme command from Khalid ibn al-Walid and entrusted it to Abu Ubayda ibn al-Garrah. The siege had now exhausted the inhabitants of Damascus, and Mansur, the prefect of Damascus, went up on the “Bāb ash-Sharqi” and spoke to Khalid ibn al-Walid, asking him to grant safety to him, to his family, to those who they were with him, and to the inhabitants of Damascus, with the exception of the Rum: in exchange for which he would open the gates of the city. Khalid ibn al-Walid agreed to his request and wrote to him a covenant whose text read as follows:
“This is a statement by Khalid ibn al-Walid to the people of Damascus. I will guarantee your lives, your homes, your property and your churches and I assure you that these will not be destroyed, nor your dwelling places and that you will be left alone.”
He handed over the parchment, and Mansur opened to Khalid ibn al-Walid the “Bāb ash-Sharqi”. Khalid burst into the city shouting to his men: “Keep your swords in their sheaths.” Once they entered the city, Khalid’s men shouted in chorus “Allahu Akbar” [=God is great]. Their shout came up to the Rum who were fighting at the [other] gates. Realizing that Mansur had opened the door and had let the Arabs into the city, they gave up defending the gates and fled. Abu Ubayda ibn al-Garrah came with a drawn sword from the “Bab al-Gabiyah”, and from “Bab as-Saghir” came Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan who was also with his sword drawn, and from the “Bab Tuma,” where there was still violent fighting, came in, always with a drawn sword, Amr ibn al-As. Many men were killed at the “Bab Tuma” on both sides. The Muslims were continuing to slaughter, and to take prisoners when Khalid ibn al-Walid, Abu Ubayda ibn al-Garrah, Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan and Amr ibn al-As met together in the place called “az-Zayyanin” where Mansur was with the [text] of the covenant in his hands. Khalid ibn al-Walid made them aware of the guarantee which he had granted them. Their opinions were divided. Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan said: “We do not endorse the guarantee given to them,” while Abu Ubayda and Amr ibn al-As said: “We will recognize its validity” and cried out to their men, saying sheathe their swords. Yazid instead shouted to his men not to put away their swords. Then Amr ibn al-As said: “Come now, consider also that the city was taken based on our commitment of protection and there is peace between us.” Thus they were all agreed.
Then Mansur said to them: “Promise me in the name of Allah”, and did write in the text “There swore in the name of Allah: Abu Ubayda ibn al-Garrah, Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan, Amr ibn al-As and Sarhabil ibn Hasana”. Mansur took with him the text. The Byzantine soldiers who had found safety reached King Heraclius at Antioch.
When King Heraclius understood that Damascus had been occupied he exclaimed: “Peace to you, O Syria,” or “Peace to you, O Damascus of Syria”, and went on his journey till he came to Constantinople, in the third year of the caliphate of Omar ibn al-Khattab. As for Mansur, prefect of Damascus, for his cowardly behaviour and for what he had done to the Rum, getting them killed, and for the help given to the Muslims against them, all the patriarchs and bishops of the whole earth cursed him.
Seven days later, a messenger announced to Omar ibn al-Khattab the fall of Damascus.
June 16th, 2016 by Roger Pearse
Back in 2012 a Harvard “religious studies” academic named Karen King announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment containing a Coptic text which referred to Jesus having a wife. It takes little knowledge of the methods of commercial forgers to see why someone would forge such a thing. Nor is it hard to see why a US leftist academic with a background in “Womens’ studies” would promote it. I was certainly sceptical. More learned people pointed to the small problem that the text reproduced a typographical error from an online edition. At that point pretty much everyone – aside from Dr King – felt the story was over. It was never clear just where the thing had come from, or who owned it; Dr. K. professed that she was sworn to secrecy.
Via Alin Suciu, today, I learn that in this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine contains a monster piece of investigative journalism that unmasks the owner, and probably the forger, of the papyrus.
The article is written by Ariel Sabar, who dedicated months of investigation to tracking down the background of this dubious item. He discovered the owner was a silver-tongued salesman named Walter Fritz, and eventually got an admission out of him that he was indeed the owner of the papyrus. Fritz had studied Coptic, had a grudge against scholars, and is, seemingly, a bullshitter extraordinaire. He is also an admirer of – guess what – the Da Vinci Code, and all the stuff about Mary Magdalene being Jesus’ Wife. He was also in financial trouble at the time when he produced the thing.
I will not attempt to summarise the article here. It is, necessarily, a story of the process of discovery, and inevitably reads like what it is, a magazine article. We need not agree with every opinion expressed in it, though, to see that a great deal of real hard information has emerged here. Read it.
The conclusion seems convincing to me: the papyrus was forged by Fritz. In fact Fritz has not admitted to composing it, but he has the skills, multiple motives, and the opportunity. Few, I suspect, will now doubt that he did so.
Karen King does not come out very well from the article, and perhaps does not deserve to. But let us be fair, and treat her as we would wish to be treated in such a case. A bit of careful reading of Sabar’s narrative suggests that she was just a dupe – duped by Fritz. In fact, Sabar suggests that she was chosen by him as a “mark”, precisely because he believed that she would be predisposed for ideological reasons to believe his nonsense. He was probably right. We can hardly blame Dr King for being persuaded by a man who, like all salesmen, was a professional persuader. It could happen to most of us, I suspect.
It is a warning to all of us, always to be suspicious of what seems convenient to us. “This is a benefit … it may be a bribe” is always a good thing to remember, in scholarship as in life.
This is one of the rare pieces of journalism that justifies all the claims that are made for the importance of a free press. Few academics could have done this piece of investigation. Well done, Mr Sabar. You have done us all a favour.