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.