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.

Book binding cartonnage: a Rylands intermezzo

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

This week Jennifer Cromwell has joined the John Rylands Research Institute and will stay with us as visiting research fellow for working on the Coptic papyri. Jenny has studied already this material a few years ago, with Malcolm Choat, another dear friend and regular visitor of the John Rylands Library.

We opened some of the boxes of the so-called ‘Coptic Limbo’, a meaningful label under which the Library has conveniently put fragments that never went through conservation, proper cataloguing and obviously publication. With the help of Jennifer and others, we are now working on improving the situation.

Yesterday we had a session with our conservators, Tim Higson and Caroline Checkley-Scott, in order to study some pieces more closely. Box 4 has made the joy of Caroline, an expert in book binding. Here is some of the material we found and discussed.

Book binding

Maybe this seems to you just a messy agglomerate of leather, parchment, mud, and textile, but it is not! These are the remains of a book covering that escaped from the destructive hands of dealers and past papyrologists that too often dismantled objects, i.e. archaeological evidence, like this, for recovering the only bits they were interested in: texts, either to be sold or read.

This conglomerate in fact reminded me a frame that collects parchments probably coming from a very similar context, which went destroyed for text-oriented researches:

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462 © The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 an 462
© The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462 © The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462
© The John Rylands Library

It is important to be aware that dealers habits and past conservation decisions dictated by purely text-oriented research have compromised important archaeological evidence that would have greatly improved our knowledge, for instance, of the history of the book. How did the ancients fabricate books? Did their technology change over time? Which materials did they employ? These are all key-research questions we can answer, at least in part, through the study of this messy-muddy remains (and this is only a sample among many we luckily have here…).

Nobody would operate nowadays as it was done in the past, except dealers and possibly people madly desperate to find the ‘ultimate’ version of the Bible or some other key-text for their own purposes. Unfortunately we know there are still people belonging to the two above-mentioned categories around. It is important to give them a stop!

Papyri retrieved from mummy cartonnage: a video

"I figured about about 65 classical texts…"Dr. Scott Carroll in Mexico, September 2013

“I figured about 65 classical texts…”Dr. Scott Carroll in Mexico, September 2013

As the readers of my blog know, I am a big fan of Dr Scott Carroll, formerly on the payroll of the Green Collection (2009-2012) and recently collaborating with the evangelical apologist Josh McDowell, as you can read in a recent post of Brice C. Jones. I am fascinated by this Indiana Jones of Biblical Studies, as I have explained in an old post, and desperate to meet him in person.

At the moment, I am just following his adventures on the web. I know that a meeting with him would be an amazing experience, as I understand while watching the faces of people gathering en masse for his talks in the videos I am now religiously collecting for my amusement.

However, I found this particular video of an event organised by the University of the Nations for a workshop in Mexico last September 2013 a bit concerning. Here Scott, after having explained what his and his wife’s organisation (I guess the Scott Carroll Manuscripts & Rare Books and The Manuscript Research Group) do, starts moving around what do seem glazed papyrus fragments and other artefacts. Then he addresses the fascinating topic of papyri from mummy cartonnage. He jokes about the smell of mummy cartonnage over the house stove to the despair of his wife, and alludes to the scams you may find on eBay looking for cartonnage. Finally, he explains how to extract papyrus fragments from mummy cartonnage showing images from his computer. He says that the procedure he shows through what seems to be powerpoint slides – that you can see in the screen shots I took from min. 24:40 onwards in the video (see below), but I really recommend to watch the video itself – was performed at Baylor University (Texas) where, he asserts, he had an appointment. Unless he is lying, which I cannot believe because he is a good Christian, he must refer to the days when he was working for the Green Collection and the Green Scholars Initiative, since Baylor University has been collaborating with both at least from September 2011. In fact, an event lead by Scott Carroll consisting into the dismounting of a mummy mask for obtaining papyri took place at Baylor University and involved professors and students of the Department of Classics on September 9, 2011, as reported in the Bulletin of the Department (pp. 1-2).

Can you help me tracking down this Indiana Jones of Biblical Studies for an interview (and a picture with autograph, obviously)? Can you add details, corrections or integration to the information retrieved so far? Were you part of the public for any of these scholarly or wider audience events? I’d love to hear from you…

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The girl with the Christian tattoo: Religious-magical practices in late antique Egypt

Images of the tattoo. The British Museum Trustees via The Telegraph

Images of the tattoo. © The British Museum Trustees via The Telegraph

The British Museum will host soon an exhibition of Egyptian mummies, Ancient lives, new discoveries, that is destined to become a blockbuster. Press releases have revealed some details: the exhibition will be a new look at mummies covering a long time span, from the pharaonic to the late antique period, and will show to the public what scan imaging and other technologies can reveal about the mummified person’s terrestrial life. I am usually not so attracted by mummies, the study of diseases and human physical features because it is so depressing to see how boring we are in these matters: we loose teeth, get cancer, eat badly and inexorably die, and have been doing so for millennia now. Besides this, ancient human facial reconstructions remind me of Madame Tussauds’ wax horrors of the kind that I hope nobody will dare to try on my remains: good reason to go for a more elegant incineration. But in this case I was intrigued by the information that the mummies on show will include a woman who lived in ab. 700 AD Sudan and had an interesting, Christian tattoo on her upper inner thigh.

This reminded me how much a ritual, bodily practice Christianity was in antiquity, and how biased is the general, common view of it as all centred on spiritual and intellectual activities. In fact, religion in practice is well attested by some of my favourite pieces in our papyrus collection and others: written amulets from Egypt, dating from the pharaonic to the late antique period. (The magical manuscripts and objects from Egypt in the John Rylands Library go well beyond this period if we consider also items from the Cairo Genizah and the Gaster collections.) These amulets are sparse but fantastic evidence of a body-centred practice: that of writing religious-magical passages and formulas on a strip of papyrus, folding it into a small packet and hanging it around the neck, often as a part of a more complex ritual including praying, chanting and other activities.

These Egyptian sources show us a religious environment very close to that of the tattooed Sudanese woman. Like us, when facing crises of any kind, the ancients tried any possible means to solve or prevent troubles. Among the experts they could consult for help were priests, magicians, sorceresses, and later saints, monks, priests and other specialists in the field. Christianity changed only partially and very slowly beliefs and practices that people living on the Nile shared for millennia, which are hard to define according to modern categories of religion, magic and medicine. In fact the first generations of papyrologists struggled to place these amulet texts under the categories they used in publications. For instance, anything Christian was published by Grenfell and Hunt in the opening section of their papyrus volumes, under the title of ‘Theological fragments’, which ranged from Biblical fragments to liturgical texts, and also amulets with Christian references. In the Rylands catalogues you will see placed under this category, for instance, P.Ryl. III 471, recently studied by Theodore De Bruyn. Here’s his English translation (you can see an image of the papyrus clicking here):

Holy oil of gladness against every hostile power and for the grafting of your good olive tree of the catholic and apostolic church of God. Amen

These words were taken from a baptismal anointing formula, containing reminiscences of Paul’s Romans 11:24. This was a type of amulet of which  Church Fathers would have certainly approved. John Chrysostom, for instance, was pleased to see women and children carrying gospels on their chests, and Augustine recommended the use of gospel books for curing headaches instead of enchantments. However, the Church was aware of the persistence of practices and beliefs of pagan origins including amulet-making, and repeatedly condemned them.

Troubling cases for both the Church at that time, and papyrologists more recently, include items such as P.Oxy. VII 1060, which despite the ‘Oxyrhynchus/Oxford’ abbreviation is in Manchester. It was not placed by Grenfell & Hunt among the ‘Theological fragments’, but inserted into a Byzantine general ‘Prayers’ section and tagged as ‘gnostic’ (everything Christian but bizarre to Victorian eyes was gnostic…). The papyrus is small and written in a tiny, cursive handwriting of the 6th century AD, sometimes hard to decipher. Here it is with a translation from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 25:

P.Oxy.VII 1060 (P. Ryl.452) © The John Rylands Library

P.Oxy.VII 1060 (P.Ryl. 452)
© The John Rylands Library

✝ The door Aphrodite, phrodite, rodite, odite, dite, ite, te, e. Hor, Hor Phor Phor, Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai, I bind you, arte‹m›isian scorpion. Free this house of every evil reptile [and] annoyance, at once, at once. St. Phocas is here. Phamenoth 13 (= March 9), third indiction.

As you can see, it consisted of a mix of Christian formulas and holy names and elements derived from more ancient pagan ritual traditions. The diminishing name of Aphrodite and magic onomatopoeic names are followed by the name of Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai (the Jewish, then Christian God as invoked in magical papyri), formulas of protection of the house from insects, reptiles and evil, and finally the invocation of Saint Phokas. The amulet was perhaps fabricated close to the day of Saint Phokas (March 5, the indiction dating system followed a cycle of 15 years). In this case the tiny sheet of papyrus was more probably deposited in the house than worn, but we cannot be totally sure.

Coming back to the Sudanese woman, there is a late Coptic Rylands amulet (P.Ryl. Copt. 103) that may be connected with the practice of religious tattooing. Despite being defined as a papyrus, this magic text is in fact written on paper, and palaeographically dated to the 9th century. The text inscribed on it is not always easily readable, as you can see from an image available on the Rylands Library database (click here).

This is a recent translation of most part of the amulet from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian magic: Coptic Texts Of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 115:

… My mother is Mary. The breast… the breast from which our lord Jesus Christ drank. In the name of the seal that is traced upon the heart of Mary the virgin; in the name of the seven holy vowels which are tattooed on the chest of the father almighty, AEEIOUO; in the name of him who said, “I and my father, we are one,” that is, Jesus Christ; in the name of Abba Abba Abba Ablanatha Nafla Akrama Chamari Ely Temach Achoocha!I adjure you by the sacrifice of your only begotten son, Jesus Christ, Rabboni, in the way that you sealed the cup.

One aspect people tend to forget is that the vowels (AEEIOUO), which in this case are said to be inscribed on the chest of God, were in fact chanted in rituals, as explained in the studies of Sabina Crippa. The seal (σφραγίς) of God – possibly suggested here as traced upon the chest of Mary – has been related by some scholarship to real tattooing, according to a tradition rooted in Revelation and other Christian texts.

Tattoos in late antiquity have been most recently studied by Mark Gustafson. Interestingly, as in the case of the written amulets, Christian attitudes towards tattooing show ambivalence, reflecting how complicated it was for Christians to establish their own practices in relation to the surrounding religious and social system. On the one hand we see tattooing condemned as a barbarian and pagan practice, or used as an infamous mark, according to a longer Graeco-Roman punitive tradition. On the other hand, ancient Christians are recorded bearing symbols and words tattooed on their arms, and, like our Sudanese woman, on their legs, literally following Paul Galatians 6:17: ‘From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks (στίγματα) of Jesus’ – the word στίγμα (pl. στίγματα) was used for tattoos marking slaves, or people condemned to the mines and other penalties. While tattoos were against Jewish laws as established by Leviticus, religious tattooing was common in Egypt and other nearby areas and Christian later practices certainly relate to these longer traditions. Procopius of Gaza (ab. 465-528 AD), for instance, records the use of tattooing the cross or the name of Christ. In Africa, a Manichaean monk is reported to have tattooed on his leg: ‘Manichaean, disciple of Jesus Christ’. Probably this remained hidden since the episode is recalled in the context of Vandal persecution of Manicheans at the end of the 5th century AD.

The Guido Reni version of the Archangel Michael done by William D. on the hand of a woman is my favourite among the hundreds tattoos on the subject you may find on the web.

The Guido Reni version of the Archangel Michael done by William D. at Studio City tattoo (CA) on the hand of a woman is my favourite among the hundreds tattoos on the subject you may find on the web.

The tattoo on the Sudanese woman’s thigh, also hidden from sight, is not only ideologically but also visually linked to the Christian magical papyri. The Telegraph reports the interpretation of the drawing as the name of the Archangel Michael, who was a powerful protector against evil and in fact is often invoked in magical papyri. Similar patterns with elaborate versions of the Christian cross and other symbols do occur in magical texts. The practice of tattooing Christian symbols, such as the cross, on the wrist and other body parts is still alive among Copts in Egypt and worldwide. A simple Google image search will reveal you how common and varied are tattoos with religious themes. Meanings  attributed to the practice may vary, ranging from marking identity to remembering pilgrimages to protection against illness and evil. Contemporary Ethiopian magical scrolls are also deeply rooted in the ancient Egyptian practices here discussed. You can read more about them, and see them, at this excellent website: Online Exhibit: Ethiopic Manuscript Production.

References:

Major studies on tattoos in antiquity are: M. Gustaffson, ‘Inscripta in Fronte: Penal Tattoing in Late Antiquity’, Classical Antiquity, 16/1 (1997), 79-105 and ‘The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond’ in J.Caplan (ed.) Written on the Body. The Tattoo in European and American History, London 2000, 17-31; C.P. Jones, ‘Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987), 139-155 and ‘Stigma and Tattoo’ in Caplan, Written on the Body, cit., 1-16.

A brief, interesting overview on tattoos meanings and uses is A. Mayor, ‘People Illustrated: Tattooing in Antiquity’, Archaeology March/April 1999, 55-57.

J. Carswell, Coptic Tattoo Designs, Beirut 1958. A beautiful account with images of the trade of an Egyptian Copt tattooer, Jacob Razzouk, who lived in Jerusalem in the fifties of last century. He owned a tattoo-shop for pilgrims, mostly but not only Copts. He used woodblocks to stamp designs on the skin before using needles, and the designs are reproduced and explained in the book.

Tattoos in modern Egypt are also recalled in Winifred Blackman, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, (1927).

T. De Bruyn, T., “P.Ryl. III 471: A Baptismal Anointing Formula Used as an Amulet”, Journal of Theological Studies 57 (2006) 94-109.

S. Crippa, 2002. “Voix et magie. Réflexion sur la parole rituelle à partir des Papyrus Grecs Magiques”, in Cahiers de littérature orale 52 (2002) 43-61.

M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994).

My favourite books on religion in Roman and late antique Egypt are D. Frankfurter, Religions in Roman Egypt. Assimilation and Resistance, Princeton 1998, and J. Dielemann, Priests, Tongues, and Rites: the London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE), Leiden 2005.

I published an article on Christian amulets and formularies from Egypt straddling religion, magic and medicine (‘P. Oxy. XI, 1384: medicina, rituali di guarigione e cristianesimi nell’Egitto tardoantico’, in: Annali di Storia dell’Esegesi, monographical issue on ‘Ancient Christianity and “Magic”/ Il cristianesimo antico e la “magia” 24/2 (2007), 437-62) that you can download from here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Peter you’ve always been hot-tempered…” The Gospel of Mary in Manchester (P.Ryl. 463)

The case with the Gospel of Mary fragment in the Crawford room

P.Ryl. 463: The Gospel of Mary

I’ve recently realised that few people in Manchester know that one of the two extant Greek fragments of the Gospel of Mary is in the John Rylands Library, and now on exhibition. The gospel in question is an apocryphal (a writing that has not been included later in the Church canon of the Bible) where a Mary – possibly Mary of Magdala, but this is uncertain since other Christian women brought this name – has a central role in the inner circle of Jesus’ first disciples.

There’s no surviving extant copy of this book, but only three fragmentary manuscripts are preserved from antiquity (P.Ryl. 463, P.Oxy 3525 and P.Berol. 8502). On the basis of these, scholars have reconstructed the Gospel main content as follows. It started with Jesus, the Saviour, appearing to the disciples after the resurrection. He gives a speech and instructs them on how to preach the gospel, and then leaves. The disciples, however, feel discomforted and are afraid to go out. At this point Mary stands up and reassures the others. Under Peter’s invitation she reports some hidden teachings that the Saviour in a vision reserved only to her. At the end of her speech, Andrew and Peter react with disbelief, while Levi trusts Mary and goes out to preach her Gospel.

A closer look at the Rylands fragment

The Rylands fragment was purchased with others in Egypt on behalf of the library by J. Rendel Harris in 1917, but was recognised as “The Gospel of Mary” only later by C. Roberts when he published the third volume of the Catalogue (ed. 1938, pp. 18-23).

It came from Oxyrhynchus as some notes on the envelope where it was kept before edition and conservation revealed. It is tiny (ab. 8.9 x 9.9 cm) and written on both sides. This shows that it was originally part of a codex, a book composed by sheets of papyrus folded and then stitched together in a way to obtain an artefact very similar to our paper books. In fact the numbers of the pages, κα (21) and κβ (22), are still visible on top of each side. We have no idea of what the entire ancient codex-book contained originally. The Coptic version of the Gospel of Mary now in Berlin comes from a codex collecting also other three apocryphal works, the Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ and the Act of Peter (P. Berol. 8502). In the Berlin papyrus the title “Gospel of Mary” is added at the end of the last page as it sometimes happens in ancient manuscripts (colophon), our fragment unfortunately breaks at the end and the line reporting the title is supplied by scholars, but actually lost.

Thanks to the Coptic more extensive version, we now know that what is preserved in Manchester seems to be the final part of the gospel. On the basis of the Coptic text Roberts estimated that the writing on the Manchester pages should have occupied an area of about 7.5 x 12 cm therefore we may roughly estimate an original leaf measuring with margins just a little bit more than this. The Rylands papyrus and P.Oxy. 3525 have been dated to the early 3rd century, while the Berlin Coptic codex to the 5th century. All the copies are dated on palaeographical ground (i.e. analysing features of the handwriting and comparing it with that of firmly dated papyri, not an infallible method but the best we have…).

I played a little with the tiny fragment, making my own translation of it. I put in square brackets words that are not clearly preserved on the papyrus. I tried to respect the line division as much as possible. If you compare my translation with that of the Catalogue you’ll see that some words were more legible at the time of the first publication. In fact the ink seemed to have deteriorated or even faded away in some part of the papyrus.

When only three fragmentary copies of a work (of which the most extensive one is in a different language) are available it is a challenge to establish ‘the text’ as it should have been. To complicate the situation further, as noticed in an excellent book on the scribes who transmitted the first copies of early Christian literature, early Christian manuscripts show a very high rate of variations and differences.[1] We should bear in mind that texts were extremely fluid in antiquity, and what we have are fragmentary texts survived by chance, even thrown away at some point as it was the case of this fragment that comes from the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus.

On the right top of the first line of the text on the recto (p. 21) there are some traces of ink that will be investigated next year with the help of new imaging technologies.

English translation of P.Ryl. 463, images from the John Rylands Library database: 21 (recto) and 22 (verso).

21

for the remaining of the course of time

of the aeon, [I will find] rest in silence.”

When she had told these things, Mary went silent

as the saviour had spoken thus far.

Andrew said: “Brothers,

what do you think about these discourses? As [for myself]

I do not believe that [the sa-]

viour said these words, for it seems [to contra-]

dict his thoughts. When the saviour was asked about these matters, he [2]

spoke to a woman in secret and [not open-]

ly so that all of us would have lis[ten]

[at something] more worthy of mention[…]

(papyrus breaks off here)

22

of the savior.” Levi said to Peter:

“Peter you’ve always been hot-tempered

and so now you question this

woman [as] if we were her adversaries.

If the saviour deemed her worthy,

who are you to set her at naught?

For knowing her thoroughly, he

loved her steadily. Rather let us

be ashamed and having put on

the perfect man, we will accomplish

what has been ordered to us, to preach

the gospel without divisions or rules as

[the saviour said.”] Having said this, Le-

[vi left and] began pr[eaching]

[the Gospel according to Mary]

(the papyrus breaks off here)

If you want to know more about this Gospel and the other copies, I recommend C. Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, Oxford 2007 (with some differences in the reading and translations from what you have here and in the Catalogue) and K.L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, Santa Rosa Ca. 2003.

As you may already know, professor Karen King of Harvard University has recently announced the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment dating to the 4th century where according to her interpretation Jesus mentions his wife (you can read a pre-edition and interpretation of the fragment here). This gospel, if not a forgery as some scholars think, would belong to the same group of early Christian gospels as the Rylands fragment that gives us images of Jesus and his inner circle and family different from those later established as ‘normal’, ‘canonical’. Texts like the Gospel of Mary and many others did not find their way into the New Testament canon, were later declared deviant and therefore went lost till when they reappeared from the sands of Egypt. We are now more aware about diversities in the early Christian movement thanks to these discoveries.

You can have an overview on the current, lively debate on the so-called Jesus wife papyrus fragment in the excellent summary published on Rogueclassicism Blog. Challenges to the authenticity have been moved, among others, by Alin Suciu on his blog, that I recommend following.


[1] K. Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters. Literacy, Power, and the Transmission of Early Christian Literature, Oxford 2000, p. 106: ‘Among the 5,400 Greek manuscripts of New Testament texts, for example, no two are identical; more relevant, perhaps, is the fact that 52 extant manuscripts that can be dated to the period from the second century to the fourth exhibit more differences and variations than the thousands of later manuscripts.’

[2] The text here differs from the Coptic version. The Berlin papyrus reports Peter as the one who moves the following points while Peter is mentioned in our fragment only on the other side of the papyrus.  Some scholars solve this passage this way: Being asked, <Peter said>: “The saviour etc. …” However ‘Peter said’ is not in the text: was this a slip of the scribe while copying or are the two versions depending on different traditions? Maybe Peter appeared in the lines that now are lost, but this is not certain.