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Edinburgh Papyri

March 28, 2012

Yesterday, I led a group of about 15 PhD students to the Special Collections unit in the University of Edinburgh main library to examine their collection of papyri from Oxyrhynchus. The library holds about 20 such items, which came from the early years of the excavations in that site. None of the papyri held in our library is a Christian text, but a number of them are lst or 2nd century in date. Nevertheless, for the students, it was their first opportunity to handle and examine directly ancient papyri, and they were understandably excited about it.

The items we looked at included a number of “documentary” texts (a couple of letters, a marriage contract, a dinner invitation, and various legal documents) and also a few “literary” texts (e.g., a fragment of Aratus and a couple of other such items). This gave an opportunity to see for themselves the major differences between the handwriting used in “documentary” texts (cursive and very difficult to de-cipher by anyone who isn’t highly trained in Greek palaeography) and the more legible writing typically used for literary texts (more familiar “majuscule” letters individually spaced). We also noted examples of corrections, very occasionally punctuation, annotations by readers of the literary texts, and re-used rolls (with another text by another hand on the reverse side).

On 11 April, I take a number of PhD students to the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin) to view the marvellous collection of early Christian biblical papyri held there. I confess to sharing the students’ excitement, still after some years studying these matters, in handling and examining actual physical objects of life from those early times.

For those who might want to acquire some acquaintance with ancient papyri, I’d think the best place to start is with the fascinating little book by Eric G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (1968; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), followed by E. G. Turner,Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World, 2nd ed., Institute of Classical Studies Bulletin Supplement, no. 46 (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1987).

For examples of ancient “bookhands” used in literary texts, Colin H. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands 350 B.C.–400 A.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955); Guglielmo Cavallo, Greek Bookhands of the Early Byzantine Period: A.D. 300-800, Bulletin of the Institute for Classical Studies, no. 47 (London: Institute for Classical Studies, 1987); and now Guglielmo Cavallo and Herwig Maehler, Hellenistic Bookhands (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2008).

I shall immodestly also note my own small book, intended particularly for serious students in NT/early Christianity, which introduces readers to the physical/visual features of earliest Christian manuscripts: Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

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  1. Ian permalink

    Thank you for the bibliographic jumping off points. This kind of nutshell reading list is so useful. Thanks Mike for the recommendation of Larry’s book. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it when it arrives.

  2. As a general reader who recently completed your book (TECA), allow me to recommend it to others. Although I could not gain as much from it as could someone with a better background in textual matters, it was still a rewarding experience to read. It particularly helped me gain a deeper appreciation of how much even small bits of textual evidence can tell us. It also made me even more aware of the importance of circumspection and equanimity in making inferences. There’s a ditch on one side of the road which is drawing too little inference, and a ditch on the other which is drawing too much.

    I think the students are rightly excited about such things. The closer we can get to those who first brought us the message of Christ, the more exciting life becomes.

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