Overdue: Dating Early Christian Papyri at the SBL Annual Meeting. A Report


The unruly half of the panel, i.e. Nongbri and Choat, and myself before losing control over those two….

You know academics are always late, right? So I am super-late in reporting a much fun session I organised and chaired on November 21 in San Antonio (Texas), at the last Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a monster of a conference gathering together thousands of people interested in the history of the Bible from the most amazing perspectives.

As a member of the Archaeology of Roman Religion Group (obviously the coolest group of all), I planned a session on “Dating Early Christian Papyri: Old and New Methods”. The reasons behind the panel were basically three. First of all, in recent years there have been lively discussions on the dating of the earliest copies of the New Testament, driven in some cases by ideology (you remember all those laughs about the first-century Mark fragment madness, right? By the way, I believe there might be fun developments forthcoming…so stay tuned), and in others by well-argued doubts about the methods papyrologists have applied so far in order to date such manuscripts. Secondly, new technologies and methodologies developed by the so-called “hard” sciences have appeared opening new possibilities to scholars. Finally, the new multidisciplinary context in which the dating and study of manuscripts is nowadays conducted requires more conversation between specialists in different fields, and needs to find clearer languages through which communication exchanges might become more effective. (You can download and read my introduction to the panel from here or sbl2016_introduction).

  1. Speed-Dating Papyri: Familiarity, Instinct, and Guesswork

The first paper was delivered by Malcolm Choat who started with an important methodological warning: especially when studied as material objects, Christian papyri shouldn’t be considered as a separate group from the rest of the evidence because this would lead to distortions in the interpretation of data. (There is now a very useful IT tool that provides dated comparanda for documentary papyri: PapPal). Malcolm’s paper was influenced by his current project on forgeries. He focussed on the birth of the diplomatic science (the study of Medieval documents’ shape and palaeography) in sixteenth century France, drawing attention to the fact that while this was born with the goal of proving the authenticity of manuscripts for legal, practical matters, papyrology-palaeography, on the contrary, was developed as a means to date documents which did not contain dating formulas and other clear chronological indications and above all as a discipline which studies writing as a complex social act connected with many aspects of history. One of the most interesting aspects of the paper was the discussion of the “expert eye”: Malcolm rightly pointed out that papyrology and palaeography are practical subjects. In other words, you learn more going through documents (what he defined as “speed-dating papyri”) than absorbing notions and theories from books. This opens the door to a problematic aspect of papyrology, which recalls “art expertise”: the idea that the more papyri you see, the more you would be able to evaluate pieces in terms of date, location, style and so forth so on. It is certainly true that some papyrologists have developed special skills in dating papyri based on the large numbers they’ve studied, nonetheless to attribute a date in a peer-reviewed journal article should be based on solid arguments, first and foremost extensive discussion of comparable, securely dated examples.

  1. Palaeography and Radiocarbon Analysis in the Dating of Early Christian Manuscripts: Problems and Prospects

Brent Nongbri came next. I have a passion for Brent despite he’s a troublemaker: since the publication of his “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel” on the Harvard Theological Review in 2007, he has constructively criticized the ways papyrologists, palaeographers and as a consequence NT scholars have proceeded in assigning a date to our league champion, P52 (= P.Ryl. III 457), a fragment of the Gospel of John supposedly being the first extant copy of the New Testament. The fragment is one of the big attractions of the John Rylands Library of Manchester, where it is on public permanent display, and we had to change labels in the Rylands: Brent truly is a nuisance…

He divided the paper into two sections: in the first he discussed current standard methods in dating texts, while in the second he dealt with radiocarbon dating. His careful analysis has brought to light positive aspects, but also shortages, in both methods. What seems important to achieve in the future is more clarity in the way experts present data and methods related with date attributions; according to his research, at present both palaeography and radiocarbon analysis are only allowing to locate a manuscript in a time span of a century, while some scholars tend to attribute shorter, more precise chronological indications without giving solid arguments in doing it.

  1. Dating Ancient Egyptian Papyri through Raman Spectroscopy: Concept and Application to Fragments of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and the Gospel of John 

The third paper was the most challenging, but the one showing how science and technology are impacting our field. It also had a “sexy” aspect besides science since the entire project behind it started as a means to test the authenticity of the so-called Jesus’s Wife Gospel and his twin John Gospel fragments, now both known to be forgeries. So we had professor Karen King and journalist Ariel Sabar joining the session. (Besides a fully packed room: I told you we are a cool group…).

Settled after the “finding” of the Jesus’s Wife fragment, the Ink Analysis Laboratory based in New York is composed by five members: a leading scientist (James Yardley) with two assistant researchers (Sarah Goler and Angela Cacciola), two papyrologists (Roger Bagnall and David Ratzan), and a conservator (Alexis Hagadorn). The main aim pulling the team together was that of starting a systematic study of the Raman spectrum of carbon based black pigment as a function of date. Seventeen securely dated papyri were selected from the Columbia University collection, and analysis began. Basically, micro-Raman spectroscopy is a non-destructive light scattering process through which incoming photons from a light source cause quantized vibrations in a material and as a consequence the scattered light is measured. In short, Raman-spectroscopy provides detailed information of the structural properties of the materials under analysis. So what the team has obtained so far is a precise description of the qualities of the ink of the abovementioned seventeen papyri; these results were then processed through mathematical models in order to develop a system to ‘predict’ the date of undated manuscript through Raman-spectroscopy analysis. Then blind-prediction analysis was performed: in brief, some dated papyri were processed through Raman spectroscopy and then attributed a date according to the abovementioned model in order to see if that date matched with the documented one (here results were mixed). Now, when such analysis was applied to the infamous Jesus’s Wife and Gospel of John fragments the outcomes were interesting. The structure of the ink of the John fragment was incompatible with any of the ancient ones, while the pigment of the Jesus’s Wife fragment presented some similarities to those of the second century CE, but the morphology was different from those of securely dated papyrus samples. In both cases, the conclusion was that both fragments are forgeries (and that the forger has used different inks, I would add).

To sum up: the paper showed that this technology has the potential to help developing a more refined method to analyse ancient ink compositions, to improve dating of texts not containing chronological indications, and to establish if a manuscript is authentic or not. I want to underline the phrase I used: to help developing. In fact this paper and the whole session made absolutely clear that science in isolation is unable to function properly as a means to achieve such goals.

  1. Conclusion

Discussion was gripping. We were very lucky to have in the room Ira Rabin (Bundestal für Materialforschung und Materialprüfung, Berlin), who moved a number of critiques to the Raman spectroscopy project, mainly for the small sample considered so far, the chemical processes analysed by the team, and the mathematical models applied. Many of the people in the room recognized the need for more interactions between disciplines and the invention of far more precise ways to communicate results concerning the dating of papyri when based on either palaeography or radiocarbon analysis and other scientific methods. Transparency on the way we reach conclusions – conclusions always ephemeral and subject to be constructively criticised – is an essential methodological aspect of our profession, which allows research moving forward.

We are going to publish the papers as a section or a special issue of a peer-reviewed journal, so follow my blog and I’ll keep you posted.


More Christmas “prestigious” auction alerts


Screen shot of the vintage souvenir of the Rylands fragment of John on sale through Sotheby’s New York on December 5th

Christmas auction madness never ends surprising me this year. In few days, Sotheby’s New York will auction an awful vintage reproduction of our P.Ryl. III 457 (P 52), with an estimate price of $ 300-500. By the way, the other side of the facsimile fragment is BLANK. So this really is a super-crappy souvenir.

To maybe add an ironic touch, the catalogue specifies that provenance (whatever they mean through the term…) is unknown, and date is 19-20 century. You bet.

The lot is part of the sale of the Bible Collection of Dr Charles Caldwell Ryrie, on which see Brice Jones’ blog.

Are you thinking to buy this “souvenir”? You should really be a bizarre collector full of money to throw away: consider donating to the poor instead, it’s Christmas time after all…


The real P.Ryl. III 457, and there’s more on the back…

Caveat emptor! A note to Christie’s prospective buyers


One of the bronze statuettes on sale (Resandro Collection)

Are you going to join next 6th December Christie’s auction of Egyptian antiquities in London King Street? If so, be aware that Christie’s people seem to be in some confusion about Egyptian legislation related to cultural heritage protection and the concept of provenance. In their Collecting Guide, under point 6 entitled “Pay Attention to Provenance” (indeed…) antiquities specialist C. Corti writes the following:

“Provenance is important in all fields of collecting, and particularly with Egyptian bronzes. It is essential to check whether the piece you are interested in was extracted from the ground and exported from Egypt before 1983, when the country passed a law forbidding artefacts to be removed from its borders. A history of important collectors is also desirable, as in the Resandro Collection, within which many pieces boast prestigious provenance as well as having appeared in numerous exhibitions and publications. These factors help to ensure that an object retains its value and will remain appealing to future generations of collectors.”

I must say that the reference to the law of 1983 is quite misleading. The export of antiquities, as well as their excavation and commerce, was regulated by the Egyptian State well before then. Legislation on the preservation of cultural heritage has been in place in Egypt since 1835 (yes, since almost two centuries ago…); it allowed the excavation and commerce of antiquities to some extent, but under the control of the State. Different measures were undertaken mainly in 1912 and in 1952 to control the market through licenses. Moreover, Egypt was one of the first countries to subscribe the UNESCO Convention of 14 November 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which is in fact adopted by most museums, institutions and academic associations as a watershed date in their ethical policies (usually 1972, the year of the convention’s enforcement).

The principle that all the antiquities found in the country belonged to Egypt was clearly fixed already in art. 1 of law n. 14 of 1912. Antiquities were legally exported outside the country on the basis of specific and regulated cases, for example as a result from partage or legal purchase from an authorised dealer.

The new law issued in 1983 (amended in 2010) basically forbade the commerce in antiquities (before then conceded to some authorised dealers, as just mentioned) and established again and once for all the important principle that the State owns archaeological sites and cultural heritage objects of any kind found in the country. So while this is a very important law, it is far from being the only one to be considered when establishing licit and ethical provenance of an object. (You can check the complete list of Egyptian laws through the website of the International Council of Museums: http://icom.museum/resources/red-lists-database/red-list/egypt/legislation/).

Now, in practice due to the socio-economic and political situation of Egypt, this legislation has been often disrespected, in different ways and even in recent years, not only by criminals, but also by some dealers and buyers (including “important collectors”, to use Christie’s terminology). This common disrespect does not imply that such behaviours are to be considered legally and above all ethically acceptable: quite the opposite. So before buying, be aware that in case the collection history of your purchase is not properly and sufficiently documented (more below on this), the Egyptian government or previous owners might decide to ask for repatriation or restitution: then you’ll have to sort things out. I also invite you to think about the important ethical implications connected with the circulation of antiquities on the market, and the many issues involved in the preservation and availability for study of cultural heritage objects such as those on sale on December 6, objects which belong to humanity besides to their legal owners. If you are a collector, do please be a responsible one.

Christie’s has clearly to sell its merchandise as any other shop and auctioneer, so I appreciate that the language in its leaflets, despite the flair for elegance and exclusivity, is just that of vendors looking for a profit. But the concept of “prestigious provenance” really gets on my nerves. What does this even mean, apart being an easy advertisement for unaware collectors to flog to the auction rooms thinking to be “prestigious” themselves? Here the key adjectives should rather be legal and documented. Provenance is a technical term indicating two aspects in the history of an archaeological object: 1. The find spot, i.e. the place and context from where the object was excavated; 2. The collection history of the object, i.e. its history after the find: eventual distribution to museums, sale to collectors, etc. Both these facts in order to be credible should be documented, that is proven to be trustful through written, original statements, demonstrating the history attached to the objects. I am sure Christie’s has all these documents in good order, so ask for them before buying, and check them very carefully to stay on the secure side.

After all, as we have read in many accounts, researches and legal proceedings, even “important” auction houses and dealers have sold in the past authentic and fake antiquities with forged provenance documents. (You don’t believe me? Then read these two books: P. Watson, Sotheby’s: Inside Story, London 1997 and P. Watson, C. Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy, London 2006, and check among others the Trafficking Culture Database of cases: http://traffickingculture.org/data/tracking-illicit-antiquities/)

1st December update: The Art Crime blog reports that expert C. Tsirogiannis has just identified four potentially-tainted antiquities scheduled to be auctioned by Gorny & Mosch in Munich, Germany on December 14, 2016. These objects have been circulating on the market through prestigious auction houses and dealers, but closely resembles objects documented through the Becchina archive, i.e. the photographic archive of Gianfranco Becchina a convicted Italian antiquities dealer. One more reason to be very careful.

So you are advised: caveat emptor!

“New” Judean desert papyrus sold by an anonymous antiquities dealer?

Yesterday, Israel News Online and The Jewish Press have reported that a new papyrus “discovered recently in the Judean desert and purchased from an antique dealer” will be presented “next week at a conference on Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Environs, at the Rabin Jewish Studies Building on the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University.” The source seems to be another online journal, Makor Rishon (I’ve been unable to retrieve it).

The article, entitled “Discovery: ‘Jerusalem’ on Hebrew Papyrus”, written by journalist David Israel and published in both websites, explains that the papyrus “was examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority’s labs, and carbon dated. The results showed with certainty that the papyrus dates back to the 8th century BCE […]”

It seems that Professor Shmuel Ahituv (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) is involved in the study of the manuscript and more details will be unfolded after the conference and the publication of the proceedings. Hopefully, whoever will present the text next week is going to be clearer about its provenance than the online report: from where the “antique dealer” retrieved the papyrus, which is said to have been discovered recently (!), remains unexplained so far.

I am not going to comment on technical aspects, since this is not my research field: I recommend reading Jim Davila’s blog on this. Rather I wish to draw attention on the constant flux of ancient written fragments said to come from the Judean desert brought to us by anonymous antiquities dealers who are still feeding relatively new collections (e.g. Martin Schøyen, the Museum of the Bible, and the Southwestern  Baptist Theological Seminary, Forth Worth Texas, collections). Some of these recently surfaced manuscripts are now suspected to be forgeries. (Cf. lately Nina Burleigh’s article on Newsweek, Owen Jarus on Live Science, and my blog post on a conference at University of Agder, which dealt with the problem in question from an academic perspective.) It should be brought in mind, since the article mentions it, that carbon dating in isolation does not prove unequivocal authenticity and secure dating of a papyrus manuscript.

Ironically, to illustrate the article the online newspapers seem to have used the picture of a Hebrew documentary papyrus, probably coming from a Judean desert cave and dating to the 2nd century CE, seized during a Israeli police operation in May 2006, according to a NBC news report of the time.


Image of “document dated to the 2nd century A.D. seen a day after it was seized by Israeli police officers, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, May 6, 2009” appended to M. Friedman, “Israeli police bust Palestinians with ancient texts” http://www.nbcnews.com/id/30605650/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/israeli-police-bust-palestinians-ancient-text/


Screen shot of the papyrus used by Israel News online to illustrate yesterday article, D. Israel, “Discovery: ‘Jerusalem’ on Hebrew papyrus http://israelnewsonline.org/discovery-jerusalem-on-hebrew-papyrus/

Fragments of an Unbelievable Past? Constructions of Provenance, Narratives of Forgery. A Report.


Giving my presentation on day 2. Yes, I am vane I know…


Conferences could be a burden. You have to travel and sometimes it is terrifying to take a plane (it is often for me), you can end up in terrible hotels and the food, oh the food, is rarely great. The level of papers is usually uneven including your own, which always makes me feel depressed once it is over. I have to recover for at least a week after the event. Too much time and energy consuming for a middle-aged girl…

However, I would have never missed the one I just went to for the topic and line up: Fragments of an Unbelievable Past? Constructions of Provenance, Narratives of Forgery, hosted by Agder University from 14 to 16 September (click here for the full program). Since we were a small group and I know you would have liked to be there but you weren’t (eh!eh!eh!), I thought to post a summary/commentary about the event.

The conference, part of a wider research project on forgeries, The Lying Pen of Scribes, not only had the merit of gathering together ancient texts specialists from different disciplines, but counted also on the participation of two journalists who have written on forgers and forgeries: Nina Burleigh and Ariel Sabar. Burleigh is the author of Unholy Business (2009), a lively account of the famous case of the brother of Jesus’s (James) ossuary, which was discussed in the opening session. She is interested in the uses of Christian texts and artefacts in contemporary American political discourses and has recently written a long article on the opening-soon Museum of the Bible, sponsored by Hobby Lobby’s magnate Steven Green, for Newsweek. Readers of my blog do know that I have been horrified by the dismounting of mummy cartonnage and other feats performed by people working for the Green collection (the first incarnation of what today is the Museum of the Bible) in the recent past; I expressed my concerns on the way the history of Christianity was presented in the Rome exhibition Verbum Domini II of 2014, where I also spotted a papyrus which had previously been on sale through a dodgy eBay account.

Sabar is the author of a mind-blowing reportage on the search for and discovery of the owner (and possibly forger?) of the so called fragment of the Gospel of Jesus’s wife, a saga which kept us busy with solid research and overwhelming entertainment from September 2012 to last June, when the article appeared in the Atlantic.


Ariel Sabar discussing his research on the provenance of the Jesus’s wife papyrus fragment

The presence of two journalists helped us (and maybe them) to delve into the many aspects of the cultural environment we operate within. Great stories involving academic research deserve to be heard by a wider audience, but scholars struggle in the new media context as Liv Ingeborg Lied has explained in her paper: it is difficult to translate technical research details for a public of non-specialists and media (especially social media) may even expose academics to forms of abuse (which has happened to Karen King at various stages of the saga). Ingeborg Lied’s analysis on the way Harvard organized the coming out of the fragment of Jesus’s wife showed how universities are now fully engaged in the media game, but can easily get trapped into the mechanism they put in place. The fact that a selected group of journalists (Sabar was part of this group) was aware of the discovery well before most of King’s academic peers demonstrates on the one hand how much universities value to transform research discoveries into sensational events, and on the other hand that there is a shift in the ways scholarship is produced. As a result of media exposure, a great part of the research on the Jesus’s wife fragment was disseminated through social media and more broadly the internet. The debate and scholarly production were definitely faster than usual and revealed the divide between those who were and were not part of the Facebook, Twitter and blogs conversation.

Update 20 September 2016: Ingeborg Lied’s draft paper is now available on Academia.edu, Media Dynamics and Academic Knowledge Production: Tracing the Role of the Media in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Saga.

Together with the relationships between academia and the media, the other two big themes under discussion have been the construction of discovery and provenance narratives, and the interactions between science and the humanities in detecting forgeries. Ancient texts forgeries have been a problem since a long time; Tommy Wassermann’s paper has outlined the personality of a famous forger, Constantine Simonides, active in the mid-nineteenth century, who sold both genuine and forged manuscripts in different countries and still remains an elusive figure. Wassermann discussed the features of the forged New Testament papyri Simonides offered to the Liverpool entrepreneur and collector of Egyptian antiquities Joseph Mayer. To the modern eye, they definitely look like forgeries; however, they could have passed as genuine at the time of their appearance, before the large findings of Greek papyri and the establishment of papyrology as a discipline. Among other things, Simonides glued his papyri to cardboards in order to conceal the back, probably bearing traces of other documents in Egyptian languages.

Torleif Elgvin and Kipp Davis’ contributions highlighted suspicious features of Dead Sea scrolls fragments recently emerged from the antiquities market; the methodologies applied will add a substantial contribution to solve the well-known problem of fakes and forgeries in this field. Forgers need blank ancient writing material, and need to be able to reproduce ancient inks, styli and patinas to make their products convincing. They obviously must know ancient languages and some palaeography. Not to be discovered is becoming increasingly difficult for the fruitful interactions between humanists (palaeographers and other textual experts) and scientists (physicists, biologists and others). As many have recalled in discussions and papers, none of the two branch of knowledge specialists would be able to solve such complex questions in isolation, a fact that the general audience tends to forget believing that Science and Technology will offer solutions to any humankind  problem. Through the combination of different methods and working in such multidisciplinary teams, Elgvin and Davis have investigated various suspicious items in recently formed collections of Dead Sea scrolls (Schøyen and Museum of the Bible).

Update 20 September 2016: Davis has just uploaded the paper on Academia.edu and opened it to discussion, Gleanings from the Cave of Wonderers? Patterns of Correspondence in the Post-2002 Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments.

This brings us to the hot question of provenance, collecting and the antiquities market. Many of the case studies presented at the conference involved written artefacts (forged or stirring authenticity debates) of at best unclear and undocumented provenance, e.g. Aramaic bowls and Dead Sea scrolls fragments, the so-called Artemidorus’s papyrus, not to mention the Jesus’s wife fragment. In all these cases more in-depth research on and transparency about provenance (= collection history and relative documents) could have saved time, money and energy for other researches. (I obviously don’t care about collectors’ money: in fact I rejoice when buyers of antiquities not paying attention to due diligence end up losing money and the reputation of dealers who facilitated such transactions is damaged…). In my paper I reiterated a point about collecting and publishing ethics I have made in other occasions: collections must provide full access to acquisition and restoration documents of the manuscripts in their possession, and academics must give detailed and documented account of provenance and restoration processes when they publish an ancient text for the first time. This is the only way to avoid a number of serious problems, from endless forgery debates to voluntary or involuntary academics’ contribution to the infiltration of illegal antiquities into the market, collections and scholarship.

Discoveries and provenance narratives were at the centre of the papers read by Nicola Denzey Lewis, Eva Mroczek, Nils Hallvard Korsvoll and myself. These narratives present common features and display similar rhetoric devices, which deserve to be deconstructed and analysed; Mroczek interestingly considered such narratives in the longer period, linking modern to ancient literary tropes. When unclear (if not illegal) excavations or transactions are involved, accounts tends to remain vague and lack key-details like names, places and dates; in some cases, after doubts are casted, the narrative changes and is adjusted in order to appear slightly more detailed and acceptable. In all the examples discussed, from the Nag Hammadi codices to the recent case of the Sappho papyri owned by a London anonymous collector and the Museum of the Bible, documents proving such potentially plausible narratives have never been fully disclosed, are of doubtful quality or even proved to be forged as in the case of the Jesus’s wife fragment.


Hidden counter-narratives of archaeological discoveries: the Punch jokes about the 180,000 mummy cats auctioned in Liverpool in 1890 to be used as fertilizer.

Another fascinating feature of these narratives is their colonial tone: in them, western archaeologists, collectors and dealers are presented as the saviours of objects otherwise threatened by the Arabs or other Others. They usually are (self-) absolving when not (self-) celebratory narratives. However, private letters and other involuntary accounts often bear track of counter-narratives on the damages discoverers and their governments inflicted on the same archaeological remains. I have been amused reading a letter of James Rendel Harris from Egypt reporting the burning of a barrel of papyri collected by British soldiers (to be sold?), and judged to be just rubbish by their superior. While papyrologists and archaeologists still lament the damages provoked by the extraction of sebakh (organic fertilizer contained in ancient rubbish heaps among other deposits) by Egyptian peasants, little if anything is said about the damages provoked by British and other colonial enterprises. For instance, in 1890 over 180,000 cat mummies were sent from a village near Beni Hasan (an important archaeological site about 20 miles south of Minya) to Britain and auctioned in Liverpool to be used as fertilizer. Some items were deposited in the Liverpool Museum with a short description about the discovery and aspect of the cat mummies; the story has been recently brought to light in occasion of an exhibition on animal mummies at the Manchester Museum. Unsurprisingly, the downsides of occidental achievements in Egypt and other countries have gone easily forgotten. As Hallvard Korsvoll rightly reminded us, archaeological reports can be considered a genre, and this observation made me think about how they are increasingly becoming scientific/technical in tone compared to the more literary narratives produced when Egyptology and papyrology were born.

To conclude: the conference has been an excellent opportunity to discuss key-questions about the many connections between the creation of forgeries and fakes, the antiquities market, collecting, and the different narratives produced by such interactions. I am thankful to the project team, directed by Årstein Justnes, and their sponsor for the initiative, and above all for the UNBELIEVABLE icing forgery of the fake papyrus fragment of the Jesus’s wife on top of the celebratory tasty cake we ate at the end of the conference…too bad you weren’t there!


Papyrology and Ethics: Next Week in Barcelona


Next week I will be talking about Papyrology and Ethics at the 28th International Congress of Papyrology’s plenary session “Setting limits to our discipline?”.

You can download the draft paper from here: Papyrology and Ethics_Mazza, or via Academia.edu (https://www.academia.edu/27369636/Papyrology_and_Ethics).

The program and abstracts of the Congress are available at http://papyrologia.upf.edu/.

The Jesus’s Wife Fragment: End of Story?


The Jesus’s wife fragment debate has entertained us since 2012, but it seems time to let it go. In a piece of great investigative journalism published yesterday on The Atlantic Ariel Sabar recounts his meeting, after following many leads, with the owner (and possibly forger?): Walter Fritz.

I recommend reading the article in order to enjoy the entire story, its many shadows and implications, and its disquieting protagonist. Here I just want to comment briefly about what I have been mainly interested in so far: provenance, provenance, provenance, as my colleague Carrie Schroeder has entitled her blog post on the recent developments of this saga.

I never stepped into the authenticity debate simply because I am not competent enough in Coptic papyrology; I was rather worried, however, about two main points: 1) the dangers academics inevitably encounter when publishing texts in the hands of anonymous collectors and lacking secure, documented provenance (= collection history, including archaeological finding circumstances when known); 2) the risks academics take engaging with the media, especially in the current University system which prizes media exposure.

The Jesus’s wife fragment posed a number of challenges since its appearance. I explained in an old blog post (Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter) that even if professor King in her publications was making an effort to give account of the provenance documents produced by the anonymous owner, that dossier was far from satisfactory for reasons ranging from the acquisition dates, to the quality of the scripts themselves (scanned copies of letters and statements, from what we were told). Well, we now have the proof that the doubts some of us has had were reasonable.

Some of King’s statements in the article (e.g. “I haven’t engaged the provenance questions at all” is the reaction to Saber’s first discoveries on Fritz) and her post-article interview which has just appeared (Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelieveable Tale of Jesus’s Wife) demonstrate a shocking unawareness of the importance of verifying the collection history of an object before publication. (I should say this is at odds with a brief exchange of emails I had with her in the past). What is even more disconcerting is that as rightly recalled in a post published by Christian Askeland, hints and doubts about Laukamp and the source of the papyrus and its companion fragments were already circulating since the appearance of an article by Owen Jarus; the fact that even Askeland, who I am sure just made some searches through Google or similar tools at his desk, had already a clue about the profile of the people involved, while King and the Harvard Theological Review seem to have underestimated if not ignored the entire question tells us that something went seriously wrong.

But I am not entirely surprised. The Jesus wife fragment is not the only Egyptian manuscript to have raised questions of provenance recently. As I have already written in the above mentioned old post and elsewhere, and repeat here again since nothing has changed in the meanwhile despite following publications, I still have my own reservations on the quality status of the provenance provided for another recently emerged fragmentary papyrus, the new Sappho owned in part by a London anonymous collector and in part by the Green/Museum of the Bible collection (Washington).

To sum up: are simple statements of academics, dealers and collectors, eventually accompanied by unchecked and/or not publicly available documents, sufficient to prove provenance in scientific publications of recently emerged texts? Personally, I do not think so, especially after what we have been seeing in recent years and in the wider context of a market inundated by an increasing stream of objects coming from Egypt (You want number and graphs? Then read e.g. D.W. Gill, ‘Egyptian Antiquities on the Market’, in: The Management of Egypt’s Cultural Heritage, edited by F. A. Hassan, and al., vol. 2: 67-77. London 2015).

This story invites all of us – members of editorial boards in particular – to reflect very carefully on documenting provenance. Imagine a different, and more sinister scenario, one involving someone who smuggles a papyrus, or buys it illegally, and then offers it to an academic so desperate to publish to avoid checking provenance in depth: in this case, if the academic is based in the United Kingdom, he can risk to be charged with an offence under section 328 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 connected with money laundering, because his publication or opinion facilitates exchanges of criminal property. (You don’t believe me? Then read J. Ulph and al., The Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities. International Recovery and Criminal and Civil Liability, Oxford 2012, esp. pp. 110-111).

Now, my fellow academics, ask yourself once again: would you publish a papyrus without solid, documented provenance for a flashy appearance on the media and one more article out?

An experiment through Pinterest

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I am trying to find a way to keep track of papyri and parchments from Egypt appearing on the antiquities market. I have decided to start experimenting Pinterest, which is an easy platform for sharing images. There are a few inconveniences, e.g. the description field is limited to 500 characters and pins are just added chronologically without any possibility to organise an order of your own choice. However, I hope this would be a useful way to store images of manuscripts that otherwise risk to be lost. You probably remember how useful was to have Brice Jones’ old blog post to check the odd collection history of the Galatians 2 papyrus now in the Green/Museum of the Bible collection — if not check my old post A trip to Rome with a detour on eBay, and above all read the summary on what we have understood so far in my recently published article: “Papyri, Ethics, and Economics: A Biography of P.Oxy. 15.1780 (P 39)”, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologysts, 52 (2015), 113-142.

The address of the Pinterest board is: https://uk.pinterest.com/facesandvoices/papyri/

As I explain in the board’s description, my aim is not that of revealing what the manuscripts contain, but to document the market “as it happens” so to say. As I have already said in an old post, very often the objects in question are far from interesting and mislabelled by dealers to inflate prices.

If you believe this is a good experiment and service, please drop me a message or an email if you know of any sale, and give me some feedback on how to improve the information collected. This is a work in progress!

Dating early Christian papyri: old and new methods

The Archaeology of Religion in the Roman World group is organizing a panel on old and new methods in the dating of early Christian papyri at the next Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (San Antonio, Texas, 19-22 November 2016).
Topics may include, but are not confined to, methodology issues and problems, palaeography, papyrus case studies, and the application of new technologies.
Invited speakers: Brent Nongbri and Malcolm Choat.
Instructions for submitting an abstract through this link:
Join us!

Faith after the Pharaohs: Christianity and the Rylands Gospel of Mary

Our Gospel of Mary (P.Ryl. 3 463) is currently on loan to the British Museum exhibit Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs. In the video below you can listen at me talking about the importance of papyrus findings for the understanding of early Christianity (or better: early Christianities), and above all you can see the fragment itself as recently restored by the excellent John Rylands Library conservation department.

I have written about this fragment offering my own translation in a previous post.