Oxyrhynchus and the First Apocalypse of James: Collection History Just Got Murkier

As is often the case with important discoveries related to the ancient world these days, this is a tale that has taken a while to unfold, although ab initio there were alarm bells going off for some of us.  Back on November 19, 2017 Brice C. Jones mentioned an important discovery just revealed at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Boston. A paper was presented by Geoff Smith and Brent Landau on an “Oxyrhynchus Papyrus” which apparently contained the first Greek example of the First Apocalypse of James, which was previously known, but only in Coptic form (First Greek Fragments of a Nag Hammadi Text Discovered among Oxyrhynchus Papyri!). Inter alia, it was noted:

The papyrus codex fragments are housed in the Sackler Library at Oxford University and were found during the dig season of 1904/05. The two fragments have different inventory numbers but are written in the same hand and belong to the same codex.

Also mentioned:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this papyrus is that the scribe employed middle dots to separate syllables. This is rare in literary texts, but it does appear in school texts, which prompts the question as to how this document was used. Was it a school text? The editors suggest the papyri are fragments of a larger codex that probably contained the entire text of the First Apocalypse of James. Could the middle dots have served a liturgical function, facilitating easier reading on the part of the anaginoskon? The raison d’être of the codex is thus still being considered by the editors.

This set off alarm bells for me because I could not immediately imagine a situation where a text of this sort would be used as a scribal teaching text. And so, I was moved to tweet, of course, and a conversation ensued:

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If you’re unfamiliar with the ‘origin story’ for the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the link Dr Roberta Mazza mentions above is useful. But increasingly I find such origins stories in our discipline to become articles of faith which are never questioned. And every so often, we read about Oxyrhynchus Papyri being sold on the market and going to private collections; Brice Jones mentioned one a couple years ago (P.Oxy. 11.1351: From Oxyrhynchus to the Green Collection) as  did Roberta Mazza (Another Oxyrhynchus papyrus from the Egypt Exploration Fund distributions sold to a private collector). In the age of questioning collection history, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri ‘brand’ is probably as good as you can get. It’s precisely because of that that I had my questions: if this Greek Apocalypse of James papyrus genuinely was an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, prove it!

A few days after the Twitter convo, we finally had an official press release from the University of Texas on this:

The first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing describing Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James has been discovered at Oxford University by biblical scholars at The University of Texas at Austin.   

To date, only a small number of texts from the Nag Hammadi library — a collection of 13 Coptic Gnostic books discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt — have been found in Greek, their original language of composition. But earlier this year, UT Austin religious studies scholars Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau added to the list with their discovery of several fifth- or sixth-century Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James, which was thought to have been preserved only in its Coptic translations until now.

“To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement,” said Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies. “We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us.”

The ancient narrative describes the secret teachings of Jesus to his brother James, in which Jesus reveals information about the heavenly realm and future events, including James’ inevitable death.

“The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus’ life and ministry by allowing us access to conversations that purportedly took place between Jesus and his brother, James — secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus’ death,” Smith said. 

Such apocryphal writings, Smith said, would have fallen outside the canonical boundaries set by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his “Easter letter of 367” that defined the 27-book New Testament: “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”

With its neat, uniform handwriting and words separated into syllables, the original manuscript was probably a teacher’s model used to help students learn to read and write, Smith and Landau said.

“The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots. Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts,” said Landau, a lecturer in the UT Austin Department of Religious Studies.

The teacher who produced this manuscript must have “had a particular affinity for the text,” Landau said. It does not appear to be a brief excerpt from the text, as was common in school exercises, but rather a complete copy of this forbidden ancient writing.

Smith and Landau announced the discovery at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston in November and are working to publish their preliminary findings in the Greco Roman Memoirs series of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

As might be expected, the story was picked up by various outlets and spun in various ways:

… among others. The Newsweek coverage is especially noteworthy/blameworthy for trying to forge a link between this find and the James Ossuary from a few years ago. Things settled down a bit, and then a couple of days ago Candida Moss wrote an excellent corrective piece for the Daily Beast, with the intent of demonstrating — which she did — the actual significance of the find, devoid of the spin being put on it by various news outlets and websites. I encourage everyone to read it in its entirety:

That said, what caught my eye in Dr Moss’ article was the following:

The Greek of the First Apocalypse of James was discovered in the Oxyrhynchus collection, a famous group of papyrus fragments found by Grenfell and Hunt in an ancient trash heap in Egypt in the late nineteenth century. The collection is now housed at the University of Oxford. These particular fragments had been stored with a cluster of other Christian texts in the office of Oxford professor Dirk Obbink.

It was only when Obbink invited Smith to try to identify some of them that the fragments were discovered […]

So it seems these weren’t in the Sackler library when Drs Smith and Landau were given them. How can we be sure they are actually papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection? How do we know they weren’t part of some auction somewhere with dubious overtones? I’ve previously blogged on Dr Obbink’s questionable handling of papyri (The Hobby Lobby Settlement: A Gathering Storm for Classicists? ) and think it’s salutary to point out (again … and echoing rather more specifically my Twitter query mentioned above) that Dr Obbink’s story on the origins of the Sappho papyrus changed/evolved over time. If we believe Scott Carroll, Dr Obbink is also in possession of a Gospel of Mark fragment that’s been rumoured to exist for years now — and it was sitting on his pool table. Scott Carroll, of course, was the person behind the acquisition of plenty of papyri for the Museum of the Bible and others which we have been waiting to be published for ages. That said, the Apocalypse of James papyrus might very well be a genuine Oxyrhynchus papyrus, but the office it came from — as opposed to the library, perhaps — is already under a ‘cloud of suspicion’ of sorts. Hopefully the official publication will provide rather more specific evidence of its collection history and how it ended up in Dr Obbink’s office for Smith and Landau to identify.

UPDATE (the next day): see Brent Nongbri’s post for some additional background on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri:




Statuary, #takeaknee, and Warrior Women: a Classical Intersection?

This is one of those blog posts that I felt compelled to write primarily because it brings assorted conversations from social media — Classical and otherwise — together in what strikes me as a very interesting way. We’ll begin with what was a big topic in the archaeological world a week or so ago, namely, that a DNA study of a  well-known Viking burial excavated back in 1889 (from Birka and designated Bj 581) suggests that, despite the burial containing plenty of male-warrior-associated grave goods (an axe, spear, arrows, shields, etc.), that the occupant of the grave was a woman. As might be expected from such a sensational claim, there has been skepticism based on the apparent lack of evidence of ‘strenuous activity’ from the bones and the like which one would expect to see on the remains of a warrior. While I suspect the academic jury is still out on that score, in the wake of that find, Natalie Haynes asked what is hopefully the logical followup question in a piece in the Guardian:

The question that these finds raise, of course, is: how many women might we have overlooked in what have been traditionally perceived as male roles in the past?

Setting that question aside for a moment, we should also mention that plenty of posts on social media this past weekend bore the hashtag: #takeaknee, in reference to the anticipated protests of a certain world leader’s direction that professional athletes who did not stand during the national anthem (because they were protesting, of course) should be fired. One prominent Classicist — Sarah Bond — posted a very intriguing piece of statuary as a sort of Classical precedent (and in anticipation of her just-posted item at Forbes on sporting events as protest sites in the ancient world). Here’s the image, usually labelled the “kneeling barbarian”:

It’s currently in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and has an interesting history. Here’s a chopped up excerpt from Maddalena Cima, Eugenio La Rocca, Horti Romani (183-184 via Google books):hortiromani1hortiromani2



As mentioned above, there are (at least) two other, similar statues, all thought to be from the same monument. The other two are in the archaeological museum in Naples:

Kim Hartwick, Gardens of Sallust (p. 127) mentions the possibility that there is a fourth one somewhere as well. As can be seen, they are made from the same Pavonazzetto marble. Taken together, according to the official description of one of the statues at the Museo archeologica Nazionale di Napoli:

… the statue may have been part of a single monument, consisting of a large metallic tripod held up by the three statues, built on the Palatine Hill in Rome to celebrate the victories over the Parthians in 20 BC: the kneeling position of the defeated barbarians would fall perfectly within the political and religious restoration programme undertaken by Augustus. Finally, it is worth noting that the use of coloured marble is typical in the sculptures of exotic characters while simultaneously alluding to the conquest of the remote lands from which these stones originated.


Now here’s where it became very interesting for me. Months ago, Sarah Bond reminded us how many ancient statues were altered prior to their landing in museums and how that fed (and feeds) into the predisposed notions of various groups. As such, it does not surprise us to read that all these kneeling barbarians have been very much altered from their original condition. It is most obvious in the example from Copenhagen, where the head clearly doesn’t fit quite right and the arms seem to have been augmented with marble that matches the platform the barbarian supports. Interestingly, the nero antico marble of the head and hands for the Copenhagen piece was — as mentioned above — chosen for this because that’s what the previously-found pair in Naples had. Perhaps even more interesting, as Barbara E Borg notes in A Companion to Roman Art (p 127), the head and hands of the Naples versions are also modern restorations. In other words, we don’t really know what the faces and hands looked like (perhaps we did once?).

So — without resorting to creating derivative works from the above photos — imagine all of them without the nero antico heads and hands. With those gone, one important thing worth noticing is the very high belt, which is clearly not at the level a male warrior would wear it. The tunic itself appears to be knee-length. There are also boots which come to mid-calf; I’m not certain that one can confidently say the statue is wearing ‘pants’ but there might be some sort of ‘legging’ depicted. It is also worth noticing that every one of these statues has rather enhanced/round breasts for a male warrior — even accounting for the stereotypical ‘femininity’ often ascribed to depictions of Persians, which these statues are sometimes identified as. Taken together, high belt and breasts look very much like they belong to a woman. Throw in the leggings and the knee length tunic, along with the dappled effect of the marble and it strikes me that these ‘kneeling barbarians’ might actually have originally been kneeling Amazons!

Given the extent to which sculptures — especially in the 18th-19th centuries — were altered to conform to then-current, usually Winckelmann-inspired, notions of what Classical statuary should look like, we should probably expect restorations to be influenced by ‘cultural expectations’ of the era. In this case, I’d suggest the restorers were clearly influenced by one of the most famous statues of that time  — the dying Gaul/gladiator/Galatian(we’ve all seen ‘that face’ before) which was one of the must-see items for the Grand Tourists. That Amazons might be depicted  by an ancient sculptor without a bare breast or being wounded/killed in battle probably did not fit their ancient world view.

So does our group of ‘kneeling barbarians’ comprise a(nother) case where our modern interpretations of a sculpture have been driven by a much-dated, possibly gender-biased,  restoration aesthetic?

On Antimony in Pipes and Pompeii: Yeah … About That

Yesterday evening came the first word of a study bringing up the old idea of ‘lead and the downfall of Rome’ with a different twist. Specifically, that it wasn’t lead that was a big deal at Pompeii, but rather antimony, which can have all sorts of nasty ill effects in various contexts.  It is rather problematic as I see it, and hopefully this post will prevent the sensationalism which is already starting to percolate around this study. Let’s begin with the press release from the University of Southern Denmark:

The ancient Romans were famous for their advanced water supply. But the drinking water in the pipelines was probably poisoned on a scale that may have led to daily problems with vomiting, diarrhoea, and liver and kidney damage. This is the finding of analyses of water pipe from Pompeii.

 The concentrations were high and were definitely problematic for the ancient Romans. Their drinking water must have been decidedly hazardous to health.

This is what a chemist from University of Southern Denmark reveals: Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a specialist in archaeological chemistry. He analysed a piece of water pipe from Pompeii, and the result surprised both him and his fellow scientists. The pipes contained high levels of the toxic chemical element, antimony.

The result has been published in the journal, Toxicology Letters.

Romans poisoned themselves

For many years, archaeologists have believed that the Romans’ water pipes were problematic when it came to public health. After all, they were made of lead: a heavy metal that accumulates in the body and eventually shows up as damage to the nervous system and organs. Lead is also very harmful to children. So there has been a long-lived thesis that the Romans poisoned themselves to a point of ruin through their drinking water.
However, this thesis is not always tenable. A lead pipe gets calcified rather quickly, thereby preventing the lead from getting into the drinking water. In other words, there were only short periods when the drinking water was poisoned by lead: for example, when the pipes were laid or when they were repaired: assuming, of course, that there was lime in the water, which there usually was, says Kaare Lund Rasmussen.

Instead, he believes that the Romans’ drinking water may have been poisoned by the chemical element, antimony, which was found mixed with the lead.

Advanced equipment at SDU

Unlike lead, antimony is acutely toxic. In other words, you react quickly after drinking poisoned water. The element is particularly irritating to the bowels, and the reactions are excessive vomiting and diarrhoea that can lead to dehydration. In severe cases it can also affect the liver and kidneys and, in the worst-case scenario, can cause cardiac arrest.

This new knowledge of alarmingly high concentrations of antimony comes from a piece of water pipe found in Pompeii.

– Or, more precisely, a small metal fragment of 40 mg, which I obtained from my French colleague, Professor Philippe Charlier of the Max Fourestier Hospital, who asked if I would attempt to analyse it. The fact is that we have some particularly advanced equipment at SDU, which enables us to detect chemical elements in a sample and, ever more importantly, to measure where they occur in large concentrations.

Volcano made it even worse

Kaare Lund Rasmussen underlines that he only analysed this one little fragment of water pipe from Pompeii. It will take several analyses before we can get a more precise picture of the extent, to which Roman public health was affected.

But there is no question that the drinking water in Pompeii contained alarming concentrations of antimony, and that the concentration was even higher than in other parts of the Roman Empire, because Pompeii was located in the vicinity of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius. Antimony also occurs naturally in groundwater near volcanoes.

This is what the researchers did

The measurements were conducted on a Bruker 820 Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer.

The sample was dissolved in concentrated nitric acid. 2 mL of the dissolved sample was transferred to a loop and injected as an aerosol in a stream of argon gas which was heated to 6000 degrees C by the plasma.

All the elements in the sample were ionized and transferred as an ion beam into the mass spectrometer. By comparing the measurements against measurements on a known standard the concentration of each element is determined.

The story was picked up practically verbatim by the usual science sites:

It’s also been picked up elsewhere and rewritten:

So much for coverage. If one goes to the actual article and downloads it (for 36 bucks), there will be profound disappointment, as the press release is probably as long as the article (fortunately I have a son with access). Here’s the citation if you care to pursue it (it’s considered ‘in press, corrected copy’):

P. Charlier, F. Bou Abdallah, R. Bruneau, S. Jacqueline, A. Augias, R. Bianucci, A. Perciaccante, D. Lippi, O. Appenzeller, K.L. Rasmussen, Did the Romans die of antimony poisoning? The case of a Pompeii water pipe (79 CE), Toxicology Letters, 2017, ISSN 0378-4274, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.toxlet.2017.07.876.

As is usually the case, I will preface my objections/observations by pointing out I’m a Classicist, not a scientist, but there are a couple of things in this study which set off alarm bells: one from a Classics standpoint, and one from a Science standpoint. First, the Classics objection: the piece of pipe that was studied was “a small metal fragment of 40 mg, which I obtained from my French colleague, Professor Philippe Charlier of the Max Fourestier Hospital.” As I voiced briefly on Twitter a couple of times, this is not really acceptable, even as a starting point. How does a Professor in a French hospital come to have a piece of Pompeii pipe? The Toxicology Letters article says it comes from the House of Caecilius Jucundus from 1875 and is now in a private collection. I really think we need some documentation confirming that provenance. Yes, the House of Caecilius Jucundus was excavating in 1875, but how did this tiny piece of pipe come to be in France? There are plenty of sources of Roman lead to be found, and our current knowledge of the antiquities market suggests we need more assurance in regards to how this piece got to France from Pompeii, if indeed it did.

The other objection is tied more to the piece in Toxicology Letters. Without getting into lead and calcification of pipes which has recently been called into question (see, e.g., D. Keenan-Jones, Lead contamination in the drinking water of Pompeii) we note this comment in the article, dealing with the ‘leachability’ of antimony into a water supply from lead pipes:

This is an alarming level because antimony is easily leached from the lead water pipe, and antimony poses a serious health hazard, as demonstrated by a study conducted on loops of lead pipes containing twenty Sn/Sb joints soldered by antimony. Barely detectable initially (less than 0.004 ppm), antimony concentration in the water running through the pipes reached a level of 0.01 ppm in 4 days, and of 0.068 ppm within four weeks (corresponding to 0.068 mg/L) (Murrell, 1987). This effect has not been reproduced by other studies due to the variability of experimental conditions such as water pH, debit, and concentration of antimony in the pipes.

The first thing to note is that the comparative study is based on pipes which were soldered with antimony, so the water flowing through those pipes presumably would come in direct contact. Roman pipes were soldered with lead, not antimony. Second, we seem to be dealing with some sort of closed system involving ‘loops’, so a particular quantity of water would be repeatedly exposed to the antimony solder as opposed to just flowing through a pipe, presumably picking up more antimony each time around. That looks like a situation which will skew results. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the effect is apparently not reproducible and hasn’t been reproduced in thirty years. If you’re interested in tracking down that study (which Google couldn’t find today):

Murrell, N.E., 1987. Impact of Metal Solders on Water Quality. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Water Works Association, Part 1. Denver American Water Works Association pp. 39–43.

That said, it’s worth noting that the author of the study is aware of the limitations based on one sample, but that admission will be forgotten in the sensational headlines. In the press release:

Kaare Lund Rasmussen underlines that he only analysed this one little fragment of water pipe from Pompeii. It will take several analyses before we can get a more precise picture of the extent, to which Roman public health was affected.

The piece in Toxicology Letters concludes with:

We strongly suggest further studies (including antimony level analyses in human bones and coprolites) to verify this groundbreaking theory.

In other words, by all accounts we’re still at the theory stage. This really shouldn’t be getting press coverage yet, much less sensational headlines.

Captationes ~ Modern Politics Linking to the Past

When I was an undergrad, one of the favourite phrases I picked up along the way was the captatio benevolentiae, which, as most folks reading this blog will know, involves a speaker saying good/complimentary things to their audience in order to ‘get them on his/her side’ early on. It was a common technique in ancient oratory and one which is very common today as well. Another one of the phrases which caught my ear in my undergrad years was captatio testamenti, which was usually translated as ‘legacy hunter’, i.e., someone — usually a young male — who courted a much older, much wealthier person in the hopes of being left something in their will when they passed. The events of the past few days in Charlottesville got me thinking about how both of those captatio techniques seem to have been front and center: there were plenty of appeals to the biases of various audiences and some political groups clearly build on some ‘legacy’ of ‘their’ past which they are hoping to cash in on.

Of course, such things are not new and have been happening ever since Greece and Rome were, well, Greece and Rome. Indeed, some of the groups in Charlottesville like to use the Greco-Roman world to justify their extreme views. As such, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an amazing example of ‘cultural appropriation’ in modern times which I came across while my family was vacationing in Sicily over a decade ago.  One of our side trips was to Taormina and Giardini Naxos and in our meanderings (after eating some memorable arancini from a street vendor), we came to what I thought was one of the ugliest churches we had come across:


The Church of Santa Maria Immacolata comes from that era (the 1960s) when architecture does not appeal to me. And so, while some folks  wandered to look inside, I decided to wander towards a fountain in the little piazza in front of the church, which from afar looked like it had the Ten Commandments incorporated into it somehow. The first side I saw, however puzzled me a bit:


Okay … so it was put up in 1932. But why would it have this AGERE NON LOQUI (as I’m writing this, someone on CNN just coincidentally said “Actions speak louder than words”, which is the idea; literally it’s Latin for ‘To do, rather than to speak”)? In the 1930s, of course, Italy was a fascist state. Was this some sort of fascist motto? So next, we have to wander around to the next side:


Still pondering the Latin on the previous side, we get more Latin. ANNO X E R (I think that’s an R, as will be explained below). Then we get the MEMENTO AUDERE SEMPER (‘Remember to always be daring’) which was a well-known motto of the Fascists and various fascist groups in 1930s Italy. So perhaps we are dealing with a monument (still standing) where the Fascists seem to be using Latin to link to some past?

Turning to the third, and final side, it all comes together:


ANNO 2865 DI ROMA … hmmm … this little bit has been bugging me for over a decade because the math didn’t work. But an appeal to twitter this afternoon proved fruitful as Dr Yarrow (@profyarrow) suggested 2865 was a mistake by the engraver for 2685. When that is realized, the ‘Roman anno’ does correspond to 1932. This seems to solve the ANNO X E. R., which would be ten years before, of course, or 1922, when the Fascists did their march on Rome (which could be rendered Expeditio Romam?). And finally, we get our most obvious statement that we’re dealing with a Fascist monument: EX FASCIBUS SALUS: “Safety from the fasces”. Personally, I would think AB would be preferable to EX, but I guess it works.

In any event, it’s an interesting example of a modern political group using the Classical past to attempt to give their movement that extra gleam of legitimacy. I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions  …