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What Yet Lies Beneath? The Hoard of Unpublished Oxyrhynchus Texts

May 25, 2018

My note about the newly published items included in vol 83 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri reminded me that to date, over 100 years after the excavations there, the vast hoard of papyri shipped to Britain by Grenfell & Hunt (in hundreds of metal boxes) remains stored and unpublished.  This latest volume brings the number of published items well past 5,000.  But by some estimates this leaves several hundred thousands of papyrus fragments, perhaps more, yet to be studied and published.

That only in this latest volume do we have a remarkably early fragment of the Gospel of Mark, as well as fragments of a couple of other NT writings, shows that gems continue to be found in that hoard.  And who knows what else lies there?

Nearly 50 years ago, on a trans-Atlantic flight, I found myself seated next to a lady who worked for the British Library.  When she discovered that I was (then) a graduate student working in NT textual criticism and with strong manuscript interests, she said gave me her card, and encouraged me to visit her.  “There are crates of to-date unexamined material down in the basement,” she said, “You might want to see it.”  Sadly, my pre-booked itinerary did not permit it.

I think that the bulk of the Oxyrhynchus material is now housed in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), where the editing process is centered.  We must all be grateful to those scholars who have developed the expertise to do this work, and who quietly go about it without fanfare.  Strength to their hands!


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  1. Matthew Hamilton permalink

    “No other unpublished fragments of New Testament texts in the EES collection have been identified as earlier than the third century AD”
    Several points to note:
    1. Among the published texts are several that either date earlier than the 3rd century or date to 2nd-3rd century. See for example, P77,P90,P103,P104
    2. Other published texts outside of the Oxyrhynchus series may be from Oxyrhynchus. See P32 (probably Oxyrhynchus) and P52 (possibly Oxyrhynchus)
    3. Among the unpublished NT texts in the EES collection is a copy of Romans dated late 2nd or early 3rd. See page 276 of “Multispectral Imaging of Greek Papyrus Fragments from Oxyrhynchus”, by M. Theophilos, Reading New Testament Papyri in Context – Lire les papyrus du Nouveau Testament dans leur contexte. Actes du colloque des 22-24 octobre 2009 à l’Université de Lausanne, ed. C. Clivaz and J. Zumstein (Louvain: Peeters, 2011), p.269-280, BETL CCXLII

    Given there are NT MSS from Oxyrhynchus that are (or arguably are) earlier than the 3rd century, should the EES statement be accepted without some questioning?

  2. focusonfocusblog permalink

    The distinction between a 1st century author/composer and copier appears arbitrary. Would you consider the scribe who added the long ending of Mark a copier or composer? If we take away Special Matthew and Q source derived material from Matthew then we are ostensibly left with a “copy” of Mark. Whether “copying” or “composing” the evidence presented stands….”Matthew” altered “Mark’s” story….there is no first century evidence that this wasn’t standard practice…although i am happy to be corrected. How do you know that the extant copies of the gospels don’t derive from a 1st century recomposition (Matthew 1.1) and the original (Matthew 1.0) wasn’t lost? This silenced based contention of disrupted transmission in the 1st century is no less likely than undisrupted one to which you subscribe.

    • Grant: Have you actually studied the copying of ancient manuscripts? Have you actually read about the composition process involved in the ancient world? My distinction between the two is rather widely recognized among scholars with these competences. Copyists copy. They don’t edit. Someone composed what we know as the pericope adulterae and someone the “long ending” of Mark. Not a copyist. A copyist subsequently included this material into (some copies of) the respective texts, likely because the copy from which he worked had this material in the margin and so he took it as something to be included.
      The use of GMark by the author of GMatthew fits broadly within the way ancient writers worked, drawing upon sources, sometimes acknowledged, often not. GMatthew doesn’t represent how GMark was transmitted. Obviously. For we have GMark! It was preserved and transmitted as its own thing . . . by copyists. Do learn the practices of ancient copyists and writers. Your objection to my distinction is baseless.

  3. focusonfocusblog permalink
    This link clarifies that there are no really early manuscripts in the totality of holdings. Your anecodotes about lost manuscripts are designed to prop up the faith of the those who swallow Christian apologetics….it is akin to the hearsay that Wallace and Evans publicised about the fragment.Grant

    • No. You misread the item. It simply says that no NT manuscript earlier than the third century has thus far been identified and published in the 83 vols of the Oxy papyri. And, in any case, 3rd century manuscripts are remarkably early witnesses to the NTwritings, in comparison with any other ancient text. Finally, the issue isn’t “Christian apologetics” (do get over yourself), but the scholarly effort to trace the transmission of NT writings and establish their wording on the most sound basis.

      • focusonfocusblog permalink

        ” No other unpublished fragments of New Testament texts in the EES collection have been identified as earlier than the third century AD”…..the press release says “unpublished”. Grant.

      • Grant: I stand corrected.

      • focusonfocusblog permalink

        We all make mistakes and also we all tend to present data that supports our views. Thats why i believe that whilst the existing manuscripts are old they are nowhere near old enough to reveal the errors, interpolations and deletions of the 1st hundred years. Grant

      • Grant: And of course you are entitled to believe whatever brings you the most comfort. But in scholarship, it isn’t so much belief as it is reasoned argument from extant evidence. And I’ve previously pointed to a goodly body of such that suggests that the extant copies of the Gospels pretty much reflect how they looked from the “Ausgangtext”. But don’t let me spoil your beliefs.

      • focusonfocusblog permalink

        Larry: with respect you have shown evidence of largely stable transmission for the 2nd and 3rd century (exceptions such as multiple Markan endings weakening the case).
        But the 1st century evidence shows that early Christians did freely edit their sources. “Matthew” edits the “Markan” source, changing and contradicting Mark 16:8 in Mt 28:8 for example. This is concrete evidence of fluid transmission of material dictated by the will of the 1st century compilers.

      • Grant: We’ve been over this a number of times, but you’ve apparently missed the point. Which is that you’re confusing the *use of a source in composing a new one* with *the copying of a text.* Authors exercised considerably freedom in using their sources. But that doesn’t represent how texts were copied. These are two quite different activities, each with its own conventions and evidence.

  4. There is a rough card catalogue of the Oxyrhynchus collection’s unpublished material, and sometimes discrete queries there can confirm whether the collection has ‘new’ material, even if it might not be published for years. I remember someone once saying that the largest category of unpublished literary texts in the collection is Septuagintal, though I don’t know how impressionistic that assertion was.

  5. Ron Minton permalink

    In college I took a class – Intro to Papyrology. We took a field trip to Ann Arbor, Mich. and each student studied a sheet of P46 with binocular scopes, etc. I think I had part of 1 Cor. 2. It was an amazing thrill for a young student. My question is twofold.
    1. Have the large amounts of stored Oxyrhynchus texts all been at least briefly examined so they know essentially what is in each?
    2. If the team continues at the snails pace, when do they estimate they will have all of it finished and published? (Do I need to alert my grandson 🙂

  6. Given what we know of the current published Oxyrhynchus texts (the average date/content), how realistic is it to expect big surprises like a very early gospel fragment, in the remaining texts?

    Also – in this day and age, wouldn’t it be more efficient to make scans of the lot and publish them in a database on the internet, to let the world have a go at it? I can imagine students and researches pouring time in preliminary classifications of fragments, filtering out potentially interesting ones. Given the speed these things are being worked through currently, it may take ages before someone spots that really interesting fragment, at the bottom of that last box..

    • As to your first question, who knows? As to your proposal, though interesting in principle, it’s not that simple. Have you ever tried reading an ancient papyrus fragment? It’s not something that can be just thrown out there for anyone to attempt.

      • I have never even *seen* a papyrus fragment, unfortunately, let alone study it. It is somewhat frustrating that even after hundred years, so many fragments remain!

    • Robert permalink

      Brent Nongbri mentions an earlier effort at ‘crowd sourcing’ that does not seem to have been very successful but which might be somewhat better managed more recently. Unfortunately, the ‘crowd’ of qualified experts must be exceedingly small.

      • Robert permalink

        Here’s a video of Dirk Obbink talking about the Citizen Science process they use in ‘crowd sourcing’ transcriptions of the Oxyrhynchus papyri:

      • Robert permalink

        Here’s a link for those interested in getting involved in the transcription process:

  7. I remember by graduate adviser at Wheaton, Walter Elwell, mentioning this to us in class. Thanks for documenting it here.

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