Doubts about the discovery at Nag Hammadi, and some comments on papyrology

Mark Goodacre has posted some comments on his blog by a couple of scholars casting doubt on how the Nag Hammadi codices were found.  I’ve added to his post a fairly long comment about some of the scholarly rivalries behind all this.  But you can read it there.

It led to me recall my own limited experiences with papyrologists.  I’ve found a lot of them seem like jealous misers, hoarding material that should be published.  There are a couple of scholars out there who have unique access to a papyrus codex of a Greek mathematical treatise. 

This was sold to dealers in Switzerland along with the ps.Gospel of Judas codex, and travelled the same ruinous past.  The codex was cut up into separate pages by the US art dealer Bruce Ferrini, of evil reputation these days, and sold to at least two different groups of people.

But they haven’t published it.  One of them informed me graciously that he had more important things to do.  That is, more important than sharing with the world the one bit of unique material that he had, which no-one could work on until he finished doing his other little tasks.  Perhaps I didn’t understand him properly, but I felt exasperated at this.

Nor is this a unique occurrence.  We all know how the scholars working on the Dead Sea Scrolls hoarded them, preventing any but a favoured few from accessing the material while they worked in a very leisurely way to produce editions which they expected would make their own names.  The Nag Hammadi codices were monopolised by a bunch of scholars in a very similar way until James M. Robinson found a way to break the cartel and publish all the material.  No doubt they would still be unpublished, but for him. 

This isn’t just a modern phenomenon.  Henry Tattam ca. 1840 travelled to the Nitrian desert in Egypt and purchased a huge number of Syriac texts from the monastery of St. Mary Deipara (Deir al-Suryani), which he sent to the British Library.  But the curator, William Cureton, reserved what he considered to be the most interesting texts for himself to publish, which he did over the next 20 years!  While this had the fortunate consequence of forcing other scholars to edit less interesting material which might not otherwise have attracted attention, it was a supremely selfish thing to do.

Selfishness, it seems, is too often a characteristic of papyrologists.  While I write to all sorts of people, my attempts to communicate with papyrologists are generally futile.  It is as if a clique exists, which excludes rather than includes.  Yet the number of people who would like to work in the field but cannot obtain teaching posts is sufficiently large that I have met several examples at the Oxford Patristics Conference, which I tend to attend for just a single day every four years.

I remember when the late Carsten Peter Thiede proposed his idea that some fragments of the gospels at Magdalen College Oxford were in fact first century.  The media were all over it, which of course was good.  After all, it was media interest in the fragments of the ps.gospel of Thomas from Oxyrhynchus ca. 1900 that produced funding for the work there for several years.  But the response of papyrologists was a sustained campaign of vitriol.  Thiede himself was a papyrologist, and he had found a way to promote the subject to the mass media.  But ranks were closed firmly against him.  Any Thiede-enthusiast could expect only abuse.

It is unnecessary to consider whether Thiede’s theory was right.  I think the excellent T.C.Skeat successfully showed that it was not, and why, in a model article.  But who cares?  He brought the wider world into contact with a discipline that almost never gets any media coverage.  The coverage it does get is not of the kind that will bring in students and funding.  Thiede had found a way past that — and his peers never forgave him, and the opportunity was squandered.

Since Thiede was also a Christian, I cannot help wondering whether religious animus contributed.  The efforts of Paul Mirecki to use papyrological discoveries to promote his own curious views attracted no such contempt, after all.  But if so, I wish that the scholars had been more professional.  And they could be very unprofessional.  The introduction to Graham Stanton’s Gospel Truth? in paperback contained, if memory serves me, a bitter attack on Thiede in terms that would have earned Stanton a punch in the face in any pub in Britain.  How did this benefit anyone?  If Thiede could persuade churches to fund an expedition to find books, as at Oxyrhynchus, wouldn’t that we wonderful?  Probably any one US mid-western mega-church could easily find more funds than the whole discipline currently receives.  Why turn this down?

In Egypt, under the sands, there are any number of papyrus codices as yet undiscovered.  Nearly all those discovered in the last 30 years were found by peasants by accident and sold to art dealers.  Many doubtless perished; although since the Cairo dealers know that these are worth real money in the west and maintain agents in rural districts who will give cash down for antiquities, most are probably saved from the cruder fate of the fireplace.  But no serious scholarly effort to recover these books is being made.  Meanwhile texts are hidden, or lost, or sold, while cliques squabble.  It is enough to make any man despair.

We need a new movement in papyrology.  We need an attitude of openness, of enthusiasm to share.  We need the scholar who hides material to be treated like the one who falsifies it.  We need progress!

4 thoughts on “Doubts about the discovery at Nag Hammadi, and some comments on papyrology

  1. Personally I doubt papyrologists are selfish and self-centered, at least more than the average academic. I remember quite a large number of tales of Greek archeologists, university professor no less that would dig and dig and dig yet never got around to publishing. The Athenian Archeological Society (which is a private charity but due to the lack of more proper authorities acted as the de facto ministry of culture during more turbulent times) does not continue finding of excavations unless the excavator publishes first. On the other hand when a university professor digs with his own (=the university’s) funds, in many cases he has no incentive to actually get around to publishing. I can provide a relevant Kathimerini article (in Greek) if you like. I doubt this is a matter of humanities, I’ve heard tales at the Agricultural University of Athens of professors hiding data FROM THEIR OWN COLLEAGUES (let alone the general public) due to fear of apropriation at best or a personal whim. It is not just papyrologists who hate others entering their own field, the comments I hear about economists trying to determine the best economic animal feed or about civil engineers trying to design stables for cows are vitriolic.

    What your above commentary on papyrologists fails at times to recognise is the massive work that is ahead of them. The last time more papyri were published than were discovered (or at least found their way into a collection) in a year was probably in the 1880’s. Since the 1890’s more papyri are found every year than are published to the point that according the Oxford handbook of papyrology (which I previewed online at Google Books, if I could get it in my hands I’d be gratefull) there is a backlog of 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 papyri waiting to be published. Since the signing of the UNESCO treaty in 1970 forbidding the sale of Egyptian antiquities abroad unless specifically permitted by the Egyptian goverment the flow of papyri to Western Collections has stopped (with the exception of Black Market stuff) but the pace of discovery has not, simply the papyri are kept in Egypt. The Kellis papyri (or should I better say the wooden boards) have been found in Egypt, have not left the country except for exhibitions and yet have been published, at least to some extent. The publication of papyri in many cases has been hindered by a lack of academic interest by the collecting institution. At the University of Pennsylvania site you can read how after the papyri were purchased some 80 years ago, some professor did manage to publish a volume during the War of mostly Jewish documents (because due to lack of a more appropritate department it was given to the department of Jewish studies) and then for the next 50+ years they rested dormant until students gave to a retiring teacher of classics a CD with the images of the papyri and she has been readying them for publication the last ten years (she has the transcriptions online). At the University of Michigan website which has the largest colection on North America you can read how the only University academic at the department is Traianos Gagos who however also belong 50% to the Classics Department and the very serious work of the last 15 years has taken place with whatever money he has managed to find through grants since the University does not have a budget to publish new stuff (only to restore and preserve, which is expensive in itself). The big problem with papyrology in my opinion is the lack of money to hire specialists to publish but even that may not be enough: If you head over to the Taylor Schechter Genizah unit of Cambridge University website you can read how they have managed to get several long term grants from Jewish benefactors, not to mention various fundraising events at synagogues and have managed to have a large group of scholars, large enough to have published, according to their newsletter which is available online at the site, some 30% of the Classical Genizah era (800-1100 AD? I am not sure) and very little from other eras. I think that makes about 10-15% of the whole project (please correct me if I am wrong), a figure that compares well to the ~10% of the Oxyrhynchus papyri that have been published in the last 110 years.

    Speaking of the Oxyrhynchus papyri I was in London in June during Oxy Day 09 at the British Academy. The cheap pound has made London cheap, sort of. I was at the public lecture at the end where they announce what they had achieved during the day reading papyri with “new” texts that will probably be published in volume 74 and how, being the 4th such event, in the first 2 they had discussed the “new” texts of the Archimedes palimpsest (which were published in ZPE in 2008) and in 2008 they had discussed the Menander palimpsest and the texts it contains (for your information the new texts are 200 verses of Aetia or The Nurse [Menander’s plays have double titles] which is unknown and Dyscolus which has been known since 1958).

    I think the issue is more complicated than papyrologists maliciously hoarding papyri.

  2. Archaeologists are notorious for not publishing, of course.

    It is certainly also the case that the fragments of Oxyrhynchus have dribbled out over a century, which is ridiculous. The lack of money is undoubtedly a cause of this. This need for money must cripple the field.

    However I do think the hoarding motif is present, as I indicated by the examples.

  3. It is not all all easy to publish papyri. I will give you a simple example: take your home rental contract, tear it up in small pieces, throw away half of them and try to make sense of the rest. This exercise only highlights some of the problems faced by papyrologists, they also face illegible/faded handwriting, dispersal of the papyri (one of your contract fragments was in Berlin but was destroyed in WWII with a bad picture surviving, the other is in Vienna and the third in Duke), massive workload (your contract was found mixed in a stash of 200 other contracts in some site in Egypt) and others.

    I would not call the Oxford people of the Oxyrhynchus project lazy. If you were to read the P.Oxy. volumes that are online at the Internet Archive and see the size of the fragments found, or if you were in the conference and saw what in the slides just how fragmentary was their subject matter you would understand just why they are going slow, they are not capable of going faster.

    I am certain hoarding exists. I have been around academics, hiding their data so that their work will not get appropriated by somebody else before they are done with it. I doubt however that it is the main cause for the slow progress in papyri publishing.

    I formed my opinion after reading many issues of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists online (and several ZPE articles). Perhaps if you were to read similar papyrological books or magazines your opinion might change…

  4. Archaeologists do take their time publishing. But they apparently also write to each other a lot to tell what goodies they’re finding. I swear, you can hardly find an archaeological article that doesn’t cite “private correspondence”.

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