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.

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

  1. Thanks Roger,
    It being exam season I would add a word:
    “Papyrology exists, as a discipline, because of Christians and the bible.” Discuss.

  2. Why start the story with Grenfell and Hunt in Oxyrhynchus? The first Fayum Find was in 1877, which soon set Wilcken and others into action. Petrie’s excavations produced P.Petrie I in 1891, the “annus mirablis” in which the Constitution of the Athenians was also published. The first fascicle of BGU appeared in 1892 and P.Lond. I in 1893. The term “papyrologist” was coined in 1896. In short, papyrology was well established before the “Sayings of Jesus” tickled the interest of Christian enthusiasts. And the mandate of Grenfell and Hunt was to find Christian texts *and* classical literature. As you say, your claim is over-stated and, I might add, overly-reductionist.

  3. Crowdsourcing might be an option.
    As a Christian believer, I can only echo your excellent comments, Roger.
    Perhaps it’s also a case of ivory tower snobbery and not knowing really what Christians believe in.

  4. I think your outrage that papyrologists did not work hard enough in Berlin ignores history.
    The collection in Berlin must gave been chaotic to work on during and after the war. Some of the papyri ended up in Warsaw. The old Aegyptologisches Museum, part of the Charlottenburg palace, did not open until 1967. Herwig Maehler edited two volumes (’66 and ’74), working both at Uni Hamburg and as Dozent in Berlin. He had ben part of Rudlof Kassel’s Semainar at the Freie Uni in West Berlin until Kassel was run out of town by Linksextremismus in the late 60s (i think), about when Bill Brashear arrived form Ann Arbor. Maehler was also editing the Teubner Bacchylides (1970), don’t forget, so hardly idle. Müller and then Poethke worked in the east, but remember, party politics played a role in DDR academia, and Papyrologen worked under difficult conditions, their libraries unable /unwilling to get the books they needed. It was common in those days to pay for microfilm etc. with books they needed. The edd. of ZPE donated one of their editorial copies to the DDR colleagues. Hans-Martin Schenke was in Berlin as was his student Wolf-Peter Funk, who later escaped to the West, although i wonder what kind of access they had to material stored in the in the Pergamanon Museum in the East. I know westerners were often hindered from working on texts there (Paul Mirecki remembers setting off in the morning but not arriving at the Museuminsel until afternoon, only a short walk from Checkpoint Charlie, being held at the border for hours.) The Ivory Tower was not the place you might have imagined, caught between the depravations of the Nazis and World War, State Socialism and Linksextremismus.
    A charge of indolence against German papyrologists generally is hard to support with evidence. Bruno Snell, one of the few German academics to have come through the Nazizeit with credibility in the west (because of his anti Nazi activities), supported papyrological research in Hamburg. One of his students, Reinhold Merkelbach, started the Papyrussammlung in Cologne, rich in Christian material (Cologne was a key played in the publication of the Tura papyri).

  5. I’m afraid that the woes of the world are a constant presence in history, and can never be a reason for not undertaking some task; merely a reason why things were less than optimal. The lumps of history are not, and cannot be a reason not to do something that needs to be done. If scientists offered these sorts of excuses, we’d all be using typewriters still.

  6. Gregg offered a nice opportunity to learn about the history of the Berlin collection and working conditions in a divided city, but you have waved this off as an excuse. This shows that you’re not actually interested in the example you brought up, but simply wanted to use it as a foil for what follows. As an aside, it’s rather shameful to ignorantly smear the memory of William Brashear, whose industry is reflected in the hundreds of papyri he published and whose reward was an early death from a painful illness.

  7. A reminder on the comments policy. Comment is welcome, and disagreement is fine. But remember: this is not a forum, but my personal online journal. Nobody has any *right* to post here but me. People throwing stones will get deleted without a second thought if I think it right.

  8. Thank you for your comment, Mr Claytor. (The hysterical personal attacks are standard troll tactics – shame on you).

    The comment highlights nicely that there really are, apparently, people in papyrology for whom religious hate trumps the interests of scholarship. Now isn’t that revealing?

    The fact is that, in papyrology, the job isn’t being done. People are sitting around doing fiddling little tasks, while masses of material is unpublished after a century.

    This is not defensible by any honest means.

    It is time and past time to get fingers out of backsides, and find answers, and funding sources aside from parsimonious governments with no interest in paying for it, and mass public support, and volunteers.



  9. Roger you are a provocateur, and I love polemics. I hope you’ll post my comments and above all that the conversation will maintain lively, but polite tones.

    I was going to start with the history of papyrology but Graham and Gregg have already answered. I believe that your view on papyrology is reductive, and that of Peter Head even more reductive, but I took your statements as a provocation.
    In fact there were three groups of texts that motivated the search for papyri: classical literature, the Bible and Christian texts, and ancient people’s everyday writings. To check the accountancy of the support given to the discipline by people pursuing each of the three would be interesting, but hard since the status of the archives and the fact that many sponsors actually were interested in more than one group of potential findings.

    I do believe that you underestimate how dangerous what we have seen enacted by Josh McDowell and Scott Carroll is, and on so many levels. Since the passion you demonstrated in following closely the Gospel of Judas affair, and making us all a huge favour with the archive you’ve put and maintain online for which I will never thank you enough, you should be the first to understand that the provenance of these masks and papyri all suddenly appearing on YouTube and elsewhere is a huge, scary question mark for us all.
    Second, these people to me do not seem very interested in understanding the texts they eventually find, but in trying to make these texts and artefacts saying what they and their ideology want. Do we need more propaganda? Seriously? And above all does the history of Christianity and the Bible need the work of pseudo-Indiana Jones to prove how interesting, and manifold, and important for us all is? I do not believe so.

    As you probably know, collections, libraries and universities nowadays do a lot of outreaching initiatives, have large parts of their papyri (published and unpublished) digitised and freely available online, and Oxford has even an outsourcing project called Ancient Lives ( through which everybody can contribute to the reading of their unpublished material.
    The reality is that publishing ‘average papyri’ (not those beautiful, easy ones that form the minority of any collection) is a hard and time-consuming activity.
    I do not have a line of volunteers out of the library’s door, and when I recently offered on my Facebook page to colleagues in early Christian studies, who were complaining about how slow and inaccessible collections are, to come and work on my 1,300 mostly illegible documentary papyri, I received a very honest answer: “I am not a papyrologist, I would like to edit a New Testament papyrus for commenting on the text, etc. etc.” Do you and these other colleagues have an idea about how rare Christian papyri, especially literary, are? There were very few Christians before Constantine in Egypt, people seem to forget, and they did not spend their time writing biblical texts in neat handwriting for the generations to come (but probably some of them wrote those illegible contracts, lists, etc., that not many scholars are so excited to publish).

    Honestly, I am very happy to see all this recent excitement about papyri, because I struggled immensely to get a job, and I am worried about the future of my students and of my University papyri (here you’re super right: governments do not care much about cultural heritage in these days). Possibly people will start thinking more seriously about this patrimony. But I don’t think that Josh McDowell and Scott Carroll are making a favour to papyrology, and to knowledge in general, quite the opposite.

    As for the Greens, I have a simple question on their funding activities in purchasing manuscripts and in the Green Scholar Initiative: why not giving the money to already existent collections and institutions, instead of creating their own? They are free and very welcome to do whatever they like with their money, but please do not try to sell me the story that they’re moved by a pure, disinterested love for the Bible. The Green family has a precise and legitimate cultural and religious agenda, which is clear to us all, and could not be pursued easily without being ‘independent’ in collecting artefacts and hiring scholars: they are free and very welcome to pursue their aims in the way they prefer, but I do not understand why you’re outraged then by those who have eventually different views and agendas.

    Finally, talking about slow collections and papyrologists, the Greens have immense resources and about 1,000 papyri (i.e. not many compared to other collections), but we haven’t seen much published so far except an article with some Sappho fragments. A first century AD (remarkable dating, so a potentially v. important text) fragment of Mark was announced years ago, but then has disappeared, other texts were briefly presented to the SBL a couple of years ago and then again vanished. Moreover there’s nothing digitised and freely available on line yet, which could be done in a very short period of time, and very easily if you have the money for it (and they certainly do). How do you explain this?

  10. Hello Roberta,

    Thanks for adding your thoughts! I’m glad that you’re as excited as I am about possible finds. A bit of public excitement about this could do wonderful things.

    It’s really hard to respond without simply writing my post again! (Done that once already) So for most of what you say, let me refer you to that. We are, I think, at cross-purposes.

    I’ll just clarify a couple of points. I am surprised that people find what I said controversial. And I don’t really write polemic.

    My first point is that it is appalling that the Berlin papyri have remained in boxes for more than a century. Apparently nobody else cares. That seems … awful.

    My second point was that religious animosity towards Christians is depriving papyrologists of jobs, helpers, funding, and depriving the world of books that are just lying there under the sands.

    Now I am mildly surprised that people debate the foundational status of Grenfell and Hunt in papyrology by referring to earlier finds (which, like yourself, I think were mainly by classicists and egyptologists). As you say, a literature search would indicate this. My point was not to determine precisely when we propose to consider that papyrology started – something I could hardly be qualified to do! – but rather that they got massive public interest and funding from the perception of excavating to prove the bible, retrieve words of Jesus, etc. There is an exact parallel between then and now. Do we want that funding? Or must we put first the task of keeping the Christians under, and let the papyri go hang? (You see? It’s hard not to repeat myself).

    Now do you remember the “Jesus Seminar” and its Christian-baiting in the bible-belt, using papyrology and the gospel of Thomas? I do. So when you ask why someone like Green doesn’t trust papyrologists, that made me rub my eyes a bit. This is precisely my point. Papyrology is suffering while this religious hatred is being satisfied.

    What I’m doing, really, is I’m making a plea for tolerance in the interests of scholarship. I have no real idea what is going on at Green, and I read your posts with interest. The highest standards should be maintained, of course, and I certainly want to see stuff published (although they are at least making the right noises). But … the hostility is crazy.

    Live and let live, in other words. 🙂

    UPDATE: Revised slightly to clarify.

  11. I haven’t seen intolerance or hostility around Roger. I have seen people asking legitimate questions on methods, acquisition circumstances and papyri that were said to be forthcoming, but then disappeared.
    As for the help Christian funders can give, I believe everybody welcome it.
    Boxes of unpublished/unstudied material in Museum magazines are extremely common all over the world (thinking just about Italy: auguri!), so I believe you have to start a much wider campaign that I am sure everybody will join: it’s all about resources, as you know.

  12. I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on your first point. Where I *do* agree is that questions about acquisition, methods, and delays in publication are entirely legitimate. I have valued greatly your own analyses of this.

    Your second point is very relevant. Archaeologists are notorious for not publishing their excavations! But that too is treated far too lightly, in my humble opinion. Failure to publish is an awful thing. But … it’s wrong to blame individuals. It’s a failure in the way that the system is set up. As Macaulay said, it is the task of politicians to so arrange matters that self-interest prompts men to do what morality in any case requires. How can matters be arranged such that prompt publication – in either field – is rewarded and delay punished?

    The excuse for not publishing is always lack of resources. To what extent this is an excuse, rather than a reason, I don’t know. I am suspicious, in truth! But this is why we need much wider public involvement. IMHO!

  13. Thank you very much for this. But … what am I looking at? I’ve not heard of ngram viewer.

    Failure to look at material other than that in Engish is a common failing in US papers and theses.

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