The only surviving handwriting of an emperor: Theodosius II and a petition from Aswan

How many of us know that there is a papyrus with the handwriting of a Roman emperor on it?  I certainly did not, until I learned of it from a tweet by Richard Flower.  But so it is.

The papyrus comes from Elephantine in Egypt, the island of Philae, opposite the modern town of Aswan, which is ancient Syene.  Papyri from the island were sold to dealers throughout the 19th century; some excavation took place in the early 20th, first by a German expedition, then a French.  Shockingly, while the Aramaic and Greek papyri discovered by the German excavators have been published, most of the Demotic, hieratic and Coptic papyri remain unpublished.[1]

The writing is by Theodosius II, who died in 450 AD after falling off his horse, and is dated to 425-430 AD.  The bishop of Syene, who had an Egyptian name, Appion, had written to the emperor (in Greek).  Nubian raiders were attacking the town.  The bishop asked for soldiers to protect it.

The emperor’s reply is not preserved, but a copy of the petition was attached to it, and on it some words in Latin, which are generally thought to be the emperor’s own hand.

The papyrus is now at Leiden, where the papyri were given letters, A-Z.  This is Leiden Papyrus Z (P. Leid. II. Z), catalogued here.  The papyrus is online at the Rijksmuseum in Leiden here.

It’s hard to even see the lettering on the papyrus, which is only written on the recto side.  Click on the image for a larger one, or visit the Rijksmuseum site for more photographs.

The emperor’s handwriting is at the top right of the sheet.  I’ve autoleveled an extract here:

Apparently the emperor wrote, “…bene valere te cupimus”, i.e. “…we desire that you be well.”

The document is translated for us in B. Porten &c, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 1996, p.441, entry D 19.  It is in two columns.  The first consists of an unreadable line, followed by the emperor’s words.  This is all that is left of the imperial reply.  The second column, headed by a Latin title “copy of the petition” contains the Greek text, written by a scribe.

For interest, here is the translation, slightly smoothed out:

[ . . . ] we desire that you be well.

Copy of Petition.

Address to the masters of land and sea and every nation of mankind, Theodosius and Valentinianus, the eternal Augusti, petition and supplication

From Appion, bishop of the legion of Syene and of Contra Syene and of Elephantine, in your province of Upper Thebaid.

Your Benevolence is accustomed to stretch out a right hand to all who are in need. Therefore I too, having learned this clearly, have come to these petitions, the matter being thus:

Situated with my churches in the midst of the sinful Barbaria[ns], the Blemmyes and the Nobadae, we are subject to many stealthy attacks by them, with no soldier protecting our places.

Therefore, since the churches under me have been humbled and are unable to protect the very ones who flee to them , I prostrate myself, rolling on the ground before your divine and immaculate footsteps so that you deem it right to decree that the holy churches [under me] be guarded by the soldiers among us, and that they obey me and heed me in all matters, just as the soldiers stationed in the fortress so-called “of Philae” in your Upper Thebaid will be at the service of the holy churches of God in Philae.

For thus we will be able to live without fear […] and follow […] most stern decree […] being issued against those who have transgressed […] what has been divinely ordained by you, every deceit of an opposing party, past or future, being null and void, with your divine [… and] special grace in this matter being addressed to the most magnificent and conspicuous count and duke of the frontier district of the Thebaid.

And having obtained this, I shall send up the customary prayers for your eternal power for all (time).

Apparently nothing in the archive of other papyri suggests that the request was honoured.

The request reminds me a little of the Donation of Constantine.  It has been suggested that this was originally composed in the 6th century during the Lombard invasions of Italy.  The idea is that it was a way for the Bishop of Rome to gain control of the remaining Byzantine garrisons, in order to protect the city.  Bishops were figures of authority in their communities in the late empire, and perhaps this story could be replicated wherever the secular power began to fail.

But how exciting to see the handwriting of a Roman emperor!

  1. [1]The Elephantine Papyri in English, p.4.

The log book of Inspector Merer from Wadi al Jarf and the pyramid of Cheops / Khufu

So now we know how the stones were transported to build the pyramids of Egypt!!  They were moved by boat.  We know now this, thanks to a discovery in 2013 of a papyrus, in some boat storage caves on the Red Sea.  The find has caused a bunch of picture stories online this summer, such as this one at the Smithsonian, the Sun,  and I believe a TV documentary by Channel 4, Egypt’s Great Pyramid: The New Evidence.  The first volume of papyri from the find has just been published in book form.

Like most people, I tend to be sceptical of newspaper reports about wonderful finds in Egypt.  But this is entirely genuine!  There is some hard info here, and a very nice article from “The harbour of Khufu on the Red Sea coast at adi al-Jarf, Egypt” in Near Eastern Archaeology 77:1 (2014), 4-14 (PDF here), which shows a piece of the papyrus:

A detail of one page of Inspector Merer’s “diary” (B), mentioning
the “Horizon of Khufu.” Photograph by G. Pollin.

The papyrus is from the early 4th Dynasty, around 2,500 BC. It is the journal, daybook, or logbook, of Inspector Merer, who perhaps wrote it with a reed pen himself, and was in charge of a team of about 200 men.  It is, in fact, the most ancient inscribed papyrus ever found in Egypt.  It dates from the reign of Cheops, or Khufu as we must call him, the builder of the Great Pyramid.  In fact it dates from year 27 of his reign, when the pyramid was actually being finished, and its outer casing of fine Tura limestone was being fitted.

Most of the new book will be specialist stuff.  But, bless them, the team have put online a great deal of useful material!

The website of Prof. Tallet and his team is AMeRS, the “Association Mer Rouge-Sinai”.  An interview with Dr. T. is available in video here.  But even better, at this post, there is a PDF containing those portions of the book of general interest, with an analysis in English.  This includes … translations into English and Arabic (why not French?), and the post also has an English abstract:

At the end of this month, the first volume dedicated to the Wadi el-Jarf papyri will be published at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. These documents, found at the entrance of the storage galleries, are exceptional, since they are the most ancient inscribed papyri ever found in Egypt. Like most of the remains of the harbor of Wadi el-Jarf, they are from the reign of Khufu. Pierre Tallet choose for this first volume, to deal with two of the best preserved papyri (papyrus A and B), belonging to the logbook written by the inspector Merer, whose team was engaged in the transportation by boat of limestone blocs from the quarry of Tura to the construction site of the great pyramid of Khufu at Giza.

English and Arabic translation of the Egyptian text and synthesis of the data [1705_Tallet]

This is wonderful, and it is remarkable how few people have linked to it.

I’ve reformatted the English translation for ease of reading, and here it is.  “Akhet-Khufu” is the Great Pyramid, the “Horizon of Khufu”.  “She Khufu” means “the pool of Khufu”, short for “Ro-She Khufu”, the “entrance to the pool of Khufu”, which is perhaps the headquarters for the administration of the pyramid project, situated on the artificial lake near the mortuary temple.  Ankhhaf was Cheops’ half-brother, and in charge of works including the pyramid construction.

First day : […] spend the day […] in […].
[Day] 2: […] spend the day […] in? […].
[Day 3: Cast off from?] the royal palace? [… sail]ing [upriver] towards Tura, spend the night there.
Day [4]: Cast off from Tura, morning sail downriver towards Akhet-Khufu, spend the night.
[Day] 5: Cast off from Tura in the afternoon, sail towards Akhet-Khufu.
Day 6: Cast off from Akhet-Khufu and sail upriver towards Tura […].
[Day 7]: Cast off in the morning from […]
Day 8: Cast off in the morning from Tura, sail downriver towards Akhet-Khufu, spend the night there.
Day 9: Cast off in the morning from Akhet-Khufu, sail upriver; spend the night.
Day 10: Cast off from Tura, moor in Akhet-Khufu. Come from […]? the aper-teams?[…]
Day 11: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle in] carrying out works related to the dyke of [Ro-She] Khuf[u …]
Day 12: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle carrying out] works related to the dyke of Ro-She Khufu […].
Day 13: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle? …] the dyke which is in Ro-She Khufu by means of 15? phyles of aper-teams.
Day [14]: [Inspector] Merer spends the day [with his phyle] on the dyke [in/of Ro-She] Khu[fu…].
[Day] 15 […] in Ro-She Khufu […].
Day 16: Inspector Merer spends the day […] in Ro-She Khufu with the noble? […].
Day 17: Inspector Merer spends the day […] lifting the piles of the dy[ke …].
Day 18: Inspector Merer spends the day […]
Day 19 […]
Day 20 […] for the rudder? […] the aper-teams.

[Day 25]: [Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle [h]au[ling]? st[ones in Tura South]; spends the night at Tura South
[Day 26]: Inspector Merer casts off with his phyle from Tura [South], loaded with stone, for Akhet-Khufu; spends the night at She-Khufu.
Day 27: sets sail from She-Khufu, sails towards Akhet-Khufu, loaded with stone, spends the night at Akhet-Khufu.
Day 28: casts off from Akhet-Khufu in the morning; sails upriver Tura South.
Day 29: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura South; spends the night at Tura South.
Day 30: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura South; spends the night at Tura South.

[First day ] the director of 6 Idjer[u] casts of for Heliopolis in a transport boat-iuat to bring  us food from Heliopolis while the Elite (stp-sȝ) is in Tura.
Day 2: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura North; spends the night at Tura North.
Day 3: Inspector Merer casts off from Tura North, sails towards Akhet-Khufu loaded with stone.
[Day 4 …] the director of 6 [Idjer]u [comes back] from Heliopolis with 40 sacks-khar and a large measure-heqat of bread-beset while the Elite hauls stones in Tura North.
Day 5: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle loading stones onto the boats-hau of the Elite in Tura North, spends the night at Tura.
Day 6: Inspector Merer sets sail with a boat of the naval section (gs-dpt) of Ta-ur, going downriver towards Akhet-Khufu. Spends the night at Ro-She Khufu.
Day 7: sets sail in the morning towards Akhet-Khufu, sails towing towards Tura North, spends the night at […]
Day 8: sets sail from Ro-She Khufu, sails towards Tura North. Inspector Merer spends the day [with a boat?] of Ta-ur? […].
Day 9: sets sail from […] of Khufu […].
Day 10: […]

[Day 13 …] She-[Khufu] […] spends the night at Tur]a South.
[Day 14: … hauling] stones [… spends the night in] Tura South.
[Day 15:] Inspector Merer [spends the day] with his [phyle] hauling stones [in Tura] South, spends the night in Tura South.
[Day 16: Inspector Merer spends the day with] his phyle loading the boat-imu (?) with stone [sails …] downriver, spends the night at She-Khufu.
[Day 17: casts off from She-Khufu] in the morning, sails towards Akhet-Khufu; [sails … from] Akhet-Khufu, spends the night at She-Khufu.
[Day 18] […] sails […] spends the night at Tura .
[Day 19]: Inspector Merer] spends the day [with his phyle] hauling stones in Tura [South ?].
Day 20: [Inspector] Mer[er] spends the day with [his phyle] hauling stones in Tura South (?), loads 5 craft, spends the night at Tura.
Day 21: [Inspector] Merer spends the day with his [phyle] loading a transport ship-imu at Tura North, sets sail from Tura in the afternoon.
Day 22: spends the night at Ro-She Khufu. In the morning, sets sail from Ro-She Khufu; sails towards Akhet-Khufu; spends the night at the Chapels of [Akhet] Khufu.
Day 23: The director of 10 Hesi spends the day with his naval section in Ro-She Khufu, because a decision to cast off was taken; spends the night at Ro-She Khufu.
Day 24: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling (stones? craft?) with those who are on the register of the Elite, the aper-teams and the noble Ankhhaf, director of Ro-She Khufu.
Day 25: Inspector Merer spends the day with his team hauling stones in Tura, spends the night at Tura North.
[Day 26 …] sails towards […]

Day x+1: [sails] downriver […] the bank of the point of She-Khufu.
Day x+2: […] sails? from Akhet-Khufu […] Ro-She Khufu.
Day x+3: [… loads?] […Tura] North.
Day x+4: […] loaded with stone […] Ro-She [Khufu].
Day x+5: […] Ro-She Khufu […] sails from Akhet-Khufu; spends the night.
Day x+6: [… sails …] Tura.
Day x+7: [… hauling?] stones [in Tura North, spends the night at Tura North.
Day x+8: [Inspector Merer] spends the day with his phyle [hauling] stones in Tura North; spends the night in Tura North.
Day x+9: […] stones [… Tura] North.
Day x+10: […] stones [Tu]ra North;
Day x+11: [casts off?] in the afternoon […] sails? […]

x+1 […Tura] North […] spends the night there.
x+2: […] sails [… Tura] North, spends the night at Tura North.
x+3 [… loads, hauls] stones […]
x+4 […] spends the night there.
x+5 […] with his phyle loading […] loading a craft.
x+6 […] sails [… Ro-She?] Khufu […]
x+7 […] with his phyle sails […] sleeps at [Ro]-She Khufu
x+8 […]

It is really fascinating to read this account of the days of a man much like ourselves, writing some 4,500 years ago!  Well done, Dr Tallet and friends, for making this accessible to us all!

Pierre Tallet, Les papyrus de la Mer Rouge I: Le “Journal de Merer”.

An extant “sillybos” – parchment label – from an ancient roll

The British Library manuscripts blog has produced a rather marvellous article by Matthew Nicholls on Ancient Libraries.

But what made it special to me was an image of an item which I had never seen before.

As we all know, ancient books were written on rolls of papyrus.  The modern book form or “codex” belongs to late antiquity.  But the title of the work in each roll was written on a parchment slip known as the sillybos, which protruded from the end, allowing the reader to find out which roll he needed without unrolling any of them.

Cicero refers to such items in his letters to Atticus.  In book 4, letter 8, 2, we read:[1]

Postea vero quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit, mens addita videtur meis aedibus. Qua quidem in re mirifica opera Dionysi et Menophili tui fuit. Nihil venustius quam illa tua pegmata, postquam mi sillybis libros iIlustrarunt. Vale. Et scribas ad me velim de gladiatoribus, sed ita, bene si rem gerunt; non quaero, male si se gessere.

Since Tyrannio has arranged my books, the house seems to have acquired a soul: and your Dionysius and Menophilus were of extraordinary service. Nothing could be more charming than those bookcases of yours now that the books are adorned with title-slips. Farewell. Please let me know about the gladiators: but only if they are behaving well; if not, I don’t want to know.

 In book 4, letter 5.4 we read:[2]

Domum meam quod crebro invisis est mihi valde gratum. Viaticum Crassipes praeripit. Tu “de via recta in hortos.” Videtur commodius ad te: postridie scilicet; quid enim tua? Sed viderimus. Bibliothecam mihi tui pinxerunt constructione et sillybis. Eos velim laudes.

I am very grateful to you for going to see my house so often. Crassipes is swallowing all my travelling money. You say I must go straight to your country house. It seems to me more convenient to go to your town house, and on the next day. It can’t make any difference to you. But we shall see. Your men have beautified my library by binding the books and affixing title-slips. Please thank them.

A painting from Herculaneum shows an example of a roll with a sillybos dangling out of the end of the roll:

Matthew has posted here an image of one, attached to its original roll:

The slip has on it the name of “Bacchylides” – a poet of the 5th c. BC – with the title of the work, the Dithyramboi, underneath.  The bit of text attached is from the 17th dithyramb. The manuscript is BL papyrus 2056 (= P.Oxy. 1091), and is 2nd century AD in date.  It is, of course, from Oxyrhynchus, as is papyrus 733, the unique manuscript of Bacchylides’ poems.

It’s wonderful to see something like this.  It’s obvious how these could become detached, and a work could become anonymous and untitled.

Note that a number of other sillyboi may be seen at the Oxyrhynchus website here.

  1. [1]Loeb edition, vol. 1, p.292-3.
  2. [2]Loeb edition, vol. 1, p.284-5

A parchment fragment of Agrippa Castor “Against Basilides”?

A correspondent writes to tell me that there is a 5th century parchment item in the Bodleian Library in Oxford – a fragment from Egypt, of course – listed in the catalogue here, which the cataloguer attributes to Agrippa Castor:

Shelfmark:  MS. Gr. th. g. 3 (P)
Summary Catalogue no:  31812
Summary of contents: Theological controversy with B (? part of Agrippa Castor’s lost refutation of Basileides).
Language: Greek
Origin: Egyptian
Date: 5th century (?)
Material: parchment

This is very interesting, and I could wish that the parchment was online.

Agrippa Castor wrote around 135 AD against the 24 books of the gnostic Basilides.  Unfortunately all his work is lost, and we know about him only from Eusebius (HE IV, c.7), Jerome (De Viris Illustribus c. 21), and Theodoret (Haereticarum Fabularum Compendium I, c.4, PG 349C).  The Eusebius is as follows:

5. But as there were at that time a great many members of the Church who were fighting for the truth and defending apostolic and ecclesiastical doctrine with uncommon eloquence, so there were some also that furnished posterity through their writings with means of defense against the heresies to which we have referred.

6. Of these there has come down to us a most powerful refutation of Basilides by Agrippa Castor, one of the most renowned writers of that day, which shows the terrible imposture of the man.

7. While exposing his mysteries he says that Basilides wrote twenty-four books upon the Gospel, and that he invented prophets for himself named Barcabbas and Barcoph, and others that had no existence, and that he gave them barbarous names in order to amaze those who marvel at such things; that he taught also that the eating of meat offered to idols and the unguarded renunciation of the faith in times of persecution were matters of indifference; and that he enjoined upon his followers, like Pythagoras, a silence of five years.

8. Other similar things the above-mentioned writer has recorded concerning Basilides, and has ably exposed the error of his heresy.

Jerome writes as follows:

Agrippa surnamed Castor, a man of great learning, wrote a strong refutation of the twenty-four volumes which Basilides the heretic had written against the Gospel, disclosing all his mysteries and enumerating the prophets Barcabbas and Barchob and all the other barbarous names which terrify the hearers, and his most high God Abraxas. whose name was supposed to contain the year according to the reckoning of the Greeks. Basilides died at Alexandria in the reign of Hadrian, and from him the Gnostic sects arose. In this tempestuous time also, Cochebas leader of the Jewish faction put Christians to death with various tortures.

Theodoret writes:

And Basilides also had prophets, Barcabas and Barcoph and some others equally barbarian. And he formed other most abominable myths from these which I have not included because of the damage to those who will happen upon them.

And Isidore, the son of Basilides, with a certain addition, strengthened the mythology of [his] father. And Agrippa, surnamed Castor, Irenaeus, Clement’s Stromata and Origen struggled against these, while contending for the truth.[1]

Catalogues of fragments are not a reliable guide to the contents.  No doubt the fragment utters some anti-gnostic sentiments, perhaps mentions Basilides; and it would be most interesting to see it!

  1. [1]Glenn Melvin Cope, An analysis of the heresiological method of Theodoret of Cyrus in the “Haereticarum fabularum compendium”, thesis, Catholic University of America, 1990; p.92.

A couple of pictures of the start and end of Melito’s “De pascha” (On Easter)

Until 1940 Melito of Sardis was an obscure figure of the 2nd century AD, known mainly from Eusebius, who mentioned that he wrote a work on Easter.  In that year there appeared an edition and translation of On Easter (De Pascha).  It was based on a 4th c. papyrus codex which had come from Egypt.[1] This had been broken up, and portions of the almost complete text were in Dublin at the Chester Beatty library[2] while the remainder were at the University of Michigan.  A more complete text was published in 1960 from Bodmer Papyrus XII (start of the 4th c.),[3]  and a modern edition appeared in 1979.[4]

Coptologist Alin Suciu recently published pictures of manuscript pages on his facebook page, showing the start and end of the work.  I thought that many people might perhaps like to see them.

First the start of the work (following the end of Enoch), from the Chester Beatty codex.  Click on the image for a larger picture.


There is a large ENWX, then a line, and then MELITWN (Of Melito).  The title, however, is missing.

The Chester Beatty-Michigan manuscript is defective at the end, so we don’t know how the final portion of it looked.   But in the Bodmer manuscript, both the start and end of the work are present, and the name and title are shown in both places as Μελίτωνος Περὶ Πασχα.  I am told that in fact there is a title page with this on, before the first actual page of text.[5]


The work ends with MELITWNOS PERI PASXA.  This is followed by two lines which Alin translates for us:

After the subscription of the work, the scribe added a “colophon” (actually a scribal note): “Peace to the one who wrote, to the one who reads, and to those who love the Lord with sincerity of heart.”

An otherwise lost work found in damaged papyrus codices… Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!

UPDATE: My thanks to the correspondent who pointed out my mistake in supposing these images were from a single manuscript; and also that the Chester Beatty portions of the ms. are online here.

  1. [1]Campbell Bonner, The Homily on the Passion by Melito Bishop of Sardis with some fragments of the Apocryphal Ezekiel, London, 1940.
  2. [2]Shelfmark CBL BP XII, images online at the CSNTM site here, but viewable only through a dreadful “viewer” application.
  3. [3]M. Testuz, Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, Cologny-Geneve, 1960.
  4. [4]Edition and translation by Stuart Hall, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha and fragments, Oxford, 1979.  For the Bodmer papyri, see James M. Robinson, The Story of the Bodmer Papyri: From the First Monastery’s Library in Upper Egypt to Geneva and Dublin, 2014.  Preview here.
  5. [5]My thanks to the correspondent who drew my attention to my mistakes and supplied this information.

P. Petaus 30: A letter describing a travelling book dealer

A tweet today from Sarah Bond drew my attention to an interesting papyrus:

2nd c letter of touring bookseller hawking small membranae (parchment codices)

P.Petaus 30, recto. 2nd c. AD.
P.Petaus 30, recto. 2nd c. AD.
Verso (Click on the image for full size)

Details of the papyrus may be found here, with full-size photographs of recto and verso.  It was first published in 1969.

The papyrus was written around 150 AD by a scribe named Petaus, who lived in the village of Ptolemais Hormou, modern El-Lahun.  It is currently held in Cologne, where the inventory number is P.376.

The author who dictated the letter to the scribe was named Julius Placidus.  The letter was addressed to his father, Herclanus.  It concerned the purchase of books from a dealer who came to him.

The text is transcribed here (and rather better than I can manage in WordPress):


Ἰούλιος Πλάκ[ι]δος Ἡρκλανῶι τῶι
πατρὶ χαίρειν.
Δεῖος γενόμενος παρʼ ἡμε[ῖ]ν ἐπέδει-
ξεν μὲν ἡμεῖν(*) τὰς μεμβρά-
νας ἕ̣ξ̣ .  ἐκεῖθεν μὲν οὐδὲν ἐξελε-
ξάμεθα, ἄλλα δὲ ὀ̣κτὼ ἀντεβά-
λ[ο]μεν, εἰς ἃ ἔδωκα ἐπὶ λόγου (δραχμὰς) ρ.
προνοήσεις μέντοι ̣ ̣ω[ ̣]τα.
τα̣[ ̣] ̣ ̣[ ̣] ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣α ἡμεῖν γενέσθαι.
[ἐρ]ρῶσθ[αί] σε εὔχ̣ο̣μαι.


…̣ ̣[ ̣] ̣[ -ca.?- ] π̣α̣ρ̣[ὰ]

Ἰουλ(ίου) Πλακί[δ](ου) ̣ ̣ ̣ο̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ν̣ο̣ς̣


“Julius Placidus to his father Herclanus, greeting. Dius came to us and showed us six parchment codices (tas membranas hex). We selected none of those, but we collated (antebalomen) eight, for which I paid on account 100 drachmas. You will be on the lookout in any case. . . I hope you are well. . .by Julius Placidus.”[1]

The papyrus is interesting as demonstrating the activities of a bookseller, travelling to his customer.  He had six “parchments”, but Julius Placidus didn’t buy them.  The other eight items, which they “collated”, or “compared” (with copies they already had?) were presumably books on papyrus, the normal material.

The “parchments” are translated above as “parchment codices”, which they probably were.  The first codices were made of wood, in the form of tablets inset with wax, and they were used for exercises or notes.  The wax could be erased easily.  Folded leaves of parchment were the next alternative to these wax tablets, as parchment can also be erased by scraping with a knife.  These notebooks may have been used for the autograph of at least some of the gospels, since early copies of these works are usually in codex form.  But they were mainly used by tradesmen, and literary works were usually on the traditional roll.  The poet Martial extols the value of the parchment codex, ca. 100 AD, in his early work, but as he grew more famous, those encomiums vanish and his books are for sale in roll format.  The eight books of unspecified material were perhaps papyrus rolls.

It is very nice to see the book trade in operation.  It is even nicer that we can get good quality images of the papyrus on the web, with transcription and translation.  We are fortunate people!

  1. [1]From Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 1995, p.53.

Discovered: A 5-6th century fragment of Methodius’ “Symposium”!

Methodius of Olympus.  5-6th century papyrus fragment of the Symposium.
Methodius of Olympus. 5-6th century papyrus fragment of the Symposium.

I learn from Brice C. Jones that a marvellous discovery has been made: a papyrus leaf, or the remains of one, containing a portion of the Symposium of the Ante-Nicene writer Methodius of Olympus (d. 311 AD, as a martyr):

New Discovery: The Earliest Manuscript of Methodius of Olympus and an Unattested Saying about the Nile

… The only complete work of Methodius that we possess is his Symposium or Banquet—a treatise in praise of voluntary virginity.

Until quite recently, the earliest manuscript of this text was an eleventh century codex known as Patmiacus Graecus 202, which is housed in the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos.

But a remarkable discovery has recently been made in the Montserrat Abbey in Spain.

Sofia Torallas Tovar and Klaas A. Worp, who have been working on the manuscript collection in the Montserrat Abbey for many years, have just published a fragment of Methodius’ Symposium that they date on palaeographical grounds to the fifth-sixth century—about 450 years earlier than the Patmos codex mentioned above. (On another recent, important discovery by Tovar and Worp, see here.)

Published as P.Monts. Roca 4.57, this fragment is the first attestation of a work of Methodius from Egypt. It is a narrow strip of parchment, with thirty partial lines preserved on the hair side (see image of fragment at right).

The text on this side of the fragment comes from Oratio 8:16.72-73, 3:14.35-40, 8.60-61, and 9.18-19 (in that order).

The flesh side contains thirty-five partial lines of text unrelated to the Methodian text. This is an unidentified Christian text with “Gnomic” sentiments, as the authors explain.

In addition to the wonderful fact that we now have a significantly earlier manuscript witness of Methodius’ text, there is also another remarkable feature in the new manuscript: a previously unattested saying about the Nile. In lines 5-8, the manuscript reads:

“The rise of the Nile is life and joy for the families”
ἡ ἀνάβα̣σ̣ε̣ι̣[ς] τοῦ Νείλου̣ ζω̣ή̣ ἐστι κ̣[αὶ] χαρὰ ἑστία[ις]

As the authors note, this saying does not occur in Methodius. And indeed, it does not fit the immediate context. Where it comes from is a mystery, but the saying is nonetheless very interesting.

Marvellous!  And thank you, Brice, for making this known to the world!  Brice adds that the publication is:

Sofía Torallas Tovar and Klaas A. Worp, ed., with the collaboration of Alberto Nodar and María Victoria Spottorno, “Greek Papyri from Montserrat” (P.Monts. Roca IV) (Barcelona: 2014), no. 57.

What this find also reminds me, is that Methodius is one of the very few ante-Nicene authors whose works have not been translated into English.  This is because they survive only in Old Slavic versions.  I paid some attention to these, in previous posts, and even acquired some texts; but I must hurry up and try to get some translations made!

A first century fragment of Mark’s gospel? Some thoughts by an outsider

An article in Live Science two days ago:

Mummy Mask May Reveal Oldest Known Gospel

A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published. …

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy.

Some sensible words of caution are here; and here at ETC, where it is suggested that the article at Live Science may be entirely derived from some public presentations.  There has also been some curious snarking from one or two papyrologists, who are not involved in the discovery, presumably out of sour grapes.

Is this a genuine discovery?  Who knows?  But I have some concerns about all this, even based on the story as we have it.

Mark’s gospel was completed ca. 70 AD, in Alexandria, according to the ancient literary sources, and to me there seems no pressing reason to suppose that they are wrong.  So it is possible, in principle, that a piece of an early copy could be found in waste papyrus in Egypt.  There’s no real reason why not.

But … surely it is somewhat improbable that one of the few copies of this text in existence at that date should happen to turn up in the limited amount of mummy cartonnage that has so far been dismantled?  Isn’t it?  Consider the vast output of papyrus made every year in ancient Egypt, of which a certain proportion ended up as waste papyrus.  What, statistically, are the chances of a 1st century copy of Mark being in that proportion?  They must be slim.

We’re told that portions of Homer have turned up, and this is not a surprise.  Likewise that documentary texts are found: this too does not surprise.  But something that must always have been a very rare item?

Of course probability is just that; a calculation based on averages.  All the same, it’s troubling.

In general, when a discovery is made which bears on matters of current interest or controversy (rather than something which was controversial in antiquity), it is wise to consider the possibility of forgery.   In the renaissance people forged stone monuments supposedly from well-known figures of classical antiquity, in order to make money.  Forgeries of papyri are not at all unknown.

There is a fingerprint for forgery, noted by Stephen C. Carlson.  By its very nature, a forgery must be of something which is exciting to people in the period in which it is “discovered”.   That’s where the money is.  Nobody is going to forge something that nobody is interested in.  But it is often the case that this modern excitement is over something that would not have been exciting in antiquity.  It is this dichotomy that marks out a forgery.

So any “discovery” that is of current interest, that fits squarely into a matter of current agitation, or fits the political or religious views of the discoverer particularly well, must be scrutinised with rational but exceptional caution.  Otherwise we will all be hoodwinked by those enterprising gentlemen in Turkey and Palestine whose attempts at forgery regularly attract interest from specialists.

A discovery of a first century fragment of a gospel fits that profile squarely.  A first century gospel could not have been of special interest in antiquity, when they were composed, but it would be very interesting today!

It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to do things right; to establish the provenance of the item, to look for signs of forgery, to get a range of experts involved, and, above all, to shed as much light as possible on the item.

When P52 was identified in the 1930s, the discoverer, Colin Roberts, proceeded with extreme care.  He did not publish, nor did he announce his find, until it had been examined by all the leading paleographers of the day, and a consensus reached.  The wisdom of his approach is evident: his result has not been seriously questioned in 80 years, even though it contradicted the established wisdom of biblical studies at the time, and reinforced the fondest wishes of Christians.

By contrast the way in which this supposed first century fragment is being made known raises in me the worst suspicions.

The papyrus trade is a secretive one, partly because of the foolishness of the Egyptian government in declaring all finds the property of state officials, and partly because of the stupidity of western activists, who harass those involved in the black market that has inevitably arisen.  It is, therefore, entirely understandable that nothing should be announced until everything is ready.  And if that silence is used, as Colin Roberts did, to determine the facts and build consensus, then well and good.  That’s one way to publish.

The alternative is better.  It is to shine a bright light on everything.  Publish the fragments now, without any very firm attributions, as soon as possible, with the provenance, and crowd-source an examination of every element of it.  The truth will out, and a consensus will come into being rather rapidly, as it did for the forgery known as the “gospel of Jesus’ wife”.

Either approach is acceptable.  But we seem to have neither.  Instead we have the worst of both worlds.

On the one hand we have a drip-drip of non-academic reportage, excitedly making all sorts of claims, possibly based on no more than a video by somebody who may (or may not) be involved in the project at all.  This feeds the fever of speculation; which, of course, increases the price that may be asked for publication, and generally increases the commercial value of the property.  It seems to benefit nobody in any other way that I can see.

On the other hand, we have an entire silence on all the matters that would allow professionals to form a judgement.

It is reminiscent of some of the hype around the Coptic Gospel of Judas.  That was a genuine text, and this mixture of whispers and real information is what we tended to get.  I suppose, in fairness, that this may be how Americans do things, for all I know.

But it is also reminiscent of how forgers operate: people whose sole aim is to boost the value of their merchandise and make a quick buck while the going is good.  For all I know, there is some Turkish forger at work, using some clever Swiss lawyer (or whatever) to control the whole process via “confidentiality agreements”, and manipulating the scholars at the far end who seek merely to recover knowledge.

If the discovery is genuine, then it is wonderful.  Any recovery of lost texts from antiquity is a joy, and any very early witness to any important text is to be treasured.

But is it genuine?  We cannot say.  But the manner in which it is becoming known to the public does nothing to give me confidence.

So I think we need to hold our horses, and await proper publication.  To me, all this is too good to be true.  But let’s hope not.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri online … or maybe only in the US?


Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volumes 1-15 online

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 1 (1898)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 2 (1899)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 3 (1903)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 4 (1904)[Alternative version]
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 5 (1908)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 6 (1908)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 7 (1910)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 8 (1911)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 9 (1912)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 10 (1914)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 11 (1915)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 12 (1916)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 13 (1919)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 14 (1920)
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume 15 (1922)

This is really valuable except … from outside the US, I can’t access vols. 1-5.  Can anyone in the US confirm that these are indeed online in PDF form?

Annoyingly, it looks as if Google Books have now blocked anonymizing proxies and Tor as means to by-pass the block on non-US people.  Probably there is now some other way that is presently unknown to me.  But really … why does anyone benefit from such childish dog-in-the-manger antics?

Boxes of papyri in Berlin “unopened” since they left Egypt a century ago

I’m reading William Brashear’s 1991 publication of P. Berol. 21196, identified as a Mithraic “catechism”.  It probably comes from excavations at Ashmunein (Hermopolis), undertaken by O. Rubensohn in 1906.  He asks, in the preface, if any more fragments of the papyrus are extant, and was unable to find any.  But then he states that there might still be some:

The Berlin collection still contains numerous boxes of papyri fromHermupolis, unopened since the day they arrived from Egypt almost a century ago.

Sometimes I despair of papyrologists.  How could this be allowed to happen?  Isn’t this shameful?

I can imagine someone about to whine about lack of funds.  Papyrology is chronically underfunded, it is true.  But then papyrologists so often seem to set out to annoy groups who might be tempted to fund their work.

An example of this, is the loud complaints that the Green Collection recruited amateur labour – “Christian apologists”, no less! the fiends! – to do manual work, cleaning and recovering papyri.  I’m afraid I shook my head at this, even as I read it.

Papyrology exists, as a discipline, because of Christians and the bible.  It exists because, among the very first finds of Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, were fragments of “sayings of Jesus”, which we now know to be part of the Gospel of Thomas.  Because of the mass interest in these finds, a major newspaper funded their next season and created the vast collection of papyri still being published, in a too leisurely way, even today.

This is the group in our society who have a real, persistent, determined reason to be interested, and who also have the money to fund more work than any of us can imagine.  This is the group who could fund dozens of chairs of papyrology, if they were treated with even ordinary courtesy.  They have motive, and they have tons of money.

But do we work with them?  On the contrary!  Every discovery of papyrus – like the “gospel of Jesus’ wife” – is given an anti-Christian spin.  The media networks do this, because they think annoying people will create a sensation, get ratings, and so advertising.  But the people who like those programs spend no money on papyrology.

May I invite my readers to imagine what sort of money even a single mega-church could spend, if it was convinced that among the sands of Egypt were texts that would illuminate, or confirm, or illustrate,  – whatever – the bible?

It’s easy enough to sneer at enthusiastic amateurs talking about washing papyri with palmolive. There’s been plenty of that.  It’s easy to jeer at famous apologist Josh McDowell and his promotion of the work.

And yet … it’s shameful too.  I welcome getting the public involved.  I welcome enthusiasm, the wide diffusion of involvement, in a guided way. Archaeologists have managed this with aplomb for decades.  They’ve even managed to get random metal-detectorists working with them, rather than against them.  The result is that archaeology has a large constituency among the public willing to lobby for them.  Times are hard, but they are well-placed.

So, are archaeologists, as a breed, simply more intelligent than papyrologists?  Really? For what kind of short-sighted idiot rushes to insult, to obstruct, to sneer, at the involvement of the public?

Most people reading this will not be Christian believers.  And I say to you: Do you put your love of antiquity first?  Your desire for learning, your wish to preserve and transmit these papyri first?  Or some religious dislike of Christians first?  Which is more important to you?

Papyrology is unable to do its job.  Papyrology is not doing its job, as Brashear makes clear.  Papyrology is paid to make this stuff available.

What we need is a plan to address the huge backlog of papyri, and to get it all published, and to find more.  That must involve using volunteers and amateur patrons.