Papyri, the Bible, and the formation of the Green Collection

A world-champion under threat?  P.Ryl. 457 aka P52 © The John Rylands Library

A world-champion under threat?
P.Ryl. 457 aka P52
© The John Rylands Library

If you come to Manchester, do visit the John Rylands Library and go to the permanent display room. There you’ll meet the star of our collection: P.Ryl. 457 aka P52 aka the oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament so far known.

This tiny scrap of papyrus, which B.P. Grenfell brought back, among other purchases, from his last trip to Egypt in 1920, was recognised as belonging to a codex with at least some passages from the Gospel of John only later on, by C.H. Roberts, who continued the work of the Oxford Dioscuri after their retirement and death (by the way, isn’t that a great nickname for Grenfell and Hunt?). Roberts published the fragment in 1935 and dated it on a palaeographical basis, assigning the handwriting to the first half of the second century AD.

From that moment onwards every discussion on the dating of the John Gospel’s redaction depended heavily on the Rylands papyrus’ palaeographical date. This had never been put under systematic enquiry or serious challenge until 2007, when Brent Nongbri, currently at Macquarie University, published an article in the Harvard Theological Review undermining the methodology of Roberts’ and others’ palaeographical dating, and concluding that later dates cannot be excluded on the basis of comparative evidence.

The head manuscript curator of the John Rylands Library, John Hodgson, and many of his colleagues know this story well because I often guide visiting groups and students and entertain them on the matter in front of the holy case (want to see me and the papyrus? click here, I know, I am not this great reporter…). At the Rylands we often joke about the imminent loss of our place as the oldest in the New Testament championship. I always try to console the others by saying that we have much more interesting pieces than that one, for instance my favourite one in the Christianity league: P. Ryl. 463, a fragmentary page from a codex containing at least parts of the uncanonical Gospel of Mary. This papyrus is constantly forgotten by the wider audience because reporters and journalist prefer to check out the other two surviving fragmentary copies of the Gospel in Berlin and Oxford, which I do not understand since, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Manchester is even cooler than London so imagine compared to Berlin or Oxford (and it must be true if those stylish Italians say so). Whatever. Despite my repeated efforts I know that the Rylands librarians will never totally accept my alternative perspective.

Now, while in search of information about the Green Collection in connection with their fragment from the same roll as the new London Sappho papyrus, I’ve discovered that in fact the Rylands fragment’s biggest threat doesn’t come from the learned mind of Brent Nongbri, but from Mr. Green, president of Hobby Lobby, and some of the scholars on his team.

I am a late-night-Google addict so I dug around a little bit in these days of Sappho frenzy. One of the most fascinating scholars I came across in this way, who started the Green Collection’s adventure, but whom I have been told was later sacked, is Dr. Scott Carroll, director of the Green Collection back in 2012 according to Huffington Post contributor profile.

Intrigued, I retrieved lots of information on Dr. Carroll’s activities, and discovered some very entertaining videos. For instance, you can watch him talking about his exciting labours and the Green’s mission in a video embedded into the The Christian Broadcasting Network News website article of 7 April 2012 about  the exhibition ‘Verbum Domini’ which took place  in the Vatican City from 1 March to 15 April 2012. Dr. Carroll, the article says, is: “a scholar on ancient and medieval manuscripts and is known by many as the “Indiana Jones” of biblical archaeology. He helped Green compile his still-growing collection.”

In the video Dr. Carroll explains how it was possible for the Collection to purchase so many artifacts (40,000 in 2012) in such a short time. From what I understand from listening to the  interview – although I must admit that I was distracted by the hypnotic effect of Carroll’s “Indiana Jones” personality and by the overpowering enthusiasm of the reporter and his colourfully-striped tie – he gives two main reasons:

  1. The collapse of the economy: apparently people put collections on the market when they are short of money, and this happened often in these last years.
  2. The incredible attraction of the Bible: people are increasingly interested in objects connected with the history of the Bible. There are a lot of collectors of these kinds of antiquities around the world that the Green team had been able to contact and meet, and who in fact lent pieces for the 2012 exhibition (see also on this point a Vatican document describing the exhibition online).

Dr. Carroll is also mentioned personally by Steve Green when presenting his collection to  CNN on 18 January 2012. Mr. Green shows, among other things, a fragment of papyrus bearing, according to Dr. Carroll’s discovery and study, the earliest testimony of Paul’s Romans.

I guess the papyrus is that presented the following November at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature by Grant Edwards and Nick Zola, at that time both at Baylor’s University (Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds Session, Chicago 19 November 2012), proposing a date in the early 3rd century.

I then read an enlightening interview Dr. Scott gave to the Weekly Trust (a national weekly newspaper based in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, part of the Daily Trust) published in two parts on 2 and 9 November 2013 (available here and here). Here he is presented as “an American scholar of ancient languages and texts and director of the Manuscript Research Group, who has been involved in building the two largest private collections of ancient documents in the world.” Dr. Scott gives details on manuscripts and papyri purchases, including an intriguing mention of Sappho (again, poor Sappho…). He says:

“I direct an independent research group, called the Manuscript Research Group, and it consists of the leading text, language, and manuscript specialists in the world. We work with private collections predominantly and also with museums to identify unknown ancient texts in a variety of languages. We seek to prepare those documents for publication. Because we have a deep passion as professors and teachers to see those documents have a meaningful impact on the community, students, and professors, we also incorporate them into university life, mentoring professors, mentoring students, and providing opportunity for them to participate in the publication and dissemination of information.”

There is no more direct connection with the Green Collection (although I guess that one of the two above mentioned “two largest private collections of ancient documents in the world” must be the Green), but our Indiana Jones is still active in his mission of “breathing life into mummified texts”, as the title of the article explains.

All this information, freely available on the web (God bless the internet!), has really given me an interesting, although sometimes bizarre, panorama of the contemporary collecting of antiquities inspired by religious and scholarly interest in the Bible. It reminded me of the (in)glorious imperial age of Britain, and brought me back to our own J. Rendel Harris, who, chasing Biblical papyri in 1916-1917, lost his friend J.H. Moulton in the Mediterranean on the way back from Egypt (you can read an old post on this). Mrs. Rylands (of whom I am the greatest devotee) and her husband also started collecting books, incunabula and manuscripts for their private and public libraries, inspired by their deep non-conformist Christian faith and love for the Bible. To collect Bibles and Christian manuscripts and books meant (and clearly still means, for some people) to get closer to God and his Word.

But let’s come back to the digital era. During my search, I went on both Facebook and Twitter to see if Dr. Carroll had accounts there. Indeed, he is on Twitter, and I am now following him! I scrolled down his tweets and found that he must already have been busy with the Green’s adventure in 2011, a fact which is confirmed in a post dated 21 September 2011 on the News of the Institute for Studies on Religion at  Baylor University. I list here some of the most interesting tweets for papyri, but you can read all of them on the most diverse kinds of manuscripts at @DrScottCarroll:

17 October 2011: “Landed in the UK and retrieved a private collection of papyri including unpublished biblical and classical texts.”

20 October 2011: “Retrieved a mummy mask, covered w/ gold made on the inside with discarded papyri paper-mache. Long-lost works will be extracted from it.” (There is plenty of mummy panels/masks around, it appears)

22 October 2011: “Classical papyri identified in the recently acquired collection including one of the earliest-known works of Plato and many more to follow.”

20 November 2011: “Presented and described biblical papyri to the President of Nigeria, cabinet members and advisers who showed great interest in the items.”

27 November 2011: “Finished exhibit and lectures in West Africa with over 21,000 registered. Now in Istanbul looking at a collection of unpublished papyri.”

Same day, later tweet: “My eyes feasted on classical texts, royal decrees, and Biblical and Gnostic texts; nearly 1,000 papyri hidden in this private treasure-trove.”

29 November 2011: “Met with scholars at Oxford regarding the Green Scholars Initiative and research opportunities for professors and students—It’s a go!”

And last but not least, the day before my birthday (!!!) he threats the Manchester super-star:

1 December 2011: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-call John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned…”

This all gave me a big headache. My normal life is so far removed from all of this, the tie of the CBN reporter included, that I began to feel like a lost character in a low-budget version of the Da Vinci Code. I could not formulate any thoughts other than the following two:

  1. Dr. Scott Carroll is quite an interesting personality. Maybe his over-enthusiasm for mummified texts is the reason he no longer works with Mr. Green. I’ve not been able to find anything more recent than this webpage on him: Maybe someone out can fill in the gaps for me?
  2. The world is full of private collections of Biblical related artefacts that you can buy legally on the market, as long as you have a religious-agenda-inspired passion for antiquities, the millions of Mr. Steve Green, and, last but not least, scholars happy to contribute to such an  enterprise.

At this point, I have one hope: that Mr. Green, the Green Collection, and the scholars taking part in the Green Scholars Initiative and their publishers (e.g. Brill), will consider giving full public access to the documents relating to the acquisition of the manuscripts and objects, and therefore details on their provenance, for the sake of their further study. In this way, we could begin to map this wonderful but hidden world of legal private collecting. Shall we work together to bring all these private treasure troves out of the shadows?

In conclusion, I wish to reassure Mr. Green and his team of experts in early Christian manuscripts that one day Manchester will be happy to leave the New Testament Papyrus World Cup to someone else, since we have had it for so long. But please do not pass this information on to my colleagues at the Library…

Sappho, papyrology and the media

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084) From Wikicommons

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084)
From Wikicommons

At the end of last month we read in newspapers and on the web that previously unknown poems of Sappho have been discovered on a fragmentary papyrus from Egypt, now owned by a private collector in London. The poems will be published by Dirk Obbink, papyrologist of Christ Church, Oxford in a forthcoming issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (189 2014). The news went viral (obviously on a Classics-nerds-scale, which is nothing compared to kittens-doing-stuff on YouTube) and a debate has started not only on the poems as texts, but also and maybe foremost on the papyrus itself as an archaeological object.

The basic facts so far:

29 January, the media announce the discovery worldwide, often with mention of and/or link to Dirk Obbink’s preliminary version of the forthcoming article freely available at an institutional address (e.g. BBC News). Dirk Obbink and his team open a forum: New Sappho. A discussion on the new Sappho Papyrus. First questions about the lack of details on provenance are posed in the blogosphere, twitter and then posted also on the forum (Francesca Tronchin, Douglas Boin, Caroline Schroeder, Justin Walsh among others).

30 January, first public comments by classicists in the media (e.g. Edith Hall on BBC 2, Tim Whitmarsh in the Huffington Post). The link to the draft article (at the address in the meanwhile has stopped working.

2 February, Bettany Hughes publishes an article in the Sunday Times with new information on the ownership and acquisition of the papyrus: “The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.”

5 February, Dirk Obbink publishes an article in the Times Literary Supplement where important details are added on the archaeological history and ownership of the papyrus, and on the results of carbon dating and other tests. He presents his main arguments for attributing the poems to Sappho: the article concludes with an English translation of the poems by Christopher Pelling.

Since I have been asked many similar questions about this in the last few days by friends, students, colleagues and others, and since the subject is of great interest to everybody due to the iconic status of Sappho as well as the increasing awareness of the issues surrounding papyri and other objects of cultural heritage, I thought I might share these questions and my answers on this blog.

I am excited when people get excited about papyri since I have the privilege to work in a world-renowned University collection which is rich in published and unpublished fragments: to keep the attention alive and increase the standard of information available on papyri and papyrology is vital for the preservation and study of this incredibly important heritage.

How and when did papyri arrive in the United Kingdom?

Papyri, like many other antiquities from Egypt, arrived in the United Kingdom in large quantities in the last decades of the 19th and the first of the 20th century. Egypt became a British protectorate in 1882, after the army of Queen Victoria occupied the country on the pretext of protecting the Khediveh (viceroy) from the nationalistic revolt headed by colonel Ahmed Orhabi (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).

After the soldiers, scholars arrived too. Egyptomania, a trend that is as old as Herodotus, boomed in Britain (and elsewhere). Public and private British collections began to form in two main ways: as a result of official excavations, and through the purchase and export of objects. The history of these collections is fascinating, and sometimes complicated to follow. This is because in that period, archaeologists, librarians, curators, collectors and papyrologists were not as aware as we are nowadays of the importance of keeping precise notes of the provenance of archaeological findings or object acquisitions.

As I said, some papyrus collections (e.g. that in Oxford, published in the series The Oxyrhynchus Papyri) are mainly the results of archaeological campaigns for which papyrologists like B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt had obtained permissions from the Egyptian authority (which were controlled by the Europeans anyway, at that time mainly the French). There were agreements establishing how many items from the archaeological finds had to remain in Egypt, and how many were allowed to be exported to the United Kingdom. The international conflicts between imperial powers over controlling other regions also had consequences on scholars and archaeologists who similarly competed to obtain excavation permits, and frequently discussed and fought over the division of finds. The colonialist attitude of Europeans and Americans towards Egypt and its population led to massive exports and dramatic dispersion of cultural heritage from that country, as we all know.

Other papyrus collections, both private and public, were instead formed mainly through acquisitions on the antiquity market. This was because Egyptians realised the appeal of archaeological finds, papyri included, to the mass of Western visitors, particularly wealthy tourists. There were well-known dealers in Cairo and elsewhere whose merchandise came from both illegal finds and the pillaging of legal excavations, often excavations directed by the same archaeologists who frequented their shops. Finally, papyri arrived in private and public collections as a result of the distribution of objects to institutions and donors for having sponsored the archaeological campaigns.

As a result, the history of public collections in the United Kingdom varies a lot: the John Rylands collection, for instance, was formed by the acquisition of the Eastern manuscripts of the private library of Lord Crawford, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, in 1901 and later purchases on the Egyptian antiquity market. The purchases for Lord Crawford and later the Rylands collection were all made by famous papyrologists through the antiquity market (mainly Grenfell and Hunt, and J. Rendel Harris). At that time many scholars as well as wealthy families and individuals formed their own private collections of papyri and other objects. These collections sometimes ended up in the public collections of universities, museums, libraries etc., but in other cases I guess they remained in private hands, were transmitted to the following generations and sometimes legally sold at auctions, through antiquity dealers and so on. In principle it is plausible that some papyri and objects (e.g. mummy cartonnages) that came to Europe from Egypt before the middle of the 20th century have been still in private hands and eventually would become available on the antiquity market once again. In this case it will be easy to give information on their provenance to scholars.

Is there a difference nowadays between public and private collections of papyri?

Collections are obviously different from one another in their history, as we have seen, and in the amount of material they own. In the UK for instance there are few large public collections (e.g. in Oxford, London and Manchester), and many smaller ones, since a large number of universities, museums, libraries, etc. own a few papyri distributed as a result of sponsorship, mainly via the Egypt Exploration Society, or as inheritances from private legacies. To my knowledge there are very few large private collections of papyri in the world. One of these is the Green Collection, which owns, among other things, a papyrus fragment from the same roll as the Sappho of the London collector (this is what ‘P. GC. inv. 105’ mentioned in the provisional copy of the forthcoming article means in papyrological terminology: Papyrus Green Collection inv. 105).

When collectors want to remain anonymous, and they have the right to do so, it becomes more difficult (but not impossible) for scholars and the public generally to have direct access to information about the acquisition of the papyrus and to the papyrus itself. On the contrary, public collections, at least in the United Kingdom, do encourage access to all these things. There is a branch of papyrology, named ‘museum archaeology’, dedicated to the study of modern archival material (letters, receipts, book-keeping records, etc.) for reconstructing the history of collections and their connections in order to increase our knowledge of the papyri’s archaeological and/or acquisition provenance.

Is there any institutional guidance for papyrologists on publishing papyri from private collections?

Not that I am aware of. There are only guidelines referring to papyri of illicit provenance. Under the auspices of the American Society of Papyrologists, an official position against the publication, presentation or exhibition of material excavated illegally or exported from its country of origin after the enforcement of the Unesco Convention of 1970 is taken in section 2 of the Resolution Concerning the Illicit Trade in Papyri of June 2007 ( This is similar to other policies issued by societies or journals that deal with antiquities, for instance the American Journal of Archaeology and the Journal of the Hellenic Society.

The International Association of Papyrologists ( ) has taken an official position on illicit trade too, although nothing was established regarding publication, conferences and exhibitions. The ‘Recommendations’ issued by a working party in August 2007 and available on the Association’s website make clear that the Association members are committed to the international and national laws and agreements on trade in antiquities, illicit excavations, etc. and encourage fostering papyrology and archaeology, and cultural activities more broadly, in Egypt in order to cooperate on the protection and care of the cultural heritage of the country.

All the regulations and statements mentioned so far have two main aims: on the one hand to fight looting and illicit trade of antiquities; on the other hand to increase the awareness of the importance of recording and preserving archaeological provenance in the widest sense (from find spots to all the information connected with the excavation as well as the history of the object) for the understanding and interpretation of ancient objects.

Having clarified that we must obey the laws and work only with collectors and collections with documented legal ownership, in my opinion when papyri are in the hands of private owners legally, everyone is free to take their own approaches. Some may decide to offer expertise, do research and publish. Others may refuse to deal with private collectors in any case because of feeling uncomfortable, for instance, with understandable and licit requests of anonymity and the consequent lack of some information on acquisition details. Some may believe that private ownership of antiquities must not be encouraged in any case, even when legal. Both lines present pros and cons, and scholars must decide case by case what to do. I tend towards the principle that ‘public is better’ and would feel uncomfortable with the whole ‘confidential’ part, but on the other hand I recognize that refusing to work on private collections may mean a loss of knowledge of ancient texts. (Although an article of Neil Brodie published in 2009 on academic involvement in the illegal trade of manuscripts and available online makes a strong case against this argument).

What is really crucial is to maintain an ongoing discussion on this topic, in order to consider those pros and cons once in a while, and to help improve policies and legislation on the matter too.

Has the value of the Sappho papyrus increased?

I am not an expert on the antiquity market, but I am sure it has increased. This has now become a sort of iconic piece since Sappho is a very popular author (even though there are not as few papyri transmitting Sappho as people might think, see and data available through ). That being said, I am not fully convinced that papyri are such a good investment for collectors. If this collector ever wants to sell the piece, he will need to find either an institution or a wealthy private individual with a very specific interest in classical literature. I believe there are not many in the last category, and this is not a nice statue or painting you could hang on the wall… In both cases his ownership documents must be in very good order, which so far I have no reason to doubt, and which I expect to be fully clarified in the forthcoming publication.

In other words I don’t think there’s a big demand for papyri on the market, but as I said I am not an expert. You may want to ask someone who has bought papyri and other antiquities recently, for instance the owner of the Green Collection and his team of experts.

What do you think of the papyrus and the poems?

I don’t think anything because at the moment I don’t know much: I am just vaguely and uncritically elated the way classicists are when discoveries like these are announced, and the way the media wants us all to be.

I have downloaded the draft-article, which the author clearly no longer wishes to circulate since he has pulled it from the web (there is a cache-copy on, some translations, some information regarding the papyrus’ provenance from an ancient mummy cartonnage panel (see Obbink’s article on the Times Literary Suplement: I still don’t know what to do with Hughes’ reference to the ‘high-ranking German officer’), and no images at all. The research process is not concluded: we are all waiting to see the images of the papyrus, and to read the final version of the article on this and the other fragment from the same roll which is cited in the draft-article (the aforementioned Papyrus Green Collection inv. 105), and last but not least, to have more details on the provenance and the legal ownership of both papyri.

So here is my final question: was it worth it to circulate information about this papyrus and the poems before their final publication?