Open letter to Brill: Fake and unprovenanced manuscripts

For the attention of Brill.


On 22 October 2018, the Museum of the Bible issued a press release informing the public that five of their recently acquired fragments that were claimed to come from the Dead Sea Scrolls are modern forgeries. These five forgeries are included in the first volume of the series ‘Publications of Museum of the Bible’ which was published by Brill in 2016.

This volume has received sustained criticism from members of the academic community because it failed to provide information about the acquisition circumstances and collection history of the thirteen fragments it presented. In the introduction, the editor in chief stated only that they were acquired “on behalf of Mister Steven Green in four lots from four private collectors” adding the dates of purchase (November 2009, February 2010, May 2010, October 2014). Questions about the authenticity of all thirteen fragments were raised by many specialists, including one of the co-authors of the volume, and are still waiting to be fully answered.

This is merely the latest in a series of cases in which academics’ concerns about the provenance and authenticity of manuscripts have been ignored, despite the fact that most scholarly associations (e.g. ASOR, SBL, SCS, AIA and ASP) have policies and guidelines on these matters. It is clear that there were sustained serious flaws not only in terms of ethical collecting standards and museum best-practice, as the owners of the fragments have acknowledged, but also in publication good practices. As a group of specialists involved in the study of ancient manuscripts we ask Brill to clarify their position. Why did Brill allow the fragments to be published without proper discussion of their provenance, when one co-author had doubts about their authenticity?

This episode again demonstrates the urgent need for publishers as well as academics to exercise due diligence, through their peer reviewers, in checking that publications of antiquities, including ancient texts, acquired recently on the market give a full and annotated discussion of the acquisition and provenance history. We strongly suggest that Brill and other publishers treat this as seriously as they do copyright, and in their instructions to authors and contracts include a clause requiring the author or authors to be responsible for providing a full and proper explanation of the provenance and legitimacy of such recent acquisitions.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Roberta Mazza (University of Manchester), Roger Bagnall (ISAW, New York University), Dominic Rathbone (King’s College London), Christopher Rollston (George Washington University), Årstein Justnes (University of Agder), Paul Schubert (University of Geneva), Andrea Jördens (University of Heidelberg), Rodney Ast (University of Heidelberg), Amin Benaissa (University of Oxford), Todd Hickey (University of California, Berkeley), Bernhard Palme (University of Vienna), Jennifer Knust (Duke University), Brent Nongbri (Macquarie University), Malcolm Choat (Macquarie University), Caroline Schroeder (University of the Pacific), Philip Alexander (University of Manchester), Luigi Prada (University of Oxford), Jennifer Cromwell (Manchester Metropolitan University), Sofia Torallas Tovar (University of Chicago), Michael Langlois (University of Strasbourg), Nikolaos Gonis (University College London), Graham Claytor (Hunter College, CUNY)


  1. This open letter has been now endorsed by The Board of Directors of the Society for Classical Studies besides colleagues listed below.
  2. This morning Jasmine Lange (Chief Publishing Officer, Brill) sent us the following answer:

In response to your Open Letter, Brill would like to express that we are aware of the ongoing discussion about forged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as announced by the Museum of the Bible in its press release on 22 October 2018.

The forged fragments were included in the first volume of the Publications of Museum of the Bible (Brill 2016). The issue of the authenticity of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls was recently addressed by Kipp Davis, one of the editors of this volume, in Brill’s academic journal, Dead Sea Discoveries (‘Nine Dubious ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, fragments from the Twenty-First Century.’,

The role of Brill, as with all other academic publishers, is to facilitate the peer review process in order to ensure that publications meet the required academic criteria. In order to safeguard the originality and quality of our publications, each and every work is subject to peer review. In addition, we receive advice from multiple senior scholars in the appropriate field. As a member of Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), we take our responsibility as academic publisher very seriously.

Brill and its editorial boards work in good faith and with integrity to further the advancement of scholarship. Given the highly specialized nature of many of our publications, Brill relies upon the judgment and expert advice of its editorial boards. Provenance has always been and remains a difficult and contentious issue with museum collections around the world, both public and private. We always aim at improving our processes and policies and we welcome you to have a discussion about formulating additional policies related to provenance and associated topics that promote integrity and strengthen the interests of the academic community.

List of signatures to the Open Letter:

  1. Tim Whitmarsh (University of Cambridge)
  2. Sabine R. Huebner (University of Basel)
  3. Jodi Magness (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  4. AnneMarie Luijendijk (Princeton University)
  5. Arthur Verhoogt (University of Michigan)
  6. Jennifer Sheridan Moss (Wayne State University)
  7. Ann Ellis Hanson (Yale University)
  8. Dorothy J. Thompson (University of Cambridge)
  9. Serafina Cuomo (Durham University)
  10. Glenn W. Most (Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa and University of Chicago)
  11. Jean-Michel Carrié (EHESS Paris)
  12. Marco Fressura (Roma Tre University)
  13. Candida Moss (University of Birmingham)
  14. Chris Mowatt (University of Sheffield)
  15. Peter J. Miller (University of Winnipeg)
  16. Antonia Sarri (University of Manchester)
  17. Maria Pretzler (Swansea University)
  18. Jeffrey Henderson (Boston University)
  19. Elton Barker (Open University)
  20. Brendan Haug (University of Michigan)
  21. Andrea Rodighiero (University of Verona)
  22. Usama Gad (Ain Shams University)
  23. Livia Capponi (University of Pavia)
  24. Arietta Papaconstantinou (University of Reading)
  25. James J. O’Donnell (Arizona State University)
  26. David J. Thomas (Durham University)
  27. James Keenan (Loyola University, Chicago)
  28. Andrew Connor   (Monash University)
  29. Martina Astrid Rodda (University of Oxford)
  30. André Hurst (University of Geneva)
  31. Stefanie Schmidt (University of Basel)
  32. Silvia Strassi (University of Padua)
  33. Marek Dospěl (Independent Scholar)
  34. Robert Parker (University of Oxford)
  35. Benjamin Overcash (Macquarie University)
  36. Thomas A. Wayment (Brigham Young University)
  37. Benjamin Fortson (University of Michigan)
  38. Malcolm Heath (University of Leeds)
  39. Elsa Garcia Novo (Complutense University of Madrid)
  40. José Luis Alonso (University of Zurich)
  41. Jennifer A. Baird (Birkbeck College, University of London)
  42. Paola Davoli (University of Salento, Lecce)
  43. Dimitri Nakassis (University of Colorado Boulder)
  44. Mike Simpson (University of Manitoba)
  45. Melissa Harl Sellew (University of Minnesota)
  46. Jim West (Ming Hua Theological College)
  47. Deborah Chatr Aryamontri (Montclair State University)
  48. Alba de Frutos García (Complutense University of Madrid)
  49. Mark de Kreij (University of Oxford and Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen)
  50. Myrto Malouta (Ionian University, Corfu)
  51. Irene Soto Marín (University of Basel)
  52. Jakub Urbanik (University of Warsaw)
  53. Franziska Naether (Leipzig University/Stellenbosch University)
  54. Paul McKenna (Independent Scholar)
  55. Jennifer E. Gates-Foster (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  56. Matt Gibbs (University of Winnipeg)
  57. Joseph D. Reed (Brown University)
  58. Judith Peller Hallett (University of Maryland)
  59. Paul Kelly (University College London)
  60. Jonathan Davies (Maynooth University)
  61. Jona Lendering (Independent Scholar)
  62. Csaba La’da (University of Kent)
  63. Monica Tsuneishi (University of Michigan)
  64. Katherine Blouin (University of Toronto)
  65. Marie Legendre (University of Edinburgh)
  66. Alberto Nodar Domínguez (Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona)
  67. Annette Yoshiko Reed (New York University)
  68. Micaela Langellotti (University of Newcastle)
  69. Rebecca Krawiec (Canisius College, Buffalo NY)
  70. Thomas Bolin (St. Norbert College)
  71. Francesca Gazzano (University of Genova)
  72. Christine Luckritz Marquis (Union Presbyterian Seminary)
  73. Tim Luckritz Marquis (Moravian Theological Seminary)
  74. Samuel J. Huskey (University of Oklahoma)
  75. Rick Bonnie (University of Helsinki)
  76. Massimo Giuseppetti (Roma Tre University)
  77. Tommy Wassermann (Örebro School of Theology)
  78. Peter Head (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford)
  79. Andrew T. Wilburn (Oberlin College)
  80. Iain Gardner (University of Sydney)
  81. Rachel Yuen-Collingridge (Macquarie University)
  82. Pauline Ripat (University of Winnipeg)
  83. Christos Tsirogiannis (University of Aarhus)
  84. Cavan Concannon (University of Southern California)
  85. Jill Hicks-Keeton(University of Oklahoma)
  86. Paola Ceccarelli (University College London)
  87. John Prag (University of Manchester)
  88. April Pudsey (Manchester Metropolitan University)
  89. Gregory Given (Harvard University)
  90. Chance Bonar (Harvard University)
  91. Monica Park (Vanderbilt University)
  92. Federico Morelli (University of Vienna)
  93. John Bodel (Brown University)
  94. Yvette Hunt (The University of Queensland)
  95. John Marincola (Florida State University)
  96. Charles E. Hill (Reformed Theological Seminar)
  97. Olga Budaragina (St Petersburg State University)
  98. Richard Adam (City Lit London)
  99. Charles E. Jones (Penn State University).
  100. Shani Tzoref (University of Potsdam)
  101. Christelle Fischer-Bovet (UCS, Los Angeles)
  102. Adrian Kelly (University of Oxford)
  103. Renate Dekker (University of Leiden)
  104. Joel Baden (Yale University)
  105. Sarah E. Bond (University of Iowa)
  106. Jutta Jokiranta (University of Helsinki)
  107. Matthew Goff (Florida State University)
  108. David Langslow (University of Manchester)
  109. Elvira Martín-Contreras (CSIC, Spain)
  110. Laura Gawlinski (Loyola University Chicago)
  111. Luke Drake (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  112. Mario Capasso (University of Salento, Lecce)
  113. Natascia Pellé (University of Salento, Lecce)
  114. Rachel Mairs (University of Reading)
  115. Annalisa Marzano (University of Reading)
  116. Ulrike Roth (University of Edinburgh)
  117. Daniel Delattre (CNRS-IRHT, Paris)
  118. Aleksander Engeskaug (SOAS, London)
  119. Yannis Tzifopoulos (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki)
  120. Melissa Funke (University of Winnipeg)
  121. Daniel L. Schwartz (Texas A&M University)
  122. John S. Kloppenborg (University of Toronto)
  123. Jorunn Økland (University of Oslo and The Norwegian Institute at Athens)
  124. Donald Mastronarde (University of California, Berkeley)
  125. John Serrati (University of Ottawa)
  126. Anna S. Uhlig (University of California, Davis)
  127. Antonio Stramaglia (Università di Bari)
  128. John Serrati (University of Ottawa)
  129. Giuseppe Ucciardello (University of Messina)
  130. Terry G. Wilfong (University of Michigan)
  131. Joseph Manning (Yale University)
  132. Rafael Moreno González (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú)
  133. Matthias Stern (University of Basel)
  134. Mohamed Gaber Elmaghrabi (Alexandria University)
  135. Robert Kraft (University of Pennsylvania)
  136. Terry G. Wilfong (University of Michigan)
  137. Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (EPHE, PSL)
  138. Georgia Xekalaki (Archaeology & Arts / Egyptian Cultural Center Athens)
  139. Jonathan Stökl (King’s College London)
  140. Katharina Keim, Lund University & University of Manchester
  141. Regine May (University of Leeds)
  142. Dan Batovici (University of Leuven)
  143. Ada Nifosi (University of Kent)
  144. Juan Chapa (University of Navarra)
  145. Margriet Haagsma (University of Alberta)
  146. Uri Yiftach (Tel Aviv University)
  147. Kim Ryholt (University of Copenhagen)
  148. Nahum Cohen (Achva Academic College, Israel)
  149. C.J. Hinke (Thammasat University, Bangkok)
  150. Elena Esposito (Università degli Studi della Basilicata)
  151. So Miyagawa (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)




Christmas Papyri Bonanza at Bonhams

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Christmas is approaching so London auction houses are getting ready to provide the wealthy with adequate opportunities to buy gifts. At the end of this month Bonhams is auctioning a number of papyri. There are two of them that are particularly dear to me. They are listed as Lot 205: in case you are a responsible collector, please buy and gift them to a public (in the sense of State funded and controlled) museum or university, or at least provide a contact to access the texts to the papyrology community.

The lot looks exactly the same as one sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2003 (lot 94, as recalled in the catalogue): it gathers P.Oxy. 10 1256 and 1265. These two papyri were part of a small papyrus collection which ended up in the United States as a result of the Egypt Exploration Fund/Egypt Exploration Society distribution policy of the early 20th century (they come from Grenfell and Hunt campaigns at Oxyrhynchus). They were given to Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, but were later dispersed through a Sotheby’s sale in 2003. The sale in question ignored academic and museum guidelines about responsible de-accessioning of antiquities and manuscripts. The School also disregarded the aims and spirit of the Egypt Exploration Society’s distributions that were a means to provide institutions with ancient objects for teaching, exhibit and education activities, and not a means to make up budgets.

Three years ago I wrote an article about this interesting but disturbing story, which involves also a papyrus now in the Museum of the Bible (P.Oxy. 15 1780 = P39, fragment of the Gospel of John), arguing that any change of ownership is a threat to the preservation and availability of antiquities for future study and research.

From 2003 to 2018 these two papyri went lost to both the academic community and the public because nobody knew the identity of the buyer, covered by auction house sale agreements and laws; they have now re-emerged to be most probably gone again in the dark at the end of the month. It is time to revise how antiquities are sold on the legal market, in particular through auctions.

A similar history  is also shared by the other two Oxyrhynchus papyri on sale as lot 207, held in the British Charterhouse collection until when they were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2002. One of the two papyri is a piece everyone of us use for teaching: P. Oxy. 3 475, a report on the death of an eight-years-old slave boy who fell out of a window during a public festival.

Dove comprare papiri antichi in greco e demotico? Al Museo del Papiro di Siracusa

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Avviso di vendita dei papiri postato nel sito del Museo, screenshot

Questa mattina mi sono alzata e ho avuto notizie dall’Italia. Il Museo del Papiro di Siracusa ha messo in vendita venti papiri della sua collezione, apparentemente tutti inediti, greci e demotici. La notizia e’ apparsa in forma di pubblicita’ sulla pagina Facebook del mio collega Luigi Prada. Abbiamo pensato a uno scherzo, ma sia la pagina Facebook che il sito del museo riportano la stessa notizia.

La direttrice del museo, Anna Di Natale, ha risposto in questi termini a una mia richiesta di informazioni mandata attraverso la PAPY-list (la mailing list dei papirologi): “Il Museo del Papiro ha deciso di mettere in vendita alcuni papiri della propria collezione per reperire risorse per realizzare altri progetti.”

Quali siano questi progetti non e’ per ora dato a sapere. La provenienza della collezione viene definita “accertata” (senza altri dettagli) e l’acquisto risalente a dieci anni fa.

Come si legge nel sito, il museo del papiro di Siracusa e’ un’istituzione privata fondata e gestita dall’Istituto Internazionale del Papiro, nato nel 1987 per opera di Corrado Basile e Anna Di Natale, attuale direttrice. Una grande importanza e’ riservata alla didattica rivolta agli studenti: mi chiedo che tipo di messaggio il museo pensi di trasmettere alle nuove generazioni, vendendo manoscritti antichi di cui il museo medesimo dovrebbe infatti essere custode. Il museo e’ spesso sede di convegni scientifici di Egittologia e Papirologia organizzati dall’Istituto Italiano per la Civiltà Egizia. Mi domando cosa pensino i membri di questo istituto della vendita.

L’episodio non e’ certo isolato; tra gli ultimi casi, ricordo la vendita di alcuni papiri della collezione Bodmer al collezionista americano Steve Green (Museum of the Bible), e la vendita ad almeno tre collezionisti privati di alcuni papiri da Ossirinco da parte del Bade’ Museum of Archaeology di Berkeley (in questo caso un paradosso visto che uno dei papiri in questione era un famoso testimone del Vangelo di Giovanni…).

Certo un museo del papiro che vende i suoi papiri rende la vicenda particolarmente surreale.

Silencing the Naiads: Why the Manchester Art Gallery’s performance is not making a favour to women


Hylas and the Nymphs, Waterhouse (1896), Manchester Art Gallery Public Domain

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Naiads are interesting, unsettling characters. They presided over water and lived in proximity of ponds, fountains and rivers. Similarly to the element they controlled, their nature was fluid and sometimes overwhelming. Naiads could be very dangerous maidens, as some ancient young men learnt. Take for instance the nymph Salmacis. As we read in Ovid, she fell in love with Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite: the boy tried to resist her, but ended up raped in the water. As a result of Salmacis’ prayers, the two were transformed into one intersexual being. And what about the fate of Hylas who, mesmerised by the Naiads, disappeared and never went back to his companions, the Argonauts?

As it has often happened to powerful and unsettling women in the course of history, the Naiads have been silenced in the occasion of a performance, which took place about one week ago here in Manchester. As part of a forthcoming exhibit of Sonia Boyce, the artist and the exhibit’s curator, Clare Gannaway, have decided to remove the painting Hylas and the Nymphs of J.W. Waterhouse from the Gallery, and asked visitors to intervene on “tricky issues about gender, race and representation” by posting opinions on the empty wall .

Unsurprisingly, the event has sparked polemics, since the painting is a very loved ones (even postcards were taken away from the Gallery’s shop), and the topic is hot after the #metoo campaign and the appalling facts that injected it. So yesterday I visited the City Art Gallery, as many other times since I moved to Manchester. As required (I am a good and engaged citizen), I left my message, which you can download: Art Gallery Comment. In front of that wall I felt uncomfortable and sad, as a classicist and as a feminist woman. (There is a lot to be said about race too, but I will leave this to another post.)


Before starting explaining why I am uncomfortable, allow me to comment briefly on the installation’s lack of aesthetics, considering the mess and the poorly written intention sign displayed on the wall. I do not know what is wrong with curators’ tastes these days, it must have to do with government’s cuts I guess (?): professionals in art galleries seem unable to use decent materials, fonts, etc. This is not the first time I have noticed the trend. Anyway, never mind.

Let us move to discussing the uncomfortable classicist. The study of Classics is under attack in this as other countries: to those in charge of education policies, it seems an irrelevant subject, useless in terms of job skills and employability. While statistics actually contradict this view – but numbers are tricky and I don’t want to go there – there are good reasons for criticizing the way Classics has developed as a discipline deeply rooted in colonialism and cultural elitism, especially in the context of the very classist British society and its education system. Nonetheless, as recent studies have brought to light and some new ways of practicing Classics show, it is a discipline that nowadays gives space, sometimes with hesitation, to multiple voices in terms of identities, methodologies and topics. Our contemporary culture is deeply entangled with antiquity and eventually the problem is not the content of Classics, but rather the way that content has been used, misused and manipulated in the course of centuries.

In fact this performance is a great example of how Classics has been misconceived, erased and neglected to the point that the curator and the artist seem completely unaware of the semiotic of the painting, otherwise I am sure they would have chosen another one among the many others displaying eroticised young female bodies in that room.

A Guardian’s commentator has defined the painting as ‘semi-pornographic’. But what does ‘pornographic’ even mean, considering how female, male and intersex bodies have been reproduced and objectified in the course of art history? One can only view this painting as pornography if completely unaware of the semiotics of displaying beautiful naked body in art history. Moreover, isn’t it the role of art to make the viewers uncomfortable, having unexpected reactions, and thinking about them? Curatorial tastes and practices as those behind this installation seem to me more Victorian than those of the Victorians they pretend to criticise. How can you have a meaningful and informed debate on displaying gender without knowing the historical development of producing and displaying gender in art?

I am moving now to the woman who feels offended by this superficial cultural operation. Women have been oppressed, beaten, raped, unpaid or underpaid for their work, and discriminated in other various manners. In the course of history, women have also found different modalities to negotiate their way through family, work, basically life survival: they have played the game according to rules which were imposed by men, and I believe that some inversion myths like the one of Hylas and the Naiads, in which females are controlling if not raping men, tell us a lot about the violent terms of that negotiation. Men felt uncomfortable in front of women’s body and beauty, and interpreted these problematic, threatening feelings as the result of a female power that if unleashed could lead men to lose their minds (very contemporary, I know: that’s why Classics matters). Should women forget all this past just because we now want to be appreciated as persons with many more skills than just beautiful and powerful bodies? I do not think so: I do want that story to be remembered and understood for its multiple meanings and for the oppressive social structures it has contributed to produce and reproduce.

I do not want the Naiads to be silenced. I want a society inhabited by citizens of any gender able to deconstruct the long history of a myth and its representation in art that enlighten the strained, violent relationship between women and men in the course of centuries, including our very present. In particular, I want strong women, proud to have survived that past (yes: we are all survivors as recent horrible facts constantly remind us) and ready for our turn to be in power, and hopefully change the way power has been exercised so far. In fact new Naiads are here, they are taking over, and nobody will be able to silence them again.

The Gospel of Judas on Sale?

In their new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press) Moss and Baden report that in 2010 there were negotiations for the acquisition of the Gospel of Judas by the Green family that never went through (p. 86). This apocryphal Gospel is preserved together with other texts in a famous and much debated papyrus codex, which passed from one owner to another, was in part dismembered, and ended up in the ownership of Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos. This dealer, who has had many vicissitudes in her professional life, entrusted a foundation (the Maecenas Foundation, directed by her lawyer, Mario Roberty) to sell the copyrights of the codex to the National Geographic in order for the codex to be studied and become accessible to the public (besides producing a substantial income for a number of people, including the self-defined modern Maecenates). According to the National Geographic and other sources, the codex is meant to be restituted to Egypt (precisely to the Coptic Museum in Cairo) after its study and publication.

So I wonder how can it be possible that this manuscript which belongs to Egypt was offered for sale to Steve Green?


A page from the Gospel of Judas

The eBay experience

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It is a while that I am chasing my Turkish friend Mixantik-Ebuyerrrr, who is selling his papyrus fragments and other merchandise via eBay since 2008. Although he likes to call himself Robert, we actually know that this is not his real name; soon or later we will delve into his interesting story. But never mind, today I’d like to talk about the e-commerce platform through which Robert and others can freely and easily offer their manuscripts and other antiquities for sale in a very convenient way. Convenient for buyers, sellers and above all for those who own the platform in question: eBay is listed 310 in the 2017 Fortune list of the 500 world leading companies. It is hard to quantify the overall amount of antiquities (licit and illicit, genuine and fake) which are exchanged through the platform, but to give you an idea of the size and profit margins, today there are 1,531 Egyptian antiquities and 3,974 antique (sic) manuscripts on sale through the UK platform, only to mention objects at the centre of my interest.

So let us consider the case of a responsible collector looking for papyri on eBay. Among the fragments recently on sale there have been two offered by luck_button, a user active since 26 September 2003 and based, as my friend Robert, in Turkey. As you can see from the screenshot above and checking the link (papyrus 1, papyrus 2), the seller specifies with a bizarre sense of pride that there is no provenance or document on any of the two. I do not want to give my expertise on the scraps, so I am afraid but I won’t tell you anything about their date, writing, if they are genuine, etc. I am just concentrating on matters of legality and ethics, which should come first.

Turkey has ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970 in 1981 and as a consequence has put very strict legislation in place for the protection of its cultural heritage. The main law for the protection of antiquities was issued in 1983; antiquities are ownership of the State, their commerce is illegal and penalties are harsh. It is fresh news that a British tourist trying to bring back ancient coins, which he found while snorkelling, is now detained in Turkey. In our case, however, the papyrus fragments are not from Turkey, but are originally from Egypt; their legal status could seem ambiguous. Nevertheless, since Mr luck_button is openly stating that they are unprovenanced and there are no documents on the acquisition history of the fragments, what is happening has high probability to be illegal and the fragments look like illicit fragments in transit through Turkey. Moreover, the seller candidly explains that he sends the merchandise through the standard Turkish post, as he has clearly done so far on the basis of his trade-history: what about customs duties? In a world where nations seem to have the less and less resources to control borders, it has become quite simple to send things around without any systematic check on the contents of packages. Never mind issues of conservation etc.

So in the light of this far from reassuring picture, a responsible collector would certainly avoid buying the fragments and would try, instead, to contact eBay in order to alert them on the situation. Here problems start. Any item on sale could be reported through a form that you should fill according to some pre-existent, standard criteria. In fact, none of them really fit to antiquities. Anyway, I made an experiment filling the form as best as I could few days ago. Nothing has happened and in the meanwhile the fragments have been sold to two anonymous irresponsible collectors: one for 512 and the other for 141 dollars.

e-Bay policies on the sale of antiquities varies from one country to another, in view of the different legislation regulating the market and approaches towards cultural heritage protection. For instance, eBay Germany policy openly forbids the selling of antiquities without accompanying documents regarding their acquisition history . The policy of eBay US seems less restrictive, or at least not so explicit, and gives some specific guidelines only regarding Native American cultural heritage. As for the UK, to my knowledge the only attempt made to regulate the nature of the antiquities sold on eBay concerns exclusively UK archaeological finds. This seems a narrow minded, nation-focussed approach for a country with a rich legal (and illegal) patrimony of antiquities originating from other countries on its territory, as a result of its imperial past, and a thriving antiquities market more in general.

As an academic who feels responsible of the objects I study, I had been able in the past to get in contact directly with the eBay policy office and they usually act quickly when some bids are flagged as potentially illegal. But it is clear that more proactive and structural measures should be put in place to tackle the problem.

The reality is that everything seems allowed because too many collectors/dealers, as the two who purchased the papyri at the centre of this post, do not respect the laws and ethics underpinning such exchanges (before you even start with a pointless counter-argument, I am afraid to say that no, darling, eventual ignorance of the laws does not excuse them). Moreover, eBay policies enforcement seems inefficient at best, and police active control is also low, even more so in the UK where the Art and Antiques Unit seems to be under threat of closure. Despite all the rhetoric on heritage preservation, and the amount of public money put in various programs, the truth is that this kind of everyday unregulated and unethical (when not illegal) market is slowly killing our cultural heritage in the open and apparently with the consent of everyone implied in the transactions.

Bibliography note:

I learnt a lot from reading J. Anglim Kreder, J. Nintrup, “Antiquity meets the modern age: eBay’s potential criminal liability for counterfeit and stolen international antiquity sale” Journal of Law, Technology & the Internet 5 (2014) 143–178 and N. Brodie, “The Internet Market in Antiquities” in F. Desmarais ed. Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods: The Global Challenge of Protecting the World’s Heritage Paris: ICOM 2015.


Green papyri: Egypt steps in

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The Galatians Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay, screen shot from Brice Jones’ blog post

An article published today on the Times reports that “Egypt is investigating the possible illegal acquisition of national artefacts by an American craft store company, including a 5th-century fragment of the Bible that was displayed at the Vatican.” The craft store company is Hobby Lobby.

Readers of the blog know about my doubts on the provenance of that papyrus; at present the only documented information on it is that it was put on sale on eBay in October 2012, and later surfaced in the Green collection.

According to the article, David Trobisch, director of collections of the Museum of the Bible, “said the fragment came from the David Robinson collection sold through Christie’s in 2011 and then acquired by the museum through a trusted dealer. There was no photographic record of the 2011 sale, he said. ‘We are sharing what was told to us.’.” So the papyrus is one of the items which Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, gifted to the Museum.

From the statement we may infer that papyri are sold by Christie’s without any precise record (I wonder how collectors might be able to exercise due diligence without such basic documentation…). The trusted dealer that might be able to clarify how a papyrus went from a Christie’s auction of 2011 to a Turkish dealer (mixantik aka ebuyerrrr) operating from Turkey in 2012 is still hiding somewhere. Why a trusted dealer cannot be named at this point is one more mystery of the amazing world of the antiquities market I will never be able to decipher.

The provenance for the ca. 1,000 papyrus fragments and the other Egyptian objects in the collection is an information we have asked for since 2014. Unsuccessfully, since I am still blogging about it…

The Green collection and the Museum of the Bible: 443,000 square meters of mess

One of the tablets confiscated by US customs. Source: the United States Department of Justice.

Readers who have followed my blog could have imagined my reaction to last week’s press release concerning the civil forfeiture complaint filed by the United States attorney’s office of New York Eastern District. I am not surprised. Along with other people, I have been raising concerns about the Green collection’s acquisition methods and unprofessional habits since the beginning of 2014. It was then that I first learned about its existence as it came out that they were connected to the discovery of new Sappho papyrus fragments. These fragments are now housed by an anonymous London collector and the Green collection: we still haven’t had access to any of the documents proving that they come from a lot sold through a Christie’s auction in November 2011. Their provenance rests on the word of the current director of the collection and some Green or ex-Green scholars. I have argued that is not enough information for papyri that have only recently emerged from the market, and even more so in light of the serious facts that have transpired since the complaint was made public. Equally, we have not yet received any documents or images explaining how a Coptic papyrus fragment of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, sold through eBay in 2012 by a Turkish account, also – according to David Trobisch, current director of the Green collection – had in its acquisition history a provenance from the same Christie’s auction, and finally landed in Oklahoma City in 2013 (in brief: 2011 Christie’s London –> 2012 Turkish eBay account –> “trusted dealer” mentioned by Trobisch – > 2013 Green collection. Quite a ride). This Turkish eBay account (mixantik which later morphed into ebuyerrrr) was active again in Spring 2016, when I reported it to the eBay Europe which closed it in view of the dubious nature and provenances of the antiquities on sale and the expedition methods of this vendor. Obviously, I also filed an official report with the Art and Antiques Unit of the London Metropolitan Police.

We also don’t yet know the provenance of the Green mummy mask dismounted at Baylor University by Scott Carroll together with some Green scholars and students, while the Evangelical preacher Josh MacDowell was in attendance. In short, nobody knows anything about the acquisition circumstances of the objects and manuscripts in the collection – some of which will be on display in the Washington Museum – except for an irrelevant percentage of famous pieces (e.g. the codex Climaci rescriptus and P.Oxy. 15 1780), and the now infamous over 3,500 objects identified by the feds for repatriation. We were promised an online catalogue but nothing has materialized.

Of course, academics who are working on the collection pieces do know the acquisition circumstances of the artefacts to which they have been assigned, and I am expecting they will intervene on the topic soon. I personally appreciated some of the younger academics, who last year at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature raised concerns on the provenance and genuine status of the Dead Sea scrolls’ fragments they had been assigned at the presentation of the volume of the Green collection fragments recently published by Brill. This volume does not contain any information on the fragments’ acquisition history. We are now waiting for the forthcoming papyri volume to see if publishing without provenance and acquisition circumstances is the standard for the Green collection and Brill series.

I am not going to comment here on the technical aspects of the prosecution, fines and settlements: I am not an expert in the law, and you can find excellent assessments online by Rick St. Hilaire and others. In short, what has happened is a very serious and sustained breach of national and international laws, not only related to cultural heritage protection, but also to custom regulations and other laws. Steve Green has admitted that the facts described in the complaint happened and a settlement was reached. Now it is the case to remind here that irresponsible collectors who do not check carefully the provenance of the antiquities they purchase contribute to foster a black market in the hands of criminals of various sorts as Italians know too well since the Mafia has grown rich through this business. In Egypt, looters are not only destroying cultural heritage sites and objects, but also killing people including children. In the case of Iraqi material terrorism might even be involved.

There are a few considerations which I’d like to share as an academic who studies and curates ancient documents.

To found a museum is an enterprise that must be carried out by properly trained experts in many different subjects, including cultural heritage managers and lawyers. What has happened with this collection/museum is exactly the opposite: the first director and counsellor of the Green collection could not boast this professional profile, and recommendations made by first-rate scholars like the one mentioned in the complaint who warned about purchasing antiquities from Iraq went totally ignored. We now know that the change of director in 2013/2014 and the recent issue of an acquisition policy (by the way, what about a publication policy in light of what we have seen so far?) probably came out as a consequence of the lawsuit, as the timeline shows. If this had not happened, things might have gone on and on.

There is too often the tendency to treat archaeology and similar subjects as fields in which everyone is entitled to comment on and even participate in. While I am a big fan of public engagement, I am in absolute disagreement with unsupervised work done by amateurs: would you ever allow an enthusiastic layperson in medicine to perform surgery in a hospital? I don’t believe so. What makes people think that anyone could handle cuneiform tablets, papyri and other antiquities on the basis of their enthusiasm? This is something that does not only concern Hobby Lobby, but also our society in general: in the UK, for instance, departments of archaeology are under threat of being shut down as they are considered irrelevant, and curators of manuscripts with postgraduate degrees are paid less than a secretary without a degree in London. This is to say nothing of the madness of metal-detectorists.

But to return to the Greens: it was clear since Scott Carroll’s beginnings that unskilled (to put it mildly) personnel were in charge of the Green Collection/Museum of the Bible. Scott Carroll has barely produced a PhD dissertation, which never became a monograph as is standard in academia, and seems to have never published a line in an academic journal in the field (if you can unearth one, please send me the reference SEE CORRECTION BELOW). This man, who currently is putting on one of his shows in Thailand, is still selling manuscripts of all sorts to Evangelical Christian colleges in the US. Actually, what he is doing is even more ingenious: he sells artefacts to wealthy evangelical Christians who then donate them to those colleges. Carroll earns money in the transaction; the donors receive tax-rebates, and the colleges are thrilled to own ancient artefacts, which I bet will be revealed as something different from whatever they are declared to be by Carroll, if not fakes. Incidentally, one of the last ones, now at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar of Louisville KY, is said to come from Italy, from where an ancient Torah of that kind can hardly be exported. While Carroll, who later was fired or resigned (the versions don’t coincide), has certainly played a major role in this mess, it should be brougt in mind that many of those in key positions, who must have known something about what was going on (for instance Cary Summers and Jerry Pattengale), are still leading figures of the opening-soon Museum of the Bible.

Academics do not come across well in this story; there has been very little if any awareness of the questions involved in establishing a collection of antiquities of this sort. In recent years, I have had conversations with colleagues who joined the Green scholars initiative or engaged in other ways with the collection and the Museum: money was a recurrent theme. From minor universities in need of PhD and research funding to professors from top-ranked universities, everyone was in need of money: to collect as much money as possible is one of the tasks of the modern academic. (Even the Vatican hosted an exhibit of the collection in 2014 without posing many questions on the provenance of the artefacts: there was not a single label addressing the point and any information was noticeably absent from the catalogue.) There is also an obsession with producing research on exceptional items, with the aspiration of discovering a sensational-something in order to attract the media. As an academic myself, I am part of this circus: I believe it is time to set higher ethical and professional standards when accepting donations and establishing collaborations. I am worried about what has happened in terms of academic behaviours because the reasons behind these have more to do with the nature of academia as it is evolving in the last decades, rather than with the Green/Hobby Lobby mess. It is inevitable that the market-oriented model in the education and cultural sectors increases the perils involved when one forgets the ethical mission of the university, which is not business, as some seem to believe, but an education and research institution. Academics and institutions should ensure that research money and facilities are accepted only while adhering to high ethical and professional standards and holding them in the utmost respect. I am very sorry to say that it was clear since the beginning that there was tension regarding this point in the case of this collection: some simply were in denial about this.

To conclude: as you may imagine, I am not particularly worried about the future of the messy Museum of the Bible. Despite the efforts of the current management to set a distinction between the Green collection and the Museum of the Bible, I struggle at seeing one (unless the Museum will release a list of the artefacts in their ownership or on loan for exhibit with their full documented collection history). I am instead much more worried about the status of already existent cultural institutions in the current climate. You can already enjoy Biblical artefacts in many museums and libraries, even in Washington D.C. where the new museum will be located. Manuscripts and historical copies of the Bible are disseminated everywhere (come to Manchester and I’ll guide you throughout our riches): what is really needed is public and private money to take care of already existing collections and to educate the next generations of teachers, curators, archaeologists, papyrologists and so on. You might wonder why Steve Green didn’t fund already existent libraries and museums. Of course he is free to spend his money as he likes, as long as he and his crowd obey the laws of each and every country.

13 July 2017, CORRECTION: A reader of this blog has emailed me saying that Scott Carroll seems indeed to have published at least an academic articles and possibly a few more, see Carroll, Scott T. “The Apocalypse of Adam and Pre-Christian Gnosticism.” Vigiliae Christianae 44.3 (1990): 263–79. In some sense this is even more worrisome: in spite of his academic training, professional ethics went clearly missing.

Donald Trump is as tacky as Roman Emperors: So what?


Perpetuating stereotypes. Jan Syka Nero at Baiae, c. 1900 (photo by M0tty, Wikimediacommons)


I have enough.

I am an immigrant. I have already to endure Brexit, so I am sorry but I cannot possibly endure the rhetoric on Trump and Roman emperors on top of all this. I forgot to add that I am not only an immigrant, but an Italian immigrant, which means that I already had Mussolini and the Fascist fascination with Roman imperial history, and Berlusconi and his Cinecittà version of Hollywood Trumpland.

We live in the big world of Absurdistan, I know, but this does not entitle members of the British establishment to continue brutalizing Roman history as if we were still living in Edward Gibbon’s glorious days, with the downside, it must be admitted, of not having the same proficiency in Greek and Latin. This is the twenty-first bloody (indeed) century and Ancient History and Classics cannot be treated as a museum collection of white marble portraits from where politicians, journalists and any other establishment member can freely pick up samples to throw in the face of the public as pieces of their historical alternative facts.

This time it is a glorious column of the Guardian, a newspaper that I love deeply so it is even more depressing. Few days ago Mr Jonathan Jones has warned us that  “to understand Trump, we should look at the tyrants of ancient Rome” (… why am I not surprised?) And what does this specifically imply? Well, going through some marble portraits (actually just one and an eighteenth century drawing of another). Whose portraits? What a stupid question: of Commodus and Nero, who else? Gladiator and the Anti-Christ. There is also some Latin literature that might help: Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, “written in the reign of the ‘good’ emperor Hadrian.”

Now the mention of the adjective “good” together with Hadrian (to be fair to the others, a brutal murderer too…) clarifies what is going on. Mr Jones is the average product of a certain British traditional education in Roman Imperial history: just let us read together some Tacitus and Suetonius in good Oxbridge translation and make this story straight. Empire was good and gave the world civilisation up to a certain point. That is until when the “bad” emperors outnumbered the good ones and everything went to Decline-and-Fall mode, with the help of corrupting superstitions from the East, and foreign invasions from all sides, except for those glorious Anglo-Saxons who – thanks God – resisted and brought civilisation back to the world through the Middle Ages and beyond. (For some people the British Empire never fell apart, as we all have learnt too well recently.)

I am afraid, but things did not go that way and as we patiently find out with our students in class, the Roman Empire was a much more interesting place than what few literary sources, written by the male elite, and some decontextualized emperor portraits pretend to sell. Archaeological discoveries and sophisticated methods for interpreting the extant evidence have disclosed a world populated by people of different sex, gender, ethnicity, age, religion and socio-economic backgrounds. People who found their way through the political imperial system, despite widespread poverty, massive inequality, diffuse injustice, and the many life threats typical of pre-modern societies. I invite you to look at this people in order to understand the Roman Empire and eventually modern societies, not just at their rulers as seen through the eyes of the male elite.

So how was the Roman Empire for those who lived there? What did they make of the emperor? Do we know? Yes, we do. This, for instance, is a letter sent by a young recruit in Italy to his father in their hometown in second century AD Egypt (you can find further information and a picture of the original here):

Apion to Epimachus, his father and lord, very many greetings. Before all else I pray for your health and that you may always be well and prosperous, together with my sister and her daughter and my brother. I thank the lord Serapis that when I was in danger at sea he straightway saved me. On arriving at Misenum I received from Caesar [i.e. the emperor] three gold pieces for travelling expenses. And it is well with me. Now I ask you, my lord and father, write me a letter, telling me first of your welfare, secondly of my brother’s and sister’s, and enabling me thirdly to make obeisance before your handwriting, because you educated me well and I hope thereby to have quick advancement, if the gods so will. Give many salutations to Capiton and my brother and sister and Serenilla and my friends. I have sent you by Euctemon a portrait of myself. My name is Antonius Maximus, my company the Athenonica. I pray for your health. [Postscript] Serenus son of Agathodaemon salutes you, and …, and Turbo son of Gallonius, and …

On the back: [Addressed] To Philadelphia, to Epimachus from Apion his son. [Additional address] Deliver at the camp of the first cohort of the Apameni to Julianus, vice-secretary, this letter from Apion to be forwarded to his father Epimachus.

(You can read this and many other papyri in translation in Select Papyri, I, Private Affairs, ed. A.S. Hunt and C.C. Edgar. The Loeb Classical Library. London and Cambridge, Mass.1932; see also an electronic version available here)

It is clear what Empire meant to this family. The young son is proud to have first of all received an education through the efforts of his father, and then to be given the opportunity of a career in the Roman army. It is also clear that the Empire created the infrastructures to allow communication throughout its large territory. Apion, who has just changed his very Egyptian Greek name into a more appropriate Roman Latin Antonius Maximus, is still devoted to his Egyptian God Serapis, who protected him from the perils of the sea while sailing to Italy. Serapis actually conquered Rome so much to become a very popular deity even in the most remote parts of the Empire, including Britain.

But not everyone was happy in this Mediterranean world, globalised through empire, and voices of resistance and dissent are found in the sources too. Among the same local Greek communities of Roman Egypt, for instance, some felt deprived of their previous prestigious standing in Ptolemaic society, before Roman citizenship became the key to the highest political and socio-economic benefits. They produced and loved reading the so-called acts of the Alexandrian martyrs (a modern label, for their resemblance to the almost contemporary and similar Christian martyrdom literature.) This literature transformed Egyptian Greeks into brave opponents to the brutal Roman government: heroes who went as far as Rome to stand for their values and rights, and ended been put to death by the deaf Roman tyrants. The authors targeted not only the new Roman ruling class, but also local minorities such as the Jews, as a reaction to the fear of stepping down the social ladder of the new order, and see their own identity dissolving into the broader world they now belonged to. (Does this recall you something on current feelings towards immigrants and minorities? I bet it does…)

Examples of this sort can be multiplied, as it is easy to discover digging into Roman imperial history produced in this century, in this and other countries.

So do we need to look at antiquity to understand the present? Yes, we certainly do. Now more than ever we need to train our critical skills through the patient and careful exercise of deciphering, reading and interpreting with method this wide and composite corpus of sources the ancients left behind. This training could reveal extremely helpful for navigating through life, especially in times of post-factual journalism and politics informed by alternative-facts. On the other hand, the exercise of comparing different historical periods and figures can be meaningful only if it helps answering questions we are investigating: what is the point then of comparing Donald Trump’s tackiness and moody conduct to those of Roman emperors? Does this enlighten any aspect of the politics and behaviours of the leaders here compared? I do not believe so: it is just a pointless repetition of the British elitist tale of “good” and “bad” emperors. The tale of the “bad” emperor, in particular, enables their users to create a (false) distance from the ruler when he does not fully conform to their expectations. This tale gives the taletellers the very convenient illusion of not being part of the socio-political dynamics that empowered the emperor, in which, on the contrary, all of us are entangled.

Four books

A. Giardina, A. Vauchez, Il Mito di Roma. Dal Medioevo a Mussolini. Bari 2000.

R.K. Gibson, T. Power (eds.), Suetonius the Biographer. Studies in Roman Lives, Oxford 2014.

A. Harker, Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum, Cambridge 2008.

N. Morley, The Roman Empire: Roots of Imperialism, London-New York 2010.

Two Blogs:

Katherine Blouin, Usama Gad, Rachel Mairs, Everyday Orientalism

Sarah Bond, History From Below: Musing on Daily Life in the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean

And a podcast:

Shushma Malik, Ancient Rome’s most loved and despised emperor, Nero

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.