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On Papyri and the Acquisition and Study of Them

February 25, 2014

Various commenters have inquired about the study of ancient papyri in response to earlier postings here, some asking why, for example, the Oxyrhynchus papyri are taking so long to appear, along with other questions.  I thought it would be helpful to mention a splendid resource for becoming acquainted with the field of papyrology, what’s involved, where it stands, and its future:

The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger S. Bagnall (New York/Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009).  It’s now available in paperback, which will make it more affordable to ordinary mortals (and not simply Russian oligarchs, for whom too many scholarly books seem to be priced).

The multi-author volume includes chapter-length contributions on many matters, among them, “The Conservation of ancient Papyrus Materials” (Jaakko Froesen), “Editing a Papyrus” (Paul Schubert), and “The Future of Papyrology” (Peter van Minnen), these contributions particularly helpful for understanding the mechanics of the field, what’s involved in bringing papyri to publication.

In addition, there are informative discussions of numerous other matters.  To select a few, “The Ancient Book” (William A. Johnson), “The Special Case of Herculaneum” (David Sider), “Education in the Papyri” (Raffaella Cribiore), “Egyptian Religion and Magic in the Papyri” (Willy Clarysse), “The Papyri and Early Christianity” (David Martinez), and “Manichaeism and Gnosticism in the Papyri” (Cornelia Roemer).  Plus a number of other impressive topics addressed.

And to grasp something of the perils that papyri go through en route to getting into the hands of scholars, have a look at The Story of the Bodmer Papyri, by James M. Robinson (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, 2011).  Robinson shows how locals who find a cache of papyri will partition rolls and codices, resulting in portions of the same book being purchased and held in various libraries across the world. So, e.g., portions of the “Bodmer” papyri (i.e., items acquired by the Bodmer Library near Geneva) are also held in the Chester Beatty Library, the University of Cologne, the Vatican Library, Duke University, the Fundacio sant Lluc Evangelista of Barcelona, a rare book dealer (H. P. Kraus in New York), and a consortium in Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

It’s also fascinating to read Robinson’s account of the acquisition of the Bodmer Papyri (pp. 35-47), which reads like a cross between an espionage novel with bits of Indiana Jones thrown in.  Or read Robinson’ account of the discovery and sale of the “Dishna Papers” (108-29), which will give you shudders at the way the material was treated prior to acquisition.

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5 Comments
  1. Tom Lake permalink

    Hi Larry, following the Bible Hunters programme I watched a 2012 debate between Bart Ehrman and Dan Wallace on youtube. At the end Dan mentioned a fragment of Mark’s gospel which an (unidentified) world expert believes is from the 1st century. He said it would be published in about a year, but I’ve looked and can find no mention of this. I think it is from the Green Collection but not sure. Have you heard of this and do you know any more?

    • Things have gone completely quiet on that item. I understand that there are complications about completing the acquisition of it. So nothing more will be done until/unless it is acquired.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Yeah it’s really disappointing that Wallace’s claimed early NT papyrus has not materialised. And the idea that such an important artifact could be held in private ownership is offensive. Vivre la revolution!

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Thanks for the references. Was your estimation that only 1% of the papyri from Oxyrhynchus have been examined hyperbole? Or since it has taken over 100 years to publish that much, does that mean that at the current rate it may take over 10,000 years to examine all the material? Surely something must be done!

    • Per one count, some 500K papyri portions are held by the Egypt Exploration Society. As of volume 78, not yet 6K have been published.

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