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.

Worrying questions about the supposed new NT papyri from mummy cartonnage

In my last post, I noted that Peter Head pointed out that we have a forger active among us, who knows how to play to the predispositions of scholars.

I have just seen a very sound post by Roberta Mazza, discussing the supposed discovery of a bunch of interesting papyri from mummy cartonnage – papyrus reused to stuff the packing of mummies, and make up the coffins etc in the late period.  No doubt cartonnage contains much of interest.

But Dr Mazza is absolutely right in pointing out that we have NO previous examples of New Testament papyri from mummy cartonage; and noting the rather confused reportage coming out of the Green collection.

These are very sound questions.   Failure to see that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” was too good to be true is what undid Karen King and Harvard.

A first century fragment of the New Testament?  Exciting if true.  But … too good to be true?  Quite possibly.  Particularly when we note that the recipient of the material is predisposed to believe that the material is genuine; just as the hapless Karen King was.

At the moment all we have is various bits of excited and not-too-knowledgeable comment from amateurs involved in helping in menial capacities.  I think the Green collection are absolutely right to be open-access with their finds; indeed it is essential to bring all available talent to bear.

We have an enemy of learning active in the world at the moment, remember.  Only a fool would neglect every precaution.  Particularly when a find might be too good to be true.

How to scam a scholar – the ps.Gospel of Jesus’ Wife affair

I expect many of us have watched the story of a papyrus fragment purporting to reveal that Jesus had a wife.  Coptologist Christian Askeland discovered clear proof of forgery, thanks to a bit of carelessness by the forger, and the story is now history.

Peter Head has an article here which is so useful that I will file it on my hard disk: Pseudo-Gospel of Jesus Wife as Case Study.

He asks the sensible question: now that we have evidence of a forgery which passed the science lab tests, what can we learn for next time?

The article is full of good points, but the first paragraph makes an unusual, and very interesting point (I have over-paragraphed it):

It is possible for a forger to get hold of papyri, mix ink according to ancient conventions, compose a semi-plausible pastiche of a text, and mislead scholars, academic institutions, the media, and the public. Exactly what he (or she) hoped to gain from it is not clear, but if it was simply mischief, then he has probably far exceeded his wildest dreams.

Given this possibility it is important that if someone approaches you with an unpublished text which meshes in with your own academic interests, then critical skepticism rather than credulity should control your responses. Nothing is innocent until proven guilty in this scenario.

Also the forger will target a scholar who he thinks is persuadable, not a manuscript expert, and who has wider credibility to make the discovery known (remember that in this case Prof King at first didn’t respond to the invitation, but the forger didn’t go to some other scholar, he waited a year and then went back to reel in Prof King).

In patristics, fortunately, there is no money to be made.  If someone turned up with “fragments” of Marcion’s Antitheses or a lost work by Justin Martyr, it is unlikely that it would atttract attention.

But one point is clear: we have a capable and determined forger out there, who is aware of what tests are likely to be applied, and how to fool them.

What can we tell about the forger?

  • He has some knowledge of Coptic, probably to undergraduate level, but is not an expert.
  • He has had a western education.
  • He has access to textbooks on Coptic (not too easy to obtain).
  • He has access to ancient papyri.
  • He has some sort of lab training.
  • He might be a Muslim – the forgery would be convenient to Muslim polemicists.
  • He is probably not a Copt – the forgery is a bit anti-Christian.

The motive was probably money; to create a sensation and then monetize it, as they say in the computer games industry.    I infer, therefore, that this is not a rich man.

This text acquired quite a following.  It nearly worked.  So I think we must expect more attempts at forgery.

In this light, I do hope Harvard involve the police.  This was an audacious fraud, and if it had succeeded would have garnered the author some real money, in sales,and with film rights, etc.  It would be very useful to have the author behind bars where he can do no more harm.

UPDATE: All of which makes the questions that Roberta Mazza is asking about the supposed NT papyri from mummy cartonage very pertinent.

The Bankes 2nd c. Homer papyrus roll now online at the British Library

I wonder how many of us have ever heard of the “Bankes papyrus”?  Certainly not I, before today.  Yet it is a fascinating item.

A tweet from Sarah Biggs alerted me that:

The Bankes Homer is now online & blog post to come! (Papyrus 114, Greek, 2nd century).

P.Lond.lit.28, British Library papyrus 114, is a 2nd century Greek roll, containing the last 16 columns of Iliad 24.

The website browser is a bit “wobbly”, but displays a single image of the whole unrolled item (which is probably the right thing to do).  I’m not sure whether a PDF of such an image is even technically possible, which is what one would otherwise want to have.

There are two images; one in a frame and one without.  The framed image is clearly just for reference, as it isn’t very zoomable.  It isn’t clear whether the verso is blank.

At the end is the colophon which consists only of “Ἰλίαδος Ω”, as is common in the papyri.[1]  If you zoom and pan, you eventually see something like this:


But of course you must look for yourself.  The digitisation is really remarkable, and the quality of the result is extraordinary.  You can probably see more, than you could if you were holding the item itself.

I learn from the page on the BL website – which is really very good, with very nice references for us to look up on Google books! – that William Bankes purchased the roll at Elephantine in 1821.  The discovery was made by a certain Giovanni Finati, acting for him, and is told as follows:[2]

… we all took our departure together for Assouan. And it was during our stay there of a few days that, on the opposite island of Elephantine, (which I have always remarked to be, after Thebes, the place where the greatest harvest of curious antiquities is brought for sale by the natives,) a roll of papyrus in the Greek character + was put into my hands, for which I bargained and fixed the price in the first place, and then took it to Monsieur Linant[3] for the money, stipulating at the time that it was to be bought on Mr. Bankes’s account.

This roll proved to be that manuscript of Homer * which is considered so precious, but which it grieved me afterwards, and ever will, to have seen sold for more than its weight in gold + to that gentleman whom I considered the owner of it, and who would certainly have had it at my hands, without any further demand.

+ In my own journey, I bought a scrap of Greek upon papyrus in a very fine clear character, which seems to be the fragment of a letter or edict. I have a great number of tiles also written in a cursive Greek character, and highly curious upon that account, which purport to be receipts of pay by the Roman soldiery at Assouan during several reigns, from Tiberius to Commodius—one of these I found myself at Elephantine; and I have an amphora, also, that has served the same purposes as a modern slate to some tradesman’s family in Roman times, with his house or shop accounts registered upon it in ink from day to day.

* It contains the last book of the Iliad, most beautifully written, in uncial letters, and the lines numbered in the margin: what is very surprising, it has had accents added to it afterwards.

+ The author, though the first who had the handling of this papyrus, seems here to have formed a very undue estimate of its weight, for the sum which I paid for it amounted to no less than 25,000 piastres (about 500l.), that being stated as the offer that had been made for it from another quarter.

It is wonderful to have this item online!  How many of us would ever have been able to see it otherwise?  I doubt many of us could have managed to induce the keeper to let us see it, as recently as 10 years ago.

For this is what an ancient book looked like.  This is a real roll, complete with the end of the book.  Not a fragment of one; but 16 columns of it.

Look, and admire, and wonder!

  1. [1]As discussed in F. Schironi, Τὸ Μέγα Βιβλίον: Book-ends, End-titles, and Coronides in Papyri with Hexametric Poetry, American Studies in Papyrology 48), Durham (NC) 2010, no. 25 (pp. 134-35).
  2. [2]W. J. Bankes, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati, Native of Ferrara, 2 vols, London 1830, vol. 2, pp. 357-58. Online here.
  3. [3]Retained to search for antiquities by Bankes.

British Library beginning to digitise its papyri

Sarah Biggs at the British Library Manuscripts blog writes:

The British Library holds one of the most significant collections of Greek papyri in the world, including the longest and most significant papyrus of the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, unique copies of major texts such as Sophocles’ Ichneutae, and the Egerton Gospel, as well as a wide range of important documentary papyri from Oxyrhynchus, Aphrodito, Hibeh, Tebtunis, and the Fayum.  The Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum was at the forefront of the new discipline of papyrology at the turn of the nineteenth century, and many of our predecessors are well-known to anyone who has ever consulted a text preserved on papyrus:  Kenyon, Bell, and Skeat, to name just three.

Today, we are happy to announce that selected key papyri have been digitised and are now available to view on Digitised Manuscripts, along with completely new catalogue descriptions.  Five papyri are available online now, and two more items will appear in the coming weeks  …

Papyrus 229 (P. Lond. I 229):  Latin deed of the sale of a slave boy, retaining the seals of its signatories

Papyrus 1531 (P. Oxy. IV 654/P. Lond. Lit. 222):  Fragment of the Gospel of Thomas, in Greek

Papyrus 2052 (P. Oxy. VIII 1073/P. Lond. Lit. 200):  Fragment of Old Latin Genesis, from a parchment codex

Papyrus 2068 (P. Oxy. IX 1174/P. Lond. Lit. 67):  Sophocles, Ichneutae

Egerton Papyrus 2 (P. Lond. Christ. 1/P. Egerton 2):  The Egerton Gospel

Excellent news, I’m sure we all agree.

A 2-3rd c. papyrus “title page”?

An extremely interesting article on the Brice C. Jones blog about a piece of papyrus, found inside a leather binding, which is blank except for “Gospel according to Matthew” in Greek on the recto.  Simon Gathercole has written about it.[1]  The suggestion is that this is the “cover-leaf” for a papyrus codex, and that the title was written on the outside.

Jones rightly queries one element in this: the suggestion that the first page of the codex had the title on the recto, and a blank verso, before the text began.

Now I have seen quite a few parchment codices where folio 1 recto is blank, and the text begins on the verso.  Indeed this is the case in British Library Addit. 12150, which the colophon dates to 411 A.D.  The reason for it is undoubtedly to protect the text.

All the same, the title of ancient works was often placed outside the work altogether, on a sittybos, or slip of parchment hung from one of the wooden ends on which the roll was wound.  So it seems possible that someone got creative here.   If this is not a fly-leaf, then what is it?

  1. [1]Simon Gathercole, “The Earliest Manuscript Title of Matthew’s Gospel (BnF Suppl. gr. 1120 ii 3/P4),” Novum Testamentum.

Dictating to a scribe can alter the language used?

A fascinating post at Evangelical Textual Criticism (the post seems to have vanished for the moment, but, lucky me, I can see it in my RSS reader).  This gives abstracts for an Australian conference, Observing the Scribe at Work.  One of these caught my eye:

Delphine Nachtergaele (Ghent University), ‘Scribes in the Greek Private Papyrus Letters’

In this paper I investigate the role of scribes in Greek private papyrus letters.

When an individual decided to write a letter, he had two options: writing the letter himself or paying a scribe and having the letter written. Many papyrus letters were the result of the work of a scribe. Outsourcing the task of writing was the only possibility when one was illiterate. But when the sender could write and read, he could pen the letter himself.

The first research question in this study is whether the choice to use a scribe or not can be considered a conscious decision. In P.Mich. VIII 469, preserved in the archive of Claudius Tiberianus, the decision not to hire a scribe seems to be taken deliberately: the fact that the letter was written by the sender himself, bears in itself a message to the addressee.

The second and main query is whether the intervention of a scribe has an effect on the language used in the letters. At first sight, the influence of the scribe seems rather limited. However, the investigation of letters preserved in archives can shed more light on this matter: in different case studies, I compare the language of one single sender in autographical letters and in letters written by a scribe. The archive of Asklepiades shows the effect scribes can have on the epistolary language: in the letters from Isidora to her brother Asklepiades there is a marked linguistic difference between the autographs and the letters she dictated to a scribe. In other collections of texts, such as the letters from Eudaimonis in the archive of Apollonios strategos, there is no such difference: the personality of the sender is apparent in all letters, autograph or dictated.

This paper has a double conclusion: firstly, we observe that letter writers make deliberate choices when writing letters: these choices are situated at the level of using a scribe or not, and at a linguistic level. Of course, these findings cannot be generalized, but this paper provides nevertheless an important insight: although the authors of documentary letters cannot be compared to authors of literary works, we should not underestimate the creative capacities of the senders of papyrus letters. Secondly, the influence of scribes on the language of the papyrus letters is rather limited. Mostly, the scribes just penned down what the sender dictated. The language of the papyrus letters can thus safely be assumed to be the language of the letter writer.

Emphasis mine.  Hmm.  I’d really like to hear more about that.

Papyrus manuscript of Didymus the Blind’s “Commentary on Ecclesiastes” online!

Quite accidentally I find that colour photographs of the pages of Didymus the Blind’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes are online here.  I can only say “wow!”

This work was lost until 1941.  In that year, the threat of Rommel’s Afrika Corps caused the British Government to order works carried out at the Tura quarries near Cairo, to store ammunition.  The quarries themselves were used in ancient times.  At some point native workmen discovered a pile of leaves of papyrus hidden under apparently random chunks of stone.  They promptly spirited them away and sold them for a song to the antiquities dealers.  But word got out, and most of the find was recovered.  The main portion of it was biblical commentaries by Didymus the Blind and Origen.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if an English translation of this work was also online?

Egypt and Archduke Rainer

I wonder how many of us know the name of Archduke Rainer?  Very few, I would imagine.  Yet he played an important part in the history of Egyptology. 

Archduke Rainer (1827-1913) was an Austrian nobleman, some time Prime Minister of Austria.  He is notable for his collection of Egyptological items.  In particular his collection of papyri is supposedly the largest known.  He donated it to the national collection in Vienna in 1899.  It includes Arabic papyri, and shows the process of transition in documents in Egypt from papyrus to paper.[1]

In 1877 thousands of papyri were discovered in the Fayyum, at the site of ancient Arsinoe.  There were also substantial discoveries at Heracleopolis and Hermopolis, near by.  These items were recognised by those who found them as precious, and so worth preserving, and went on to the art market.[2]  They came into the hands of a Cairo dealer named Theodor Graf (1840-1903), who sold them in lots, first to the Louvre and the Berlin Museum and then, from 1883-4 on, to Archduke Rainer. Graf also owned some of the Fayyum portraits.[3]

  1. [1]S. Adshead, China in World History, p.97: “The Archduke Rainer collection illustrates the change from papyrus to paper in Egypt. All thirty-six manuscripts from 719 to 815 are papyrus, between 816 and 912, there are ninety-six papyrus to twenty-four paper, one document apologising …
  2. [2]John Muir, Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, 2008, p.25.
  3. [3]Georg Ebers, Theodor Graf, The Hellenic portraits from the Fayum at present in the collection of Herr Graf, 1893, p.4-5.

New contexts for old texts: but no public please

Via Paleojudaica I learn of a workshop, taking place in Oslo, which sounds rather interesting:


Textual Transmission and Manuscript Culture: Textual Fluidity, “New Philology,” and the Nag Hammadi (and Related) Codices

This is the first major international workshop of the NEWCONT-project.Starting tomorrow. Pseudepigrapha and Hermetica figure in the program as well.

Background on Project NEWCONT is here.

But to my surprise, it says that attendance is “by invitation only”.  I wonder why?

The project page is here.  The whole project seems eminently sound.