Graeco-Roman mummy portrait exhibition at the John Rylands Library

A news item which seems to have passed unnoticed: the John Rylands library in Manchester, UK, is running an exhibition from today, 19th July until 25th December

The ten mummy portrait panels and the 40 or so papyri, both from around 2000-years-ago, were mostly found in the Fayum region, south of Cairo.

Dating to the Roman Empire, the portraits and papyri provide a unique insight into how the  Egyptians living under Roman rule saw themselves.

The so-called ‘Fayum portraits’ were found covering the faces of mummies found by the archaeologist William Flinders Petrie in 1888 and 1911.

Petrie was financed by the wealthy Manchester cotton magnate Jesse Haworth, and most of the portraits came to the University’s Manchester Museum as his legacy.

The papyri came to Manchester through acquisitions made by John Rylands Library founder Enriqueta Rylands, from 1901 to her death (1908), and later continued by the Library until 1920.

They include famous pieces, such as one of the two extant Greek fragments of the apocryphal Gospel of Mary, possibly Mary of Magdala, and documents from everyday life such as a contract of marriage and census returns.

The exhibition is entitled Faces and Voices, and includes 10 of the marvellous Graeco-Roman portraits found by Flinders Petrie in the Fayoum.

The portraits were painted on boards, which were then attached to mummies, and so recovered in modern times.

The papyri are equally interesting.  Most are documentary; but there is a fragment of the pseudo-gospel of Mary.  It is mildly depressing to see some paleobabble in the press-release:

Professor Cooper said: “The exciting thing about the papyri is that they show a forgotten side of history. For example, the Gospel of Mary fragment argues that women should have a leadership role in the Christian church, a view which the medieval Church tried to suppress. This third-century document is very timely in light of the current debate about women bishops in the Church of England.”

This is a little misleading, I’m afraid.

The early Christians themselves tell us that there were people who followed teachings that they made up themselves, or borrowed from contemporary pagan culture rather than learned it from the apostles.  They also tell us that such folk were not above forging texts under the names of apostles, in order to project their teachings back into the apostolic age.  Various texts of this kind, from the 2nd century AD onwards, survive.  Each is clearly recognisable, in that it laces pseudo-biblical material with material derived from contemporary paganism, in just the manner described by Tertullian in De praescriptione haereticorum.  The so-called “gospel of Mary” is one of these late texts, and tells us nothing about early Christianity; only about those who sought to corrupt it. 

Likewise the “women bishops” link is of doubtful relevance to antiquity.  Unless, of course, we could see this as just one more example of how outsiders in every age attempt to impose their own doctrines on Christians, by pressure, by politics, and by violence?  But I fear this is not what Dr Cooper intended that we should hear.

This lapse aside, it is still very pleasing to see these documents.  I was glad to see that English translations of some of the papyri were appearing on the blog.  More please!


9 thoughts on “Graeco-Roman mummy portrait exhibition at the John Rylands Library

  1. If this one is the one I’m thinking of, Amy Welborn liked to point out that it made at least as much sense to interpret it as being a Gnostic gospel of the Virgin Mary, and of course that made the Da Vinci Code fans’ heads explode. 🙂 But it actually makes a good amount of sense. (Although if so, it’s a very very Gnostic portrayal of the Holy Mom. As you’d expect from Gnostics.)

    Not all that feminist. OTOH, it does include what looks like some sort of liturgical “peccata mundi” reference (whatever that is in Greek), and some Paul references, and so on. Turning them by adding Gnostic content, of course, but still references.

  2. Thanks so much for mentioning the Faces and Voices exhibition on your blog.

    Of course I was most interested in your comments about the Gospel of Mary. As a Professor of Ancient History, it’s my role to train students not to trust Irenaeus over the Gospel of Mary prima facie, especially since the chain of transmission is heavily biased in his favour. The Gospel is certainly evidence of a debate on women’s authority among ancient people who were competing over the right to be identified as Christians).

    It’s also part of my role to inform the public about the ways ancient history can shed light on modern social tensions.

    I hope you’ll agree that the University of Manchester’s recent press release can not fairly be classified as ‘misleading’, though like you I would have been happier if there had been space to set my comment in context. Our press officer will be delighted to have stirred up such a lively reaction!

  3. Thank you for your note, and I am glad to help advertise the exhibition!

    One query, however: is there any intention to place images of the papyri online? Few of those interested will be in a position to physically visit the John Rylands, much as I would like to, actually!

    Now onto the other point. As a man with no relevant qualifications, merely an interested amateur, I hesitate to query your response, carefully worded as it evidently is; but I must do so, because I think it is indeed misleading.

    I’m not quite clear why we would wish to treat the ps.Gospel of Mary as a source of equal value to Irenaeus, as a source for the views of the early Christians? Consider what we know about the two. The latter is a text from Polycarp’s disciple, one step away from the apostle John himself. The views he sets forward are repeated all over patristic literature. His standing as a representative of early Christianity is witnessed by pretty much all subsequent writers. How comfortable can we possible feel, advancing any statement about early Christianity, if such a text with such a provenance contradicts it? Sometimes, perhaps, we must; but only if we have massive other evidence from other writers of the period.

    On the other hand, we have a text about which externally we know almost nothing. It just appears, because of archaeology and those ill-defined gentry of the Cairo antiquities trade (and I wish I knew more of the latter). Now my first thought was whether any ancient literary references to the gospel of Mary text existed? (I’d be grateful if you happen to know or can point me to these — I have no books on the matter here) Is it referenced *at all* in patristic literature? (I see Schneemelcher does not mention any, but that the text is too unimportant for him even to translate in full). Doesn’t the work just come out of the sands, in the Coptic codex and the two papyrus fragments? Who wrote, who used it, what they thought of it … all this has to be inferred from the text itself. To use this text as some kind of witness to the teachings of Jesus and his representatives … um, that would seem very, very risky.

    People forge “gospels”, even in our own day, either for money or influence. The Fathers tell us that people did the same in their period too. So … why would we wish to play down a text of undoubted value, in favour of something about which we know little? I fear that the answer must be seen in modern attitudes, and that doesn’t seem to me to be good enough.

    In some NT studies literature, I encounter a curious false equivalence, which the data does not support, and appears to be imposed from outside. We know very well that, in our time, people try to appropriate the name of Christian for policies basically derived from contemporary culture. The Fathers tell us at some length that people did the same then (as when Tertullian gives a list of such people and the philosophical schools that they are copying in De praescriptione haereticorum 5-6). The New Testament itself refers to this habit.

    It seems idle to refer to those who were rejected by the apostles, their disciples, and the churches that they founded, as “Christians”, for it distorts discussion. But having done this, surely it is worse, then to use this habit to claim that early Christians accepted views which their literature makes plain that they violently rejected? That is misleading the reader with a vengeance.

    Of course it makes entire sense to study the heretics of the period along with the Fathers; indeed what else could one do? But I fear that what we are dealing with is a consequence of this habit, in American schools of religious studies; to presume that, because they are all studied together, all these texts equally derive from the teaching of Jesus. A look at their contents and provenance shows us otherwise.

  4. Hi Roger,
    It’s a shame if you can’t go near the exhibition – it’s a real treat to see these objects in the flesh.

    I think you’re putting some words into Kate’s mouth. She didn’t say that all texts equally derive from the teaching of Jesus. She is suggesting that this is evidence that different groups in the 2nd/3rd century, who each thought of themselves as genuine Christians, had radically different ideas about the scope for women’s leadership in the church. The later church might then label the losers as heretics, but that wouldn’t have been how they self-identified. Why did they not last? We don’t know – and you are free to attribute divine providence and the ‘correct’ interpretation winning out. Walter Bauer (a little unfairly, I think) put it down to the ‘orthodox’ church being better organised.

    In either case, the papyrus suggests that a church (or churches) calling itself Christian existed in the early period that had as part of their scripture a text suggesting that women should have equal authority with men.

    A second point – your post suggests that ‘heretic’ groups tried to corrupt the teaching of the church. Whilst this is how it is portrayed in the sources, from Bauer onwards an alternative view has become more and more accepted. Christianity explodes out from Jerusalem in all sorts of directions and with all sorts of local emphases. There are slightly different variants everywhere (for example, within ‘orthodox’ Christianity Alexandria came late to the idea of bishops choosing bishops). Over time, some grow more successful and dominant, some are close enough to merge or come under one umbrella, and some die out (a sort of evolution of Christianity). ‘orthodox’ Christianity was obviously fit for purpose (survival of the fittest); many ‘heresies’ clearly weren’t. But in some areas (Edessa, for example) ‘heretical’ versions of Christianity were dominant into the fourth century. Hope this helps.

    Disclaimer – I know Kate.
    Second disclaimer – I also agree that the gospel of Mary is far less likely actually to represent the words of Jesus than any of the four canonical gospels.
    Third disclaimer – I also generally think that the right ‘church’ won (though not on the issue of women and authority).

    By the way, thanks for this blog and all the resources that you make available. It is appreciated!


  5. Hi Jonathan,

    Yes, I’d like to see the papyri and, even more, the portraits. Sadly I can’t make that journey. Any idea if any of this stuff will go on the web?

    Thanks also for your comments. These essentially reiterate the point with which I disagreed, while not engaging with my response. So please allow me to simply refer you to what I wrote above.

    One query: “She is suggesting that this is evidence that different groups in the 2nd/3rd century, who each thought of themselves as genuine Christians, had radically different ideas about the scope for women’s leadership in the church.” How do we know who wrote this text, why, and how they thought of themselves? Which ancient source tells us anything about them? Possibly I am mistaken here, but as far as I know, this text just comes out of the sands of Egypt. It doesn’t come with any pedigree.

    And … do we really suppose that a 3rd century group held views similar to those invented in California in the 1960’s and 70’s and fashionable in establishment circles? Doesn’t the term “anachronism” start to play in our minds?

    Note that the word “heretic” is liable to be misunderstood. In this period does not mean “person of perfectly reasonable views disagreeing with the Pope (etc)”, as your comment might lead people to suppose. It signals someone holding views derived from the philosophical schools (=haereses), the main source for pop-pagan views. Tertullian, as I remarked, lists the major heretics of his period, with a mapping to the particular school from which they were copying. That they were indeed doing so may be verified easily enough.

    But … (evil grin) if you do have any ancient evidence that the heretics such as Valentinus and Marcion (both of them?) do represent the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, other than by extracting material from Christian teaching and modifying it themselves for their own purposes, then of course it would nice to see it. But I think you know, as I do, that there is none. Everything in their teaching is quite easily explicable by the theory that they were simply bastardising the Christian teaching for their own ends. And, after all, that is what the ancients tell us they were doing. Why do we need some unevidenced other theory?

    I was unsure why you refer to the widespread presence of Marcionism in Edessa in the time of Ephraim. How does this help your case?

  6. Incidentally, Jonathan, one statement you made reminded me of something that I always wanted to verify: that Marcionism was “dominant” in Edessa into the 4th century.

    Have you researched this yourself, or is this from some modern book?

    You see, I have read this too somewhere. But I suffer from incurable scepticism on claims that I have not verified myself. Do we know on what ancient evidence this claim is based? I don’t think that I do. It may be a true statement; but does either of us know this? It might be interesting to look into!

    Chucking in, from my side, what I can think of, from the top of my head: there’s Ephraim’s “Prose Refutations” here, which certainly attack Marcionism, but also Bardaisan and … someone else I can’t remember. Yeznik of Kolb is also attacking Marcion in “De Deo”; but again, isn’t there someone else involved as well? But I know that Ephraim is very voluminous, and all I recall about his memre is that they contain attacks on Julian, and discuss the abandonment of Nisibis after Jovian’s treaty.

    What do you have on this?

  7. We are indeed posting a web version of the exhibition, and will gladly send you the URL when it is ready. It would be wonderful if you could post a link! Meanwhile, I can’t resist adding one or two further thoughts to the more substantive discussion.

    My own wish, mainly, is to encourage students to think for themselves. Papyri are perfect for this: every new document discovered (whether in the Egyptian sands or elswhere) changes the entire house of cards on which our understanding of history is built.

    I do think students(and perhaps many others!) are deeply interested in trying to get at how the ‘power games’ of the ancient world fed into the claims of authority made by ancient institutions. This is something to be encouraged. It is the job of every educated person to inspect very carefully any claim by the powerful that history is ‘on their side’.

    Where the Gospel of Mary is concerned, I think it is lovely for students to have a chance to see how the different ways of reading ancient evidence can change our understanding of modern debates. C.H. Roberts, the original editor of Rylands Greek 463, noted (in his Catalogue, vol. IV, pp. 19-20) that the debate between Mary, Levi, and Peter in the Rylands fragment bears an evocative relationship to passages in the canonical Gospels (Luke 24:10 and John 20:18), in which women tell the male disciples about their contact with the post-resurrection Jesus. In Luke, the male disciples refuse to listen to the women.

    There are many connections to be drawn between Luke 24 and the anti-heretical writings of the Church fathers, which talk about women ‘teachers of heresy’. The traditional way is to imagine that second-century Gnostics seized on the ‘loose end’ in Luke as a way to seduce innocent Christians into listening to teachings which they imputed, perhaps dishonestly, to an oral tradition reaching back to the neglected women disciples.

    A very different way of reading the same sources places emphasis on the fact that Christianity in the second century was a cluster of small communities that did not have access to modern technologies of print and communication. If two (or even two hundred) different communities had come to Christianity through different routes and had received different versions of the tradition, it is entirely possible that there could have been different attitudes to women’s authority in the different communities.

    It is an undisputed fact that the Gospel of Mary was not accepted as canonical by the writers who became the gate-keepers of Orthodoxy. But those later judgements are a bias which it is the historian’s task to correct for, in order to slip in behind the gate and imagine how many different possible scenarios for how things turned out the way they did can be supported by the evidence. Then the theologians can do THEIR job, which is to decide what it all means…

  8. Thank you for your note! Yes, I’ll be delighted to post the URL when it comes along.

    Papyri *are* exciting (although don’t you find that papyrologists are a funny lot? — there’s a certain atmosphere among them, which I don’t find in Syriacists). We must always remember that only 1% of ancient literature has survived, and every scrap of data is precious. It’s one reason why we mustn’t “force” the data. And it is far too easy, when we find bits that seem to contradict each other, to decide that “this bit is right and this bit is wrong”. Of course that can be so; but equally, it may be that we are getting the edges of something else, which has not been overtly preserved but has cast shadows onto the bits that have survived. You never know!

    Now on to your other point.

    You are quite right that the theory you are repeating here is not found in the historical record, and is contradicted by it, and can only be advanced by finding reasons to ignore the data transmitted to us. That, indeed, is my point. I’m afraid I leave theories of that nature alone, whatever the subject that they relate to. So should you.

    History is a sub-species of information gathering in general, and I’ve just had to do some, professionally. This week, for my sins, I was set to find out about something complicated about digital telephony. (Evidently my sins are considerable, since I know nothing about the subject.) How do we go about this?

    Well, I could decide in advance that people who wrote most of the information were “biased”, I could get an idea from the TV of how someone thinks that telephones ought to work instead. I could assemble all the information, and then take a hammer to it, knocking a hole in the data collection, hammering away until I’d made a hole the right size and shape for my theory. Then I could present this to my boss, with a proud smile, as how E1 telephony works.

    The only problem with so doing is that I would be sacked on the spot, and quite properly too. That is NOT how we find out about anything, past or present.

    But the urge to do this kind of things is very strong. People love to start with a theory, one floating around in the society they live in, one rather congenial to the authorities of the time, and then decorate it with selected bits of data, and add some invective about how biased the other bits of data are.

    Now when you run a history blog, cranks write to you. One and all, they do just this. It is their golden rule, their standard proceeding, their love, their way of life, their obiter dicta. They have their dull theory. Some are von Daniken-ists — “the spacecraft has landed!”. Others are Iranian royalists, certain of the importance of mighty Persia on all history. Others tell me that Cleopatra was black.

    And of course I get the religious enthusiasts too. They all want to tell me about the “real” Jesus. They one and all find the contents of the historical record, erm, inconvenient. So they find excuses to ignore what the early Christians actually say. “Well, they’re biased, innit?” and the like: hammer, hammer, hammer, “oh look mum, my theory now fits!”

    Try looking up a range of popular books about Jesus, say, spread over the last century. How multifarious the figure they imagine is! Yet how utterly identical are the methods whereby all these authors establish their theory — ad hominem accusations against the Fathers, selection, omission, allegations of “bias” “suppression”, etc. And the same old, dreary old, self-flattery of “we’re being so radical/revolutionary” etc. Please do this. I did this exercise 30 years ago myself, unintentionally.

    The problem is not specific to early Christianity, nor even to ancient history. There are, surely, two ways in which we might discover what happened somewhere.

    1. We gather all the data, and see what it says, what story arises naturally from it, sift the contradictions, look for evidence of data that has not come down, and, departing as little from the data as may be, we write our analysis down.

    2. We start with a theory current in our country and period of history, make selective allegations of bias against whichever bits of the historical record obstruct our thesis, hammer a hole in it, insert our theory, and await the plaudits of our contemporaries.

    The first process tends to produce papers of permanent value, since anything data-driven will always be of interest. The second process is how we write propaganda. The papers produced by this method during the 19th century may be inspected as examples of fiction writing, and have only a period interest. “Could they really have been so stupid”, tends to be our response. Yet the same process is gone through today.

    The main cause of bias in all historical writing that I have read is, quite simply, influence from ourselves; the assumptions that we bring, the ideas that we import, especially the ones that we import unconsciously. If we ever find ourselves putting forward a theory which is unknown to previous centuries, but terribly, terribly in line with the wishes of the people who control the climate of thought in our time, we must, must suppose that we are most likely writing nonsense.

    If you have not come across it, you might like to take the time to look up Holzberg’s paper, “Lucian and the Germans”. It discusses how the academic consensus in the German classical world was shaped between about 1870 and 1945. There are few obstacles, as far as I can tell, to a similar kind of process happening today. We have to develop a habit of critical thinking towards ideas, to recognise which are hanging around in our own minds, anachronistic, derived solely from contemporary obsessions.

    Unless we wish to write junk papers, which our children will laugh at, about how Cleopatra might have been black, of course.

  9. The thesis that Christianity in Edessa was originally Marcionite is apparently the work of Walter Bauer (Orthodoxy and Heresy, p.29), or so I learn from a paper by orientalist Sidney H. Griffith, here, who seemingly doesn’t think much of it.

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