A trip to Rome (with a detour on eBay). A Review of Verbum Domini II

The entrance to Verbum Domini II

The entrance to Verbum Domini II

I spent Easter with family in Italy and took a train to Rome for visiting a very interesting exhibition, Verbum Domini II, organized by the Museum of the Bible, the organization in charge of the traveling exhibitions of biblical artifacts in The Green Collection. About 200 items related to the history of the Bible are on display in the Braccio di Carlo Magno in Vatican City until next June 22. The exhibition is free, which is understandable since the mission of Mr. Green is that of bringing the Word of God to the world. Objects range from fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Complete Lunar Bible, a microfilm in gold frame that went on the moon on Apollo 14. In eleven sections, the exhibition informs the visitor on the media, languages, and ways through which the Bible was transmitted to the people all over the world from the moment it was recorded. A catalogue co-authored by Jennifer Atwood, Rory P. Crowley, Jonathan Kickpatrick and David Trobisch, offers a detailed analysis of the pieces on display according to the different sections, from the Jewish and Greek roots of the Bible to the mission on the moon, with nice images.

Very few pieces on display are borrowed from museums or libraries, mainly but not exclusively the Vatican collections; the vast majority of them belong to the Green Collection. It is impressive to visualize the size and richness of this recently formed private collection. From what I have understood through the web, Mr. Green has been able to buy about 40,000 items related to the history of the Bible in few years (2009-2012) and I imagine acquisitions are still on going.

The history recounted through the showcases is a triumphal one. The Bible travelled fast in the context of the Roman Empire, and beyond, surviving the contraction of alphabetization of the Middle Ages. Later on translations in vernacular and national languages, and the development of printing technologies, increased the opportunities for the Book to be known worldwide. Bibles for children and abridged versions of biblical narratives improved alphabetization in the Word of God; at the same time the Bible was often the schoolbook for people to learn to write and read. Despite the variety of texts and artifacts assembled, and the narrative developed through them, I believe that in fact the history of the Bible is much more interesting and multifaceted than that narrated by Verbum Domini II. For example, alternative books or versions of the Bible have been written by minority or less powerful groups from antiquity onwards. The Bible has been interpreted, shaped, written, re-rewritten and transmitted in various, and often contrasting ways. As Egyptian papyrus and parchment findings from the end of the 19th century onwards have shown us, Jesus’s followers recorded different stories, and organized themselves around different traditions, beliefs, rites and writings. The amount of Christian literature related with the canonical, Biblical literature is much wider than that presented in this exhibition. The Green narrative is also sanitized from violence, except when exercised against Christian missionaries. An interesting section is devoted to the killing in Ecuador of five American evangelical missionaries who went to spread the Word of God among the Huaroni in 1953, the so-called Operation Auca covered by a famous photography reportage on Life magazine. This episode has had a great influence on Christian evangelical missionary ideology and practices. One of the Green companies, Every Time Entertainment, has released two films on it: the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor, and the adventure movie End of the Spear.

However nothing is said, for instance, of the violence exercised by Christian missionaries in South America (just to remain in the area), or the distorted, instrumental and discriminatory reading and uses of the Bible made by monarchies and dictatorships in the course of history. It is understandable that an organization with a Christian evangelical mission, and the Vatican, which is so much part of this story, read and present the history of the Bible in this way. As Steve Green explains talking about his family and the items in their collection in an interview (Les Enluminures, Autumn 2013, p.32): “We are storytellers first, and these items tell a story…We’re buyers of items to tell the story. We pass on more than we buy because it doesn’t fit what we are trying to tell.” I understand you need to operate choices when you collect, and I believe that everybody is free to tell his version of the story of the Bible. Nonetheless as an ancient historian I am not fully convinced that what I have seen in Vatican City is a balanced, historical-critical analysis of the history of the Bible, and more broadly of Christianity. I do think that Christian (and non Christian) audiences (and collectors, scholars, etc.) have no reason to be frightened by their complicated, fascinating history, ‘heretical’ and violent sides included.

Since my interest in papyrology, I focused my attention especially on the first sections, which contain spectacular pieces. A leaf from the Codex Vaticanus, on loan from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, offers the visitor the rare opportunity to take a close look to one of the two most ancient complete copies of the Bible in Greek (the other is the Codex Sinaiticus, in the British Library). A facsimile of the entire codex gives an idea of its ancient shape. There are also some Bodmer papyri. P. Bodmer XIV (P75), also on loan from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, bears the end of the Gospel of John and the beginning of Luke. This papyrus, together with Bodmer XV, was presented to Pope Benedict XVI by the American magnate Frank J. Hanna II in 2007, after the Bodmer Foundation sold it not without critics from the scholarly community. Thanks to this exhibition, I have learnt that the Green Collection has bought some Bodmer papyri too. On display there are five leaves of P. Bodmer XXIV, a Psalter dated to the 3rd-4th century AD, formerly in Geneva and now part of the Green Collection (GC.MS.000170.4-8, Catalogue pp. 19-21). The purchase must have taken place before 29 February 2012, because I retrieved on the web an interesting article and an image of Scott Carroll, former director of the Green Collection, with what seems to be a glazed page of the Word of God in its Bodmer version. Another ancient manuscript the Greens have been able to secure recently for Oklahoma City, later to be moved to Washington, is the famous Codex Climaci Rescriptus, on display with an iPad showing the fantastic results they obtained with multispectral imaging and computer technologies.

So far the exhibition’s superstar pieces. But I must confess that the fragment which attracted my attention mostly is number 28 in the catalogue (GC.MS.000462, p. 42 with figure 26). This is a humbler papyrus fragment from a codex page containing lines from Galatians 2 in Sahidic Coptic. The label reports that the item dates to the 5th-6th century AD and is undergoing research with the Green Scholar Initiative (as most of the items in the exhibition). I remembered this piece well, because it was noticed by Brice C. Jones among those put on sale on eBay from a Turkish account (MixAntik) in October 2012. At that time, Brice wrote a post about it on his blog, and there were reactions from people alerting on the legal issues concerning this selling. Dorothy L. King has also written on this and other fragments posted on eBay by MixAntik in her blog more than once. I have contacted Brice, who is going to write on this bit of the story in his blog soon.

In sum, I really recommend a visit to Verbum Domini II: it is exciting to see assembled together items not so easily accessible to the general public, and I do encourage all of you to go and make discoveries as interesting as mine. Certainly some questions are waiting for public answers at this point: Did the Greens buy GC.MS.000462 directly from the eBay Turkish seller MixAntik or whatever it is called? If not, who did sell it to them? Can we be informed about the terms of this purchase, since there were legal questions posed at that time? As Steve Green explains in the abovementioned interview (p. 36) “A person has a better understanding of the artifact the more they [sic] know about its story …”: I am sure that the Museum he is sponsoring in Washington D.C. will inform visitors on the ancient and the modern story, including acquisition circumstances, of each artifact. Waiting for the opening, I would be grateful for now just to be told from where GC.MS.000462 comes from.

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Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter

Gospel of Jesus papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

What do Sappho and the wife of Jesus have in common? Both figures are attested, directly or indirectly, in papyri in the hands of anonymous private owners who are reported to have asked two prominent scholars, Dirk Obbink (Oxford) and Karen King (Harvard), to study and publish them. Now, although issues of provenance may certainly arise for pieces in public collection, they become especially delicate in case of pieces from private collections. As I have noticed writing on the London Sappho in a post a couple of months ago, there are not shared, clear guidelines for deciding what to do in such cases, but there are national and international laws to be respected and there are also professional associations’ recommendations to be followed if you are a member. In practice, as I will try to explain, problems start as soon as you ask yourself what legal ownership of antiquities, papyri in this case, means and implies.

How could papyrologists verify that a papyrus has been exported legally from Egypt and then legally purchased by a dealer or collector? This question has kept me busy since a while. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 14 November 1970 is the main guide and threshold to be taken into consideration. It is clear what the convention establishes in principle, but the single nations’ ways and timing of reception varied. Article 21 of the Convention explains that it “shall enter into force three months after the date of the deposit of the third instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession, but only with respect to those States which have deposited their respective instruments on or before that date. It shall enter into force with respect to any other State three months after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession.” While some nations proceeded to ratification, acceptance or accession immediately, others did not. The United Kingdom, for instance, accepted the convention only on 1 August 2002. The United States of America accepted it on 2 September 1983, with important postils underlining rights of interventions (e.g. “the United States understands the provisions of the Convention to be neither self-executing nor retroactive”). In sum, although the Convention certainly is an ideal threshold since its promulgation, there have been different ways in which its principles have been applied in practice.

And what about Egypt’s legislation? This regulated the ownership of antiquities well before the UNESCO convention and its enforcement: a law on the protection of antiquities was issued on 31 October 1951 (law no. 215, emended by laws no. 529 of 1953, no. 24 of 1965, and now superseded by law no. 117 of 1983, emended in 2003). This law set very clear rules forbidding private ownership of movable and immovable antiquities. It also established that whoever accidentally finds movable and immovable antiquities must declare them to the competent authorities (art. 9-11). To my mind this means, for instance, that according to the Egyptian law the finding, and following selling and export of the codex Tchachos (aka Mr Judas gospel), were illegal, since they started in the seventies of last century, i.e. twenty years after the promulgation and enforcement of law no. 215.

I wonder then, should the past and present Egyptian legislation on the protection of antiquities have legal and ethical relevance when deciding about publishing papyri, or not? My personal answer is ‘yes’. Other views on this?

A careful check on the original documents in the hands of the collector is clearly essential; I would not be able to recognize if a modern document is faithful and formally legal, therefore I will need the help of law experts. A colleague I have consulted suggests I may ask the owner to provide an official declaration (an affidavit) on provenance, but would you trust someone you meet for the first time and probably via email or the phone? Then a new problem will have to be solved in case of publication: does my word, the word of an academic, or that of a publisher or a journal’s editorial board suffice for the public to be assured that the provenance of a papyrus is legal? I remember a similar question was posed and never answered in the Oxford forum on the new Sappho poems. I trust my colleagues, but should our professional practices rely only on academic trust and our good behaviours? In other words, what kind of data should we provide in publications on the acquisition of such papyri?

In the case of the London Sappho, Dirk Obbink does not provide any detail on acquisition circumstances and documents in the final publication of what is now called in papyrological language ‘P. Sapp. Obbink’, just out (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189, 2014, 32-49); the merging P. GC. inv. 105, from the Green Collection, is also published without details about its provenance and acquisition circumstances by Obbink, with Simon Burris and Jeffrey Fish (Baylor University), in the same issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (pp. 1-28). In sum, we are left with the short statement that the provenance is legal given in the Times Literary Supplement, and with the unforgettable details, freely available on line, on how the Green collection has been formed in these years (see my post Papyri, the Bible and the formation of the Green Collection, and Brice C. Jones’ old post on odd behaviors in the Green house). Maybe something more will be said in the forthcoming study on the restoration of the papyrus announced by Obbink (p. 32 footnote 2).

In the case of the Jesus wife’s gospel fragment, Karen King provides the following information (Harvard Theological Review, 107/2, pp. 153-154 that I copy with footnotes):

The current owner of the papyrus states that he acquired the papyrus in 1999. Upon request for information about provenance, the owner provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated November 12, 1999, and signed by both parties. [footnote 105: The amount of the price paid was whited out on the copy I was sent.] A handwritten comment on the contract states: “Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).” The current owner said that he received the six papyri in an envelope and himself conserved them between plates of plexiglass/lucite.

The owner also sent me scanned copies of two photocopies. One is of an unsigned and undated handwritten note in German, stating the following:

Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage. [Footnote 106: “Professor Fecht glaubt, daß der kleine ca. 8 cm große Papyrus das einzige Beispiel für einen Text ist, in dem Jesus die direkte Rede in Bezug auf eine Ehefrau benutzt. Fecht meint, daß dies ein Beweis für eine mögliche Ehe sein könnte.” The named Professor Fecht might be Gerhard Fecht (1922–2006), professor of Egyptology at the Free University, Berlin.]

If these two documents pertain to the GJW fragment currently on loan to Harvard University, they would indicate that it was in Germany in the early 1960s. [Footnote 107: The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing, measuring approximately 110 by 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John. Fecht is said to have suggested a probable date from the 2nd to 5th cents. c.e. Munro declines to give Laukamp an appraisal of its value but advises that this fragment be preserved between glass plates in order to protect it from further damage. The letter makes no mention of the GJW fragment. The collection of the GJW’s owner does contain a fragment of the Gospel of John fitting this description, which was subsequently received on loan by Harvard University for examination and publication (November 13, 2012).]

In this case, there is a clear effort to give us as more information as possible. Nonetheless are we all satisfied with this level and kind of information? Are they enough to clear issues of provenance and acquisition?

So far on legal provenance and publication of data related to the modern history of the papyri: are there any other, further questions to be considered? Indeed there are, and very important ones.

You are going to inspect a papyrus and will have to decide if to study and publish it, or not: your decision will have consequences on the value of it. For the sake of clarity, let’s consider the specific case of the wife of Jesus fragment in the light of this panorama. We have seen that the price paid for this and the related batch of papyri in 1999 was prudentially whited out in the purchase documentation sent to professor King. Another interesting piece of information on the world of antiquity collectors and dealers is given in an article published in 2012, which I re-read for the occasion. Karen King recounted to the Smithsonian magazine the story of the first approaches from the collector. She was contacted first in 2010, but left the inquiry unanswered until when in 2011 a second email followed (A. Sabar, ‘The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text on Jesus’, The Smithsonian.com, 18 September 2012 available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-inside-story-of-a-controversial-new-text-about-jesus-41078791):

In late June 2011, nearly a year after his first e-mail, the collector gave her a nudge. “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail King shared with me, after stripping out any identifying details. (The collector has requested, and King granted him, anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector didn’t want the fragment to disappear in a private archive or collection “if it really is what we think it is,” he wrote. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it.”

This collector loves his fragments, maybe he believes they increase his proximity to ancient culture (Lucian’s The Ignorant Book Collector is keeping coming back to my mind, it must be that I used it for teaching recently), but he is also well aware of their price – as you read above – and the money he may potentially make and spend in different ways, such as sending the kids to Harvard or Oxford, taking many holidays to the Maldives, buying a house in Tuscany, or maybe purchasing more papyri, in view of his great passion or in case he is a dealer himself. The value of this piece, and I believe also of the rest of the small collection deposited for study in Harvard, has certainly increased from 18 September 2012 (the day the Jesus’s wife fragment was presented in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies) onwards. In short, this was a lucky strike for the owner, whatever his intentions were and are now. At present, it seems that he will leave the papyrus in Harvard for scholars’ consultation, but ownership, and possible future gains, will stay with him, unless he will establish to donate the papyrus to an institution, as he said was an option, or – why not? – to the country the fragment comes from. This reminds me that unless I have missed something, we are still waiting for the Tchachos codex to be moved to Egypt since almost a decade by now. But this is another story, one where a lot of money were involved: read Neil Brodie, ‘The lost, found, lost again and found again Gospel of Judas’, Culture Without Context (19) 2006, 17-27 if you wish to refresh your memory.

It should be mentioned that not only the anonymous owner, but also other people had some benefits from the publication process, directly or indirectly, and in different measures and ways. I imagine the current issue of the Harvard Theological Review will sell more than usual; the production of documentaries (like that of the Smithsonian that you can watch in the French version on YouTube) and other media releases should have involved some money too; academics and other experts who took part to the research process had a return in terms of publicity, career, impact, and consequent visibility, for instance, for potential University donors or, in case of technical laboratories, for similar commissions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with all this, but I wish to stress that although to publish a papyrus or any other ancient artefact legally owned by a private collector is certainly legal, it is not a neutral act: it has consequences on the price of an ancient object in private hands, and involves a number of professional and ethical questions that cannot be ignored, as I tried to show.

Among these questions there is also that of the advancement of knowledge. It is clear that especially when presented with texts of such interest and importance, academics feel the peril to lose the occasion to bring relevant ancient sources to light causing detriment to research. There is some truth in this argument. Imagine Karen King or Dirk Obbink were not fully satisfied with the legal status of the papyri in question, or with the possibility to publish details on them: we would know nothing about these new texts (whatever the results on authenticity issues of the wife of Jesus papyrus will be, the source remains in any case important to the scholarly debate: think about the Secret Gospel of Mark). However, I cannot see how knowledge could overcome the laws in case of papyri of dubious provenance, or prevent us asking ourselves relevant ethical questions connected with the exercise of our profession. I would be really glad to read and discuss cogent counter arguments on these last points.