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: http://christiancourses.com/professors/dr-scott-t-carroll/. 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…

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11 thoughts on “Papyri, the Bible, and the formation of the Green Collection

    • Thanks for collecting these tantalizing titbits – and for calling for the provision of information about provenance. This and access are essential for any collection that aspires after long-term existence and usefulness to academics.

  1. Thanks for collecting these tantalizing titbits – and for calling for the provision of information about provenance. This and access are essential for any collection that aspires after long-term existence and usefulness to academics.

  2. Pingback: Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter | Faces&Voices

  3. Pingback: Papyri retrieved from mummy cartonnage: a video | Faces&Voices

  4. Pingback: Papyri: It is a wild, wild life… | Faces&Voices

  5. I had Dr. Scott Carroll as a history professor 20 years ago at Gordon College in Massachusetts. He was one of the most interesting, driven and intelligent men I’ve ever known.. Which is why I find myself 20 years later googling his name and finding out where he has been. I wish I too could find out more about where he is at this time but it is obvious he still has a fire alive in him for history and the proof of history still out there that remains in these manuscripts. Awesome!

    • I had him ten years ago at Cornerstone University. I had the pleasure of being his student at the time he (and his team members) discovered the sunken ships from Columbus’ second voyage – what an exciting ride that was! He was still actively working in the field when I knew him, so every Monday when we got to class, we would get to hear about what happened in Egypt or in the Dominican… He is one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. His knowledge about cross-sections of history (what was going on in, say, China at the time Paul was imprisoned) is incomparable. I still find myself bringing him up in conversation, and google his name regularly to find out where he is, and what he’s doing.

  6. I realise this isn’t really to do with your post, but a friend of mine recently went to the Rylands and from what he said it sounds like there was a mistake on the P52 information board (besides that of the dating). The fragment has lines from John 18 on the front and back but the info board, according to my friend, said John 19. Is he right?

    • Dear Daniel,

      yes this is correct: date, interpretations and even lines should be updated. The label was made many years ago when I wasn’t in Manchester yet. I have asked the Library to change it as soon as I realised there were mistakes when I arrived in 2009, but nothing has happened yet.

      Best, Roberta

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