Papyrology and Ethics: Next Week in Barcelona


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

You can download the draft paper from here: Papyrology and Ethics_Mazza, or via (

The program and abstracts of the Congress are available at


The Jesus’s Wife Fragment: End of Story?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An experiment through Pinterest

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 12.56.22

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

The address of the Pinterest board is:

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

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

Dating early Christian papyri: old and new methods

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

Greek Papyrus 6: The Nicene Creed

Some Christian Rylands papyri will be on display at the British Museum for the exhibit Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs. Read what our conservation department has done in view of the event.

John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

Tim Higson, Collection Care team leader writes:

The Collection Care Department have been preparing a number of items being loaned to the British Museum as part of their Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs exhibition, which opens in October 2015.


One of the items to be loaned is Greek Papyrus 6, a Christian theological text, which is considered to be the oldest copy in existence of the Nicene Creed.

The papyrus fragment, which measures 124mm x 125mm, was housed within a glass frame along with another fragment of Greek papyrus (Greek P 7).

papyrus6 Greek P 6 recto

The decision was taken to re-mount the two items individually.

When Greek P 6 was carefully removed from its glass frame, a salt deposit, on the inner surface of the glass was evident, which had been partially obscuring the view of the fragment and text.

Salt deposit visible where the document was mounted Salt deposit visible where the document was originally mounted

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‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ – Press Release

Opening soon at the Manchester Museum. Come and visit!

Egypt at the Manchester Museum

Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara. Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed

8 October 2015-17 April 2016, Manchester Museum

Free Entry

This myth-busting exhibition will present and explore ancient Egyptian animal mummies, prepared in their millions as votive offerings to the gods. Gifts for the Gods will explain the background behind this religious practice in the context of life in ancient Egypt and the environment in which the animals lived. It will explore the British fascination with Egypt, the discovery of animal mummies by British excavators, and how the mummies ended up in the UK, as well as taking a look at the history and future of their scientific study in Manchester. The display will combine mummified specimens such as jackals, crocodiles, cats and birds with cultural artefacts such as stone sculpture and bronze statuettes, alongside 19th Century works of art and never-seen-before archives.

The exhibition…

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Speaking of Prices: The Wyman Fragment

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby's catalogue

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby’s catalogue

On the 3rd of July 1950, Leland C. Wyman, a professor at Boston University, bought a small fragment of parchment with Greek writing on it in Cairo. According to the dealer, the fragment had been found by some local people in al-Fusṭāṭ, a story which might or might not be true as correctly noted by the first editor, W.H.P. Hatch.

The parchment, which has received different palaeographical dating ranging from the second half of the second century to the second half of the fourth century AD, bears some lines from Paul’s Romans chapters 4 and 5 attesting interesting variants. It is registered as 0220/20220 in the official list of New Testament manuscripts.

The Wyman fragment was sold through Sotheby’s, London twice: in 1988 by Wyman’s heirs and in 2012 by the 1988 purchaser, the Norwegian businessman and collector Martin Schøyen. At the first auction (21 June 1988, lot 47) the fragment had an estimate of £ 15.000-20.000, but reached the final price of £ 95.000. A similarly high increase was obtained at the 2012 auction, when from the estimate £ 150,000-200,000 the price went up to £ 301,250. The sum in this last case was paid by the Green family, who have later donated the manuscript to their Museum of the Bible.

So what does determine prices of ancient manuscripts these days? I am not entirely sure since as I said already in this blog and elsewhere the market (legal and illegal) is secretive by its own nature and we can collect only partial data on prices through publicly available auctions’ catalogues, or information that collectors and dealers are eventually happy to provide. Certainly those collectors who are opening public museums will be sharing price information; therefore I should add that in order to obtain a clearer picture of the economy surrounding world cultural heritage objects, it would be very helpful to add also appraisals to contrast and compare. We tend to forget that manuscripts and other antiquities are investment goods at the centre of interesting economic besides cultural enterprises that are worth studying.

In any case we may infer that prices are determined by a combination of factors, not necessarily in this order:

  1. The importance of a piece. In the case of the Wyman fragment its Christian content, the early – although debated as above mentioned, see e.g. W. Clarysse and P. Orsini recent re-dating to 350-400 AD – date and its rarity.
  2. Documented provenance. In this case pre-1972 purchase seems to be enough to make everybody happy. But legality on these questions is more a point of view than a firm subject since there was already Egyptian legislation on the antiquities market which was not always respected.
  3. The presence on the market of wealthy collectors as Martin Schøyen and the Green family/Museum of the Bible, who invest large sums of money on acquisitions for various reasons.
  4. Finally, marketing i.e. the way dealers and auction houses pack the merchandise they sell. In this specific case it was an easy job, in view of the contents and features of the fragment and the academic literature produced on it.

Update on Bonhams glass inlays

Madeleine Perridge, Head of Antiquities at Bonhams, has emailed that the auction house is investigating the new cases denounced by R. Pintaudi with the relevant authorities. Whatever the outcome of this investigation will be, the episode demonstrates that a direct and closer collaboration between academics excavating in areas where looting and illegal excavations  are occurring and auction houses and dealers is absolutely necessary in order to curb the illicit trafficking of antiquities. This implies first and foremost to find ways to improve current practices in checking provenance documents, as I suggested in my previous post.


Another Oxyrhynchus papyrus from the Egypt Exploration Fund distributions sold to a private collector

Image of P.Oxy. XV 1596, from Wikipedia

Image of P.Oxy. XV 1596, from Wikipedia

The Evangelical Textual Criticism blog reports that P. Oxy. XV 1596 (aka P 28, one of the earliest testimonies of the Gospel of John) has been sold by Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley) to Mr Gifford Combs, managing director of Dalton Investments and renowned manuscript collector (see the short profile note added by G. Schwendner in What’s New in Papyrology). It was the new owner who emailed the information to the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing so that New Testament scholars would be aware of the new housing of the papyrus in his collection in Los Angeles.

Apparently the School decided to make some money (that is what the sanitized term “deaccession” means) not only from this papyrus, but also from the rest of its small collection, housed in the Badè Museum and including other seven Oxyrhynchus papyri (for a list click here). It is still unclear how and why this has happened and if the rest of the papyri are with Mr Combs or someone else. (I thank the director of the Museum, professor Aaron Brody, for the information and I am waiting for more details from the School’s Chief Financial Officer, Patrick O’Leary).

All the papyri in question come from Grenfell and Hunt’s expeditions supported by the Egypt Exploration Fund (today Egypt Exploration Society); they were legally granted to the Fund by the Egyptian government according to the partage system commonly used at that time. As many other papyri and objects, they were later transferred to the Fund’s American branch in recognition of the financial support provided to the campaigns and then distributed to the Pacific School of Religion. The distribution practice was in line with one of the Fund’s aims as established in its Memorandum, that “to make, maintain and exhibit illustrative collections of antiquities and other things relative to, or connected with, any of the objects of the Society, or to present any such antiquities or things to any public body, university, school, library, or other similar institutions.”

It is clear from these lines that the distributions of objects from the Fund’s excavations to cultural institutions were intended for the public to access Egyptian material evidence in order to encourage the study and general appreciation of Egyptian civilisation. There are no doubts on this. It seems to me that the sale of antiquities coming from the Egyptian Exploration Fund’s distributions to private collectors betrays the spirit of this important cultural initiative and goes against the legacy of which the Pacific School of Religion and others were supposed to be the custodians. As the current director of the Egypt Exploration Society, Chris Naunton, has reminded us few months ago, when the St. Louis Society – AIA put on sale the so-called Harageh treasure, to sell such objects to private collectors goes against the cultural mission at the basis of the distributions. Unless formal clauses on the maintenance of public access are taken, or the antiquities are sold to cultural institutions, these sales prevent scholars, students and the public from the opportunity to study or simply enjoy the objects. I would add that they also encourage the false and dangerous idea that antiquities could be treated as any other type of commodities freely exchanged on the market.

Marketing the Word of God

Ancient Asset Investment website today: out of order.  It is saved, however, on

Ancient Asset Investment website today: down for maintenance.
It is saved, however, on Just click on this link.

In his blog, Paul Barford has recently called attention to the “dedication events” listed in the Ancient Asset Investment webpage on “Gifting”. I report here what I have found so far through the web on the basis of that list, some of Barford’s notes, and new evidence. All the donations linked with Ancient Asset Investment and Scott Carroll I have been able to track down have the sponsors in common: Ken and Barbara Larson.

1) 31 March 2014, Bethel University, St Paul Minnesota. Dedication of a Torah donated by Ken and Barbara Larson. The Torah, about 89 feet long, is said to come from Baghdad and dates predominantly to the early 17th century, with later insertions. A lecture entitled “From Baghdad to Bethel: A Holy Legacy” was given by Scott Carroll, Ph.D., Director, Sr. Research Scholar, Manuscript Research Group. See among others: and

2) 4 September 2014, Multnomah University, Portland Oregon. According to the University blog, “Ken and Barbara Larson, from Bonita Springs, Fla., are giving a rare and valuable Torah to Multnomah University.” They are said to be assisted by Ancient Asset Investment. A dedication ceremony has taken place at the beginning of this month:

According to the report, Scott Carroll gave a speech in this occasion: “The 89-foot scroll,” Carroll said, “was composed somewhere in Eastern Europe during the Reformation…If this Torah could talk to us, imagine what it could say and what it’s seen,” said Carroll. “It was preserved through the Enlightenment and the Holocaust. Through a wonderful turn of Providence, it’s in your community now.”

3) 18 September 2014: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL. A Torah scroll originally from Germany and dating to the late 1400s or early 1500s is donated by Ken and Barbara Larson:

An interesting online article (Donald Libenson, in Capital Gazette, 21 October 2014) is shedding some light on the motivations behind Mr Larson’s donation. It explains that Mr Larson “credited a friend who’s an author and speaker with inspiring the gift. Larson described him as ‘an apologist,’ a defender of Christianity based on historical evidence and other philosophical arguments. ‘He told me he had purchased an ancient Torah and he found it to be helpful in his speaking and teaching. Most people have never seen a Torah. (For each Torah we’ve donated) I have asked the faculty if they’ve ever read from one or touched one, and the answer was no.’ ” Later in the story we have also a report on the evaluation of the scroll: “it has been valued at more than $400,000”.

4) 30 September 2014: The Master’s Seminary, Sun Valley CA. The Facebook page of the Seminary reports on October 1: “Yesterday The Master’s Seminary was given a Torah Scroll by Ken and Barbara Larson of Minneapolis. The scroll, originally crafted in the 18th century in Yemen is a unified work (not a combination of various scrolls merged into one).” A picture with Scott Carroll and the Larson is posted too. A recent donation of a 17th century Torah Scroll is recalled also on the Seminary’s Wikipedia page:’s_Seminary

5) 8 November 2014: Veritas Evangelical Seminar, Santa Ana CA. “In the presence of 1500 attendees at its annual National Apologetics Conference, Veritas Evangelical Seminary  received and dedicated a rare Hebrew Torah scroll. The donors, Ken and Barbara Larson, are passionate about Israel and the Bible, visiting the archaeologically rich nation four times.”The source is an article on Christian News Wire (1 December 2014). The donation is also announced on Twitter.

6) 5 December 2014: Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas TX. The Facebook page of the Seminary reports on this date: “This morning Dr. Scott Carroll, Director and Senior Research Scholar for the Manuscript Research Group, donated a beautiful Torah scroll to DTS”.

The scroll is paid for by Barbara and Ken Larson, as we learn from the presentation ceremony posted online:

Here Carroll explains that the scroll most ancient portions date to the “late 1600 early 1700”. A section comes from Spain, but the scroll in the current shape seems to be from Morocco. Although the details remain vague – as always with our Indiana Scott – Carroll says that the Torah was brought to Israel by people constraint to leave their countries and once there it passed to local collectors with whom “they” – I guess he and Hillard ­– collaborate. In this way the manuscript went to the Larson, who are then introduced.

7) February 2015: Trinity Western University, Langley Canada. As reported in a local newspaper online: “A 450-year-old Torah scroll recently gifted to Trinity Western University (TWU) by donors Kenneth and Barbara Larson will give students access to an original Hebrew manuscript originating from Morocco. The 16th century scroll was presented by the Larson to mark their 50th wedding anniversary. The donation of the Torah was paired with funds for a Torah room in TWU’s Alloway Library.” The donation is also reported in the University webpage.

In conclusion, so far I have been able to count 7 Torah scrolls donated by Ken and Barbara Larson through the agency of Scott Carroll and Ancient Asset Investment to Christian education institutions in a short turn of time. Some of the stories attached to the scrolls look terribly similar, but it is impossible to verify details unless the institutions that have received these gifts will decide to check and enquire further. If I may, I warmly recommend them to do these checks because if Scott Carroll’s knowledge of Torah scrolls pairs his knowledge of papyri, I see problems coming.

It would be interesting, among other things, to know how much the Larson have paid for the scrolls, and how much they have declared their value for in tax returns.

There are of course all the other issues related to collection and acquisition history of these scrolls, export licenses, and so forth so on besides ethical questions regarding the Jewish history of these objects, in some cases even their connection to the Holocaust. It may be all perfectly legal. But I leave the reader to think about this story and to decide if all this sounds ethical.

I personally do not need the law or academic associations policies in order to decide for myself.