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:

 

 

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Papyrus Series IV: Throwing the Wrestling Match Legally?

The most recent ‘newsworthy’ papyrus discovery seems to be a wrestling contract dealt with in detail by Owen Jarus. Some excerpts:

Researchers have deciphered a Greek document that shows an ancient wrestling match was fixed. The document, which has a date on it that corresponds to the year A.D. 267, is a contract between two teenagers who had reached the final bout of a prestigious series of games in Egypt.

This is the first time that a written contract between two athletes to fix a match has been found from the ancient world.

In the contract, the father of a wrestler named Nicantinous agrees to pay a bribe to the guarantors (likely the trainers) of another wrestler named Demetrius. Both wrestlers were set to compete in the final wrestling match of the 138th Great Antinoeia, an important series of regional games held along with a religious festival in Antinopolis, in Egypt. They were in the boys’ division, which was generally reserved for teenagers.

The contract stipulates that Demetrius “when competing in the competition for the boy [wrestlers], to fall three times and yield,” and in return would receive “three thousand eight hundred drachmas of silver of old coinage …”

The contract includes a clause that Demetrius is still to be paid if the judges realize the match is fixed and refuse to reward Nicantinous the win. If “the crown is reserved as sacred, (we) are not to institute proceedings against him about these things,” the contract reads. It also says that if Demetrius reneges on the deal, and wins the match anyway, then “you are of necessity to pay as penalty to my [same] son on account of wrongdoing three talents of silver of old coinage without any delay or inventive argument.”

The translator of the text, Dominic Rathbone, a professor at King’s College London, noted that 3,800 drachma was a relatively small amount of money — about enough to buy a donkey, according to another papyrus. Moreover, the large sum Demetrius would forfeit if he were to back out of the deal suggests his trainers would have been paid additional money Rathbone said.

The match fixing took place at an event honoring Antinous, the deceased male lover of the Emperor Hadrian (reign A.D. 117-138). After Antinous drowned in the Nile River nearby, the town of Antinopolis was founded in his honor, and he became a god, and statues of him were found throughout the Roman Empire.

[…]

The contract was found at Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, more than a century ago by an expedition led by archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. It was translated for the first time by Rathbone and published in the most recent volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, an ongoing series that publishes papyri from this site. The transcription of the text was done by John Rea, a now-retired lecturer at the University of Oxford and Rathbone did the translation.

[…]

Of course, this is almost what one ‘expects’ in terms of a papyrus find if you’re an academic. The piles of stuff from Oxyrhynchus yielding something of interest and, in this case, something which might catch the imagination of the wider public. Found by Grenfell and Hunt’s expedition … can’t get better provenance than that, eh wot?

Papyrus Series III: Didja Check the Basement?

This one comes from Luther College:

In January, nine papyri documents almost 2,000 years old were found by a student in the Luther College Archives where they had been stored for decades.

Luther sophomore Brittany Anderson was examining the papers of the late Orlando W. Qualley, longtime professor of classics, the first vice president of Luther College (1934) and the first dean of the college (1946-1964), when she came across the nine ancient documents among Qualley’s letters and journals donated to the college in the 1980s. The papyri—one of which, a libellus, is especially rare—date from the first to the fifth centuries A.D. and were apparently purchased by Qualley from an antiquities dealer when he was part of a University of Michigan archaeological excavation at Karanis, south of Cairo, in 1924-25.

“Luther College is incredibly fortunate to have in its possession the Qualley papyri, especially the libellus, a rare and invaluable find from the early centuries of Christian history,” said Philip Freeman, Qualley Chair of Ancient Languages at Luther. “As soon as they are properly preserved, we hope to display all the papyri in our library for everyone to see. They provide a great opportunity for our students to examine a genuine piece of the ancient world.”

The nine papyri, written in ancient Greek, measure from 5 to 20 centimeters in length and are in remarkably good shape, though all are fragmentary and quite fragile. Papyrus was the primary writing medium of the ancient world and was made from the interwoven fibers of the papyrus plant, which grows along the banks of the Nile River.

Upon finding the documents, Anderson contacted the Luther Classics Department faculty, who examined the papyri and in turn contacted the Papyrus Collection staff at the University of Michigan, one of the leading centers of papyrus study in the world, for help in identifying and analyzing the discoveries. Several are accounting documents, but papyrologist Graham Claytor immediately identified one as a libellus dating from the first great Roman persecution of Christians beginning under Emperor Decius in the year 250.

Decius issued a decree that year ordering all inhabitants of the empire to offer a sacrifice to the gods as a show of loyalty. A libellus was a document given to a Roman citizen to confirm the performance of such a sacrifice. Christians were forbidden by their beliefs from performing these sacrifices and were thus subject to arrest, torture and execution for refusing to obey the emperor’s decree. Pope Fabian was among those who refused to sacrifice and was subsequently killed by the Roman authorities.

The Luther College libellus bears the name of Aurelius Ammon, a servant of the well-attested Aurelius Appianus, a leading citizen of Alexandria, Egypt. It declares that Aurelius Ammon has sacrificed “in accordance with the orders” of the emperor. The papyrus was probably part of a collection made in ancient times from the village of Theadelphia in Egypt’s Fayum region. Only a few of these rare documents have been uncovered, and they are currently housed in research libraries in Hamburg, Berlin, Manchester, Florence, and the University of Michigan. Now Decorah, Iowa, joins the list.

Luther College plans to work to preserve all the Qualley papyri and make them available online in digital format to scholars and people around the world.

This one’s actually a few months old now (and for those of you having a sense of deja vu, we did mention it back in February), but I’m (again)  including it in the series because it represents, I think, what was once considered ‘newsworthy’ papyrus discoveries. Although journals like ZPE and BASP are always publishing ‘new’ papyri, the only time something made it into the papers — until rather recently — was when there was some sort of accidental find or the papyrus had some Biblical connection (remember the Gospel of Judas?). As will be seen as this series progresses, however, we seem to be on the threshold of something ‘new’.

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Papyrus Series II: Guarding Grapes

From the University of Cincinnati:

If you weren’t careful, you might end up beaten by grape thieves skulking in the darkness.

A University of Cincinnati graduate student writes about the contractual obligations of vineyard guards and researchers from around the world contribute more stories from ancient times in the most recent volumes of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists (BASP).

UC’s Peter van Minnen, associate professor of classics, has edited the international journal since 2006. BASP is an annual collection of articles and reviews pertaining to important discoveries from around the world in the field of papyrology – the study of ancient texts on papyrus and other materials.

The latest volume of BASP is the 50th in the series and the eighth to have been edited at UC. The recently published journal features 35 contributions from 26 writers from 11 countries. The previous year’s volume features 44 contributions from 41 writers from 14 countries. Each of the past two volumes includes content in three languages.

In “Guarding Grapes in Roman Egypt (P.Mich. inv. 438),” UC graduate student Kyle Helms details what he deciphered from a roughly 3-by-5 inch shred of dark brown papyrus dating back to the fourth century.

In large, cursive script, the hired guard outlines his labor contract: “I agree that I have made a contract with you on the condition that I guard your property, a vineyard near the village Panoouei, from the present day until vintage and transport, so that there be no negligence, and on the condition that I receive in return for pay for all of the aforementioned time” an unknown amount of money, as the papyrus is broken off at the bottom.

In his contribution, Helms references another papyrus record of a vineyard guard who was beaten by “violent and rapacious” criminals while attempting to chase them from the vineyard.

… not sure why, but I’m having a heckuva time getting hold of recent volumes of academic journals, especially those with a papyrological bent. With that in mind, if anyone has access to the most recent BASP, I’d be grateful if someone could give me an idea of the source of this particular papyrus (dare I use the apparently increasingly taboo word ‘provenance’?). Established collection? Recent acquisition? Please tell me via a comment.

ADDENDUM (a few minutes later): See now John Dillon’s helpful comment on this.This is a PMich. item found in the 1920s, but with no clear origin before that.

The Papyrus Series I: Egyptian Soldier Letter Home

Back in March we first heard of this interesting letter, translated and published by Rice University graduate student Grant Adamson. From a Rice University press release:

A newly deciphered 1,800-year-old letter from an Egyptian solider serving in a Roman legion in Europe to his family back home shows striking similarities to what some soldiers may be feeling here and now.

Rice Religious Studies graduate student Grant Adamson took up the task in 2011 when he was assigned the papyrus to work on during a summer institute hosted at Brigham Young University (BYU).

The private letter sent home by Roman military recruit Aurelius Polion was originally discovered in 1899 by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis. It had been catalogued and described briefly before, but to this point no one had deciphered and published the letter, which was written mostly in Greek.

“This letter was just one of many documents that Grenfell and Hunt unearthed,” Adamson said. “And because it was in such bad shape, no one had worked much on it for about 100 years.” Even now portions of the letter’s contents are uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.

Polion’s letter to his brother, sister and his mother, “the bread seller,” reads like one of a man who is very desperate to reach his family after sending six letters that have gone unanswered. He wrote in part:

“I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind. But I do my part writing to you always and do not cease bearing you (in mind) and having you in my heart. But you never wrote to me concerning your health, how you are doing. I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you.

“I sent six letters to you. The moment you have(?) me in mind, I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother. For I demanded(?) nothing from you for the army, but I fault you because although I write to you, none of you(?) … has consideration. Look, your(?) neighbor … I am your brother.”

Adamson believes that Polion was stationed in the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior at Aquincum (modern day Budapest), but he said that the legion to which Polion belonged is known to have been mobile and may have traveled as far as Byzantium (modern day Istanbul).

“Polion was literate, and literacy was rarer then that it is now, but his handwriting, spelling and Greek grammar are erratic,” Adamson said, which made English translation of the damaged letter even more difficult. “He likely would have been multilingual, communicating in Egyptian or Greek at home in Egypt before he enlisted in the army and then communicating in Latin with the army in Pannonia.”

Adamson believes Polion wrote home in Greek because writing home in Egyptian was not really an option at the time, and because his family in Egypt most likely did not know much Latin.

To establish an approximate date for the letter, Adamson depended on handwriting styles and a few other more specific hints.

“Dating ancient papyri is generally hard to do very specifically unless there happens to be a date or known event mentioned in the text,” Adamson said. “But you can make a preliminary decision based on the handwriting.”

Another hint is the soldier’s Roman name Aurelius; he could have acquired it as part of a widespread granting of Roman citizenship in the year 212. And another hint is Polion’s reference to a “consular commander,” which suggests a date after 214 when the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior came under consular governance.

Because of the letter’s personal nature and common theme of familial concern, Adamson’s publication of it in the latest volume of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists has been receiving national and international media attention. News organizations from Finland to Spain and the U.S. have written about the letter this week.

“One thing that I think is important about this letter is that it reflects the emotions of a soldier in the ancient world,” said April DeConick, chair of Rice’s Religious Studies Department and Adamson’s faculty adviser. “His emotions are really no different than those of soldiers today, who are longing to go home.”

The papyrus, which was on loan to BYU in 2011, is housed at the University of California, Berkley’s Bancroft Library.

(Rice University)

The press release includes a link to Adam’s paper in BASP: Letter from a Soldier in Pannonia and a nice little video report as well:

What is nice about this particular item — outside of the information from the papyrus, of course — is that it pretty much represents the ‘standard’ in regards to publishing of papyri. A papyrus from a well-documented provenance is studied by a scholar in an appropriate field and published in one of the journals one would expect such things to be published in. It is also nice that University press offices are drawing attention to it, with the result that it gets a fair bit of ‘regular press’ attention. Here’s some further coverage if you want to see how it was spun by the headline writers:

As can be seen, there really isn’t much ‘spin’ going on, although I really don’t like the words ‘decode’ and ‘decipher’, especially in a post-Dan Brown world (there really isn’t anything being deliberately hidden; we’re just translating some messy writing), and it’s kind of pleasant to see the Daily Mail having the most realistic/responsible headline description.

That said, our most common ‘soldiers’ letters home’ source is the Vindolanda Archive, available online. We should also mention some writing tablets found near Utrecht a few years ago which don’t seem to have received much attention in the English Press (Vindolanda-like Archive from Fort Fectio (not Utrecht) ).

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