The Vocabulary of Reading a Papyrus Roll

When I was writing an earlier post that mentioned papyrus rolls, I realized that it was difficult to describe certain physical aspects of rolls. Here is what I wrote:

“Normally when a papyrus roll was rolled up, the text was on the inner surface of the roll, and the beginning of the text on the roll was positioned so that it would be the first thing readers encountered when they unrolled it.”

What I intended to describe was the position on the roll of the beginning of the written text (for scripts that are read from left to right). A reader would hold the bulk of the roll in the right hand, unwinding the roll into the left hand. For example, the youth depicted on this kyathos with a papyrus roll appears to be reading the beginning of the roll, grasping the end of the roll in the left hand while holding almost the entire roll still rolled up in the right hand:

Attic red figure vase showing a youth reading a papyrus roll, Berlin Altes Museum (Antikensammlung) F2322 ; image source: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0

As one progressed through the roll, the sections that had been read would naturally curl into the left hand as the roll unrolled from the right hand. One can see this part of the reading process in many ancient depictions. Below is an image from a sarcophagus assigned to the third century CE in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Some of the roll is rolled up in the left hand; some of it remains rolled up in the right hand:

Panel from a sarcophagus in the Capitoline Museum, Musei Capitolini, Inventario Sculture, S 2414; image source: Brent Nongbri 2020

Eventually, if a user read all the way to the end of the roll, the roll would be gathered almost entirely in the left hand, with right hand just holding the very end of the roll.

At this point, the (polite) user would “rewind” the roll so that the next user could open it up at the beginning of the text. We don’t really know the exact mechanics of this process, but Theodore Skeat has some disciplined speculation in a short article: T. C. Skeat, “Two Notes on Papyrus,” in Edda Bresciani et al. (eds.), Scritti in onore di Orsolina Montevecchi (Bologna: Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria Editrice, 1981), 373-378.

So, back to my descriptive problem: Maybe it would be best to distinguish between:

  • the “inner” and “outer” surfaces of rolls
  • the “inner” and “outer” portions of rolls

So, in a roll that is rolled up in the normal fashion, the text would be on the inner surface of the roll; the beginning of the text would then be both inscribed on the inner surface of the roll and positioned on the outer portion of the roll (that is, far from the center or core of the rolled up roll). The beginning of the text would not generally be the very outermost portion of the roll; that would be the protokollon, or first sheet of the roll, usually left blank and attached to the roll with an opposite fiber orientation.

I think this kind of description works reasonably well, but I’m still not totally satisfied. Is there a better vocabulary for talking about this kind of thing?

Posted in Voluminology | 5 Comments

A New Project: The Early History of the Codex

A busy semester is now winding down, and I’m happy to announce that in August, I’ll be kicking off a new, five-year project: The Early History of the Codex: A New Methodology and Ethics for Manuscript Studies (EthiCodex) based here in Oslo at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society, thanks to the support of the Research Council of Norway.

The beginnings of the technology of the codex have intrigued me for a long time now, but I recognized early on that there were a number of methodological hurdles involved in thinking critically about this kind of historical phenomenon. The codicological details of many of our earliest surviving codices and codex fragments have in many cases not been as richly described and cataloged as they could be. And on top of that, most of the corpus of surviving samples of early codices lack a secure date. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am skeptical of the use of palaeography (the analysis of handwriting) to yield high-precision dates for manuscripts of the Roman era (for more details on that, see the discussion here).

Over the years, however, I came to recognize that in addition to these methodological problems, there were also ethical issues to face: Many of these books are unprovenanced and were were acquired unethically, or even illegally. Colleagues like Roberta Mazza have forced us (i.e., me) to ask: How should we, as scholars who study ancient manuscripts, respond to this fact?

This project is an attempt to begin to fill in the many gaps in our knowledge about these ancient manuscripts while at the same time taking seriously the problem posed by the illegal antiquities market. To achieve this goal, the project has four secondary objectives.

  1. Conduct provenance research into the ownership histories of early Greek and Latin codices.
  2. Produce detailed physical and codicological descriptions of the make-up of the earliest Greek and Latin codices.
  3. Design an open-access database making codicological data and provenance information for an estimated 2500 early Greek and Latin codices easily searchable and freely available online.
  4. Make a systematic canvassing of museum and library collections containing ethically acquired early papyrus and parchment books to determine willingness to have AMS radiocarbon analysis carried out on their early codices and then fund this analysis.

The goal, then, is to increase the number of securely dated manuscripts, but to avoid adding value to manuscripts that were obtained in an unethical way. And what is to be done about those unethically sourced manuscripts? We catalogue and organize the existing published data about those codices and flag them as ethically problematic. In this way, if colleagues do decide to study them, they will at least have a clearer idea of what they might be getting themselves into.

The project will be hiring two postdoctoral research fellows for three-year appointments (2022-2024). The application portal for the positions is now open here. Contact me if you’re interested!

Posted in Codices, Codicology, Radiocarbon analysis | 7 Comments

Hobby Lobby Inc. vs Dirk Obbink

A couple days ago, the news broke that Hobby Lobby has sued Professor Dirk Obbink for over $7 million USD.

The 10-page complaint (which can be seen here) does not paint a nice picture of Prof. Obbink, but that’s generally how this genre works. We await Prof. Obbink’s response to these accusations.

Four items jumped out to me in the complaint:

First, the complaint lists seven purchases between February 2010 and February 2013. So, the stolen Oxyrhynchus papyri were being sold at least as early as 2010.

Second, we get another number for the stolen fragments:

“To date, thirty-two (32) items have been identified as having been stolen by Obbink from [the Egypt Exploration Society] and sold directly to Hobby Lobby. The investigation continues.”

The number here is interesting. According to the various announcements from the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) over the last couple years, the Museum of the Bible had returned 34 total fragments to the EES (13+21), but the key phrase in the complaint is “sold directly to Hobby Lobby.” Recall that two stolen Oxyrhynchus fragments were sold to Hobby Lobby through Khader M. Baidun & Sons/Art-Levant Antiquities of Israel. It makes me wonder if other Oxyrhynchus materials might have been dispersed through that channel.

Remember that between the Museum of the Bible and the American collector Andrew Stimer, who is said to have bought 6 stolen EES fragments from a business partner of Prof. Obbink, a total of 40 pieces have been returned to the EES. Now, the EES has said that 120 papyri are missing from its collection. That means 80 Oxyrhynchus papyri remain missing. Is the possibility of dispersal through Baidun being investigated?

Third, it’s interesting to see that Hobby Lobby seems to be suing Prof. Obbink for the cost of all of the stolen fragments:

“The fact that some unknown number of the Fragments were stolen renders all the Fragments unsalable and worthless to Hobby Lobby, which stands to lose both the Fragments and the entire value of the Purchase Price it paid to Obbink.”

Now, four of these fragments (the four so-called “first century” gospel fragments) were never delivered to Hobby Lobby, and they were thus never donated to Museum of the Bible. But at least some, and perhaps most or even all, of the rest of the stolen items were delivered to Hobby Lobby and then donated to the Museum of the Bible. They had MOTB inventory numbers. A stolen Oxyrhynchus fragment of Romans [P.Oxy. inv. 29 4B.46/G(4-6)a], for example, was once known as “MOTB.PAP.000425.” It’s my understanding that these designations mean the fragments were donated by the Greens/Hobby Lobby to Museum of the Bible (I’m happy to be corrected if that is an incorrect inference). As Candida Moss and Joel Baden reported, these donations generally resulted in tax deductions at a much greater value than Hobby Lobby paid for the manuscripts: “The magic ratio for the Greens was 1:3: for a given investment to be financially viable, they had to be able to write it off at three times the amount that they purchased it for” (Moss and Baden, Bible Nation, p. 24).

So, in effect, the Greens seem to have already been paid by American taxpayers for perhaps triple the amount they paid Prof. Obbink for at least some of these fragments. Should Hobby Lobby prevail in the lawsuit, I wonder if they will be refunding some of those tax break profits back to the American taxpayers?

Fourth and finally, it’s a little surprising that the payments for the stolen fragments are all said to have gone to a bank account in Michigan. It’s still not clear to me how much access Prof. Obbink had to the large unpublished collection of papyri at the University of Michigan during his days on the faculty there, when he was “Ludwig Koenen Collegiate Professor of Papyrology.” As I noted on an earlier occasion, it seems like Michigan was a bit of a hub for the trade in ancient manuscripts. There could be more to this part of the story. But as I said, we await Prof. Obbink’s response to the allegations.

Posted in Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Green Collection Romans, Oxyrhynchus Papyri | 6 Comments

The Eusebian Apparatus in Codex Sinaiticus

The Eusebian apparatus for the gospels has been getting some much deserved attention in the last few years. This remarkable system for navigating the parallel material in the gospels has formed the topic of a very useful monograph by Matthew Crawford, The Eusebian Canon Tables: Ordering Textual Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2019) and a collection of essays (open access!) edited by Alessandro Bausi, Bruno Reudenbach, and Hanna Wimmer, Canones. The Art of Harmony: The Canon Tables of the Four Gospels (de Gruyter, 2020).

Codex Sinaiticus presents an early example of this system, but the apparatus in Sinaiticus has several odd features:

  • No canon tables survive in Sinaiticus either at the mutilated beginning of the codex or at the start of the New Testament.
  • The section numbers are only partially present (they are missing for sections 107-242 in the Gospel According to Luke).
  • The first 52 sections in Matthew are a bit more elaborately executed than the numbers in the other sections.

It’s also not immediately obvious when the section numbers were added (whether during the production of the codex or at a later time, as Tischendorf believed). The most thorough study of the physical features and layout of the codex is Milne and Skeat’s Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus (1938). They discuss all of the characteristics of the Eusebian apparatus listed above in a series of somewhat technical arguments. In this post, I’m going to try to walk through their logic and provide some illustrations.

First up is the question of whether the Eusebian numbers were a part of the original production of the codex. The Eusebian numbers were placed to the left of the columns of text and written in red ink (the Ammonian section number is on top, and the Eusebian canon number is on bottom).

But the numbers of the apparatus are executed differently in different parts of the codex. For one thing, they are copied in different hands.

Codex Sinaiticus, showing Eusebian numbers at Matthew 6:24 (quire 74, folio 3 verso, col. 3); image source: codexsinaiticus.org
Codex Sinaiticus, showing Eusebian numbers at John 5:37-38 (quire 80, folio 4 recto, col. 1); image source: codexsinaiticus.org

In this early portion of Matthew (on the left), both the section number and the canon number are accompanied by a supralinear stroke. The numbers are also noticeably smaller than the letters in the main text. In the example from John (right), only the section number has such a stroke, and two of the three letters are roughly the same size as the letters in the column. Note the distinctive forms of mu in the section numbers. The example on the left (Matthew) is similar to the “Biblical Majuscule” of the main text. The example of mu on the right (John) with its low medial dip and curved flourishes on the vertical strokes, presents a very different look from the mu of the main text.

Milne and Skeat, however, drew attention to the use of red ink elsewhere in the codex, namely for the numeration of titles of the Psalms. They note that this use of red ink must have been executed by the copyists of the Psalms (namely, Scribe D for Psalms 1:1-97:3 and Scribe A for Psalm 97:3-151:7). They reach this conclusion because the red ink is used within the columns of text in addition to being used for the marginal numbers and paragraphos marks:

Codex Sinaiticus, showing the end of Psalm 43 and beginning of Psalm 44 (quire 60, folio 4 verso, col. 1); image source: codexsinaiticus.org

Milne and Skeat thus argue that “the broad flourished mu” and the bold paragraphos mark are both to be included in the repertoire of Scribe D. They make similar arguments for the more decorative letters used by Scribe A in the marginal numbers in the latter portion of the Psalms. Through this reasoning, they establish that the starting assumption should be that the Eusebian numbers were in fact executed during the production of the codex by Scribes D and A. They adduce further evidence that also addresses some of the other strange features mentioned above.

Why are there no canon tables in Codex Sinaiticus? Milne and Skeat have explained this situation by noting that, according to one sequence of quire signatures, there is a full quire missing between the last quire of the Old Testament and the first quire of the New Testament. They hypothesize that a quire containing a set of tables was planned but never completed because the effort to add the section numbers in the text was abandoned before it was finished. In this regard, they point to the abandonment of the extra decorations after section 52 in Matthew and the complete lack of Eusebian numbers in much of Luke (Scribes and Correctors, pp. 7-9 and 36-37). This solution involves considerable speculation, but it makes some sense: If the canon tables had been completed and contained in the codex, it is hard to explain why the missing section numbers in Luke were not added by any later users of the codex.

Finally, it seems that we can be fairly precise about exactly when in the production of the codex the Eusebian numbers were added. Milne and Skeat point out that a correction in the lower margin at Matthew 10:39 carries a section number in identical red ink and made in sequence with the section numbers used in the main text:

Codex Sinaiticus, showing correction at Matthew 10:39 (quire 74, folio 6 recto, col. 3); image source: codexsinaiticus.org

The numbers in the left margin are ϥⲋ and ϥⲏ (the first character is a cursive form of the archaic Greek letter koppa, 90), 96 and 98. The number beside the correction is ϥⲍ, 97. As Milne and Skeat point out, the fact that the process of section numbering included the numbering of this correction suggests that the process of numbering took place after the text had been both copied and corrected. But there is more. The bifolium consisting of New Testament folio 10 and 15 is part of a quire copied by scribe A (quire 2), but this particular bifolium is copied by scribe D and lacks the Eusebian section and canon numbers (the surrounding leaves copied by scribe A all have the Eusebian numbers). Thus, following Milne and Skeat’s logic, we may say that the Eusebian numbers were added after an initial correction of the work by Scribe A but before the more extensive correction by Scribe D that involved the replacement of the cancel leaves (though this proposal is slightly complicated by the fact that Scribe D replaced another bifolium in a quire copied by A–the central bifolium in Quire 77–but did include the Eusebian numbers on that bifolium).

On the whole, I think it is justified to agree with Milne and Skeat that the Eusebian apparatus was part of the production of the codex and therefore provides us with a good terminus post quem for the construction of the book Unfortunately, we don’t know precisely when Eusebius developed the canon tables, but a terminus of ca. 300-340 CE seems reasonable. How much later the codex could have been copied is an open question that I will address in a forthcoming article.

For a more detailed discussion of the Eusebian apparatus in Sinaiticus, see Dirk Jongkind, Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus (Gorgias, 2007), 109-120.

Posted in Codex Sinaiticus, Codicology | 1 Comment

An Informative Article on a (Different) Sappho Papyrus

When it comes to Sappho papyri, I’ve been reporting mostly bad news for the last couple years. I’m happy to have some good news now about a different papyrus of Sappho, one whose provenance and authenticity are not under any clouds. A recent issue of the journal Mnemosyne included a fascinating (open access!) article on P.Oxy. XXI 2288 (LDAB 3886), a fragment of a papyrus roll containing part of the first poem in Book 1 of Sappho:

Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2228 and Ancient Reinforcement of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne 73 (2020), 915-948.

The papyrus was first published by Edgar Lobel in 1951. All that survives is a narrow strip:

P.Oxy. 21 2288, Sappho Book i I; image source: P.Oxy.: Oxyrhynchus Online

In 1973, Eric Turner pointed out a characteristic that Lobel neglected to mention, namely that the strip actually contains two layers of papyrus, the upper papyrus with the text of Sappho and another layer below it, with writing visible in some places where the upper Sappho papyrus had worn away. In 2011, Dirk Obbink argued that the lower layer was part of the same roll that had become compressed to the adjacent section of the roll, and further that the lower layer preserved another poem of Sappho that stood before the poem preserved in the upper layer (thus attesting an alternative order of the poems). The authors of the present article (de Kreij, Colomo, and Lui) subject the papyrus to a detailed physical examination, including scanning electron microscopy / energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and X-ray tomography. They also print several photographs of the layers of the papyrus under high magnification:

Detail of P.Oxy. 21 2288; image source: Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2228 and Ancient Reinforcement of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne 73 (2020), 921, fig. 3

The authors point out differences in the quality of the ink between the two layers, and they also argue that certain bits of white material on the lower layer may be the remains of an adhesive. Their conclusion is that the extra layer of papyrus is likely not part of the text of Sappho but instead a patch used to reinforce a damaged part of the papyrus roll. The authors note that such a repair would make good sense if this piece (which preserves the first poem in Book 1) was near the beginning of the roll. Normally when a papyrus roll was rolled up, the text was on the inner surface of the roll, and the beginning of the text on the roll was positioned so that it would be the first thing readers encountered when they unrolled it. Thus, the beginnings of rolls were frequently handled and especially subject to damage. In a highly informative section of the paper, the authors cite many examples of this kind of repair from other surviving papyri and also gather references to the repair of rolls from ancient literature and documentary papyri. It’s a great article: Informative, collaborative, and based on a legally excavated and owned papyrus that was first published 70 years ago. It still has something to teach us.

Posted in Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Voluminology | 3 Comments

A New Article on the (ex-)Green Collection Sappho Papyri

Thanks to Mike Holmes for notifying me that the latest issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik contains an article by Museum of the Bible curator Brian Hyland that reports what is now known about the purchase of the Green Collection Sappho fragments. The article expands on a preliminary report by Mike Holmes published here in January 2020.

The article is a detailed overview of Hyland’s efforts to get to the bottom of how Scott Carroll, Professor Dirk Obbink, and the Turkish dealer Yakup Eksioglu together brought these fragments from unknown origins into the Green Collection in late 2011 and early 2012. Perhaps the most interesting new evidence in the article are photographs of the “cartonnage” chunks that contained the Sappho fragments. As Hyland notes, it is remarkable that all the Sappho fragments are placed in an orderly fashion right on the surface of the chunks. I reproduce one of Hyland’s figures here:

Image source: Brian D. Hyland, “A Note on the Provenance of the Sappho Fragments P.GC. inv. 105,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 218 (2021), 1–16.

The clear and sensible fashion in which the Sappho fragments are placed on the surface of the “cartonnage” is very reminiscent of the Green Collection 1 Samuel papyrus that also came from “a Turkish dealer“:

I’ll have more to say as I digest the data in this article.

Posted in Dirk Obbink, Green Collection 1 Samuel, Green Collection Sappho, P.Sapph. Obbink | 3 Comments

The Retraction of Dirk Obbink’s Sappho Chapter and the Question of Authenticity

Last week, the news broke that Brill had retracted a chapter by Prof. Dirk Obbink that presented false information about the provenance of the Sappho papyri. A statement from the volume’s editors explains the reasoning for the retraction. Just as he denies the charges against him in relation to stolen Oxyrhynchus papyri, Prof. Obbink denies these charges and promises to produce exonerating evidence:

“Michael Sampson has published an article that also questions the provenance of the papyri as reported in chapter 2 of this book (Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 57 [2020] 143-169). Dirk Obbink, the author of this chapter, was given the opportunity by Brill publishers to respond to this evidence, but so far they have not received a substantive response. He has told them that he is working on an academic article in which he disputes the findings of Sampson, but he has not mentioned a timeline.”

I think we all look forward to Prof. Obbink’s response in this matter, just as we continue to look forward to seeing the documents related to the alleged collection history of the Sappho papyrus, which Prof. Obbink reportedly committed to release back in 2015 in a Live Science article:

“In the coming months, Obbink said the plan is to make the collecting documents and related photographs of the London Sappho papyrus available online, including letters, transcripts and other papers from people, including Robinson, who worked on this collection early on.”

So, it will be very welcome when Prof. Obbink produces this article and these documents. In the meantime, however, it’s good to know that there are people at Brill who are taking this matter seriously. To the best of my knowledge, retracted articles are rare in the field of classics, so this is a significant action.

The editors also included a statement regarding the authenticity of the papyrus:

“So far we have not seen any evidence to suggest that either P.GC inv. 105 or P.Sapph.Obbink is not authentic.”

The phrasing here gives me pause. [[Update 30 March 2021: Jona Lendering also found this sentence odd.]] On the one hand, when I look at the available images of these manuscripts, I see fragments that have the appearance of papyri that were produced in antiquity by a skilled copyist.

But on the other hand, that’s just the thing: I’m looking at images–and images that are not of very high quality. How many scholars have actually examined these papyri in person? That’s an honest question. I don’t know that the larger “London” fragment has ever been closely physically examined by anyone besides Prof. Obbink. He has reported that the London fragment has been subjected to scientific testing, but as I have argued elsewhere, those claims are dubious.

Plates of the Sappho papyri published in ZPE 189 (2014), obviously reduced in size here

So, in the absence of the physical object, what other indications of forgery might one consider? Well, the textual contents of the poem may be a good place to begin. Prof. Obbink himself raised the issue in his TLS article announcing the papyrus in 2014 (no longer available online):

“How can we be certain…that these new fragments are genuine? After all, you might wonder, doesn’t ‘The Brothers Poem’ rather too conveniently fill a gap in what we don’t know of Sappho and her family? And doesn’t it rather suspiciously confirm Herodotus, in mentioning two names we know, and none that we don’t?”

Well, yes, now that you mention it. That is quite convenient. Prof. Obbink continues:

“Some scholars did, at first, doubt its authenticity, including one of the editors of the last ‘New Sappho’ to be discovered. But other indicators leave no room for doubt. Metre, language and dialect are all recognizably Sapphic and (more difficult for a forger to achieve) there are no contrary indications whatsoever of date or handwriting.”

In his talk at the 2015 SCS meeting, Prof. Obbink mentioned another early doubter:

“But early reactions from even some erudite scholars publicly condemned the texts as ‘a playful modern exercise’ or as ‘frigid juvenilia’. Mary Beard wrote to Martin West for confirmation before the TLS article appeared. Here is what he replied: ‘My initial impression was that it was very poor stuff, and linguistically problematic. But the more I look at it, the more OK it seems. It’s certainly not one of her best, but it has her DNA all over it.'”

It’s my impression that the majority of Sappho specialists regard the poetry as authentically ancient and not a modern exercise in Greek lyric composition. Indeed, I cannot name a single expert who is on record as thinking the poems are forgeries. But it is worth remembering that in the early days, some of the most respected of those experts had a different reaction.

I have not seen much subsequent discussion of the possibility that these papyri could be modern forgeries. The exception is a balanced and thoughtful essay by Theo Nash, who makes many salient points and settles carefully on an evaluation that the papyrus is an ancient rather than a modern production, most likely a looted antiquity. I agree with almost everything he wrote, with two reservations. First, he views the poem as “utterly dull,” whereas forgeries are more typically sensational (such as the Jesus’ Wife fragment). Here, I would simply note that, for many people, any new Sappho at all is sensational per se. Second, Nash writes that “our [hypothetical] faker may have been deeply familiar with Sappho — but the effort would be quite extraordinary.” If these fragments are modern fakes, I don’t think there is any question that the person who produced them is very familiar with Sappho. But how “extraordinary” would the effort at composition have been? The Greek composition training that I received in graduate school certainly did not impart the ability to produce something like the text on these fragments, but there are people for whom ancient language composition is a passion.

This includes both enthusiastic amateurs who produce handbooks on Sapphic composition and academics who edit texts. For his contribution to a Festschrift published in 2011, Prof. Obbink wrote a chapter entitled “Vanishing Conjecture: Lost Books and their Recovery from Aristotle to Eco.” In it, he reflected on the processes through which pieces of classical literature are lost and recovered (I note in passing that one of the prime examples in the chapter is the poetry of Sappho).

In discussing the recovery of ancient literature, Prof. Obbink introduces the competitive academic world of summoning lost texts from medieval compendia and fragmentary papyri. Prof. Obbink offers his own somewhat harsh evaluation of the efforts of other scholars (“Janko’s hypotheses have since been refuted and are now generally derided”) and defends his own compositional skills and choices:

“What constitutes a legitimate fragment, and when are we justified in reconstructing a lost original? By what criteria will recovery be judged a success? I remember being disheartened when a scholar who I thought understood editorial method told me that an edition of a papyrus I had published was, as he put it, ‘all you’, rather than the text of the ancient author in question, just because the ends of some of the lines were restored.”

In this world of filling lacunae and making conjectural emendations, scholars cultivate the ability to finish the thoughts of ancient authors, losing one’s own identity and adopting that of the ancient author (sidenote: Does anyone know who came up with the designation “P.Sapph.Obbink”?). In such a world, the charge “all you” is a solid burn. All of that to say: While most classical scholars might not be up to the task of producing Sapphic lines to order, I have no doubt that there are modern scholars who could do so with little trouble.

Finally, there’s the issue of the treatment of the Green Collection fragments. As a curator at the Museum of the Bible noticed last year, in the now (in)famous video of Scott Carroll faking extractions of literary papyri from mummy masks at Baylor University, one of the wet clumps included the Green Collection Sappho fragments, now known to have been purchased by the Greens from the Turkish dealer Yakup Eksioglu weeks before their “discovery” at Baylor.

The sight of these papyri, lying in a pile sopping wet being picked at by well-meaning but untrained amateurs, is shocking. Carefully humidifying ancient papyrus to unfold it without damage is a time-tested technique for flattening out papyri so that they can be mounted between glass panes for preservation and study. Needlessly drenching ancient papyri in soapy water is simply stupid. Investigations by Ariel Sabar raise the possibility that Carroll already knew that these fragments contained poems by Sappho:

“[Baylor classicist Simon] Burris found a spot at a table where Carroll was drying papyri he’d pulled out of the sink, but soon felt his head spinning. Before him was a small Greek fragment with four-line stanzas in an Aeolic dialect—a hallmark of Sappho, the sixth-century B.C. poet…Burris quickly spotted other pieces—still wet—bearing the same Sapphic markers. He ran their surviving words through a search engine: They not only overlapped with known Sappho poems, but filled in previously unknown lines. …But something felt off. The Sappho pieces had been laid out in such a way that even a non–Sappho expert like him could spot several in just minutes. (He would eventually discover some 20 of them.) He wondered: Did Carroll somehow know what was in the mask before he’d disemboweled it?”

It may of course be the case that Carroll didn’t know the planted papyri contained works of Sappho. [[Update 30 March 2021: see Addendum below]] But given the already existing connections between Carroll, Eksioglu and Prof. Obbink, it seems quite possible that the fragments were known to be Sappho before the event. Nevertheless, they were given a bath. Would an ardent Sappho enthusiast such as Prof. Obbink really allow ancient papyri containing lost lines of Sappho to be so treated without already having undertaken the fullest possible study of the fragments? That would appear strange.

According to Sabar’s report, Carroll did on that day soak an authentic ancient papyrus fragment of Paul’s letter to the Romans stolen from the Oxyrhynchus collection. That immediately suggests the possibility that the Sappho fragments were also authentically ancient and also stolen from the same source. This possibility cannot be ruled out, but it strikes me as doubtful. It seems unlikely that Edgar Lobel, who had a special interest in Sappho and spent almost 40 years working with the Oxyrhynchus collection, would have missed extensive fragments of Sappho like these.

To summarize, then, we have:

  • Papyrus fragments with sensational and much-desired content
  • Faked provenance stories for these fragments
  • Seemingly false claims about scientific testing of these fragments
  • No access to the main fragment for examination
  • Early doubts about the quality of the poetry copied on these fragments
  • Surprisingly cavalier treatment of supposedly highly valuable unique ancient papyri

Given all this, is it really accurate to say that there is no “evidence to suggest that either P.GC inv. 105 or P.Sapph.Obbink is not authentic”? It might be better to say that most (perhaps all?) competent scholars regard these fragments as authentic even in the face of many suspicious circumstances surrounding these papyri.

Let me reiterate. I can’t pass judgement on the authenticity of these papyri. If these fragments are fakes, they are some of the best I’ve ever seen. But then again, I haven’t actually seen them. And other than Prof. Obbink, who has?

Addendum 30 March 2021: Looking again at the relevant sections of Sabar’s article, it seems pretty clear that Carroll did know beforehand that it was Sappho that he was needlessly soaking for his fake extraction: “When I told Carroll what I’d discovered, he acknowledged planting the Sappho and Romans fragments in the mask at Baylor that day. His aim, he said, was to teach students how to identify papyri, not how to dismount a mask. Unsure of what he’d recover from the mask, he decided to mix in some exciting pieces from the Green Collection. ‘At the time, I didn’t feel that it was duplicitous.’ “

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Green Collection Sappho, P.Sapph. Obbink | 20 Comments

Further Thoughts on the Tchacos-Ferrini Exodus

A couple years ago, I wrote a short web article on the dispersal of a papyrus codex of Exodus that was allegedly found with three other papyrus codices: one containing a mathematical text in Greek, one containing the letters of Paul in Coptic, and the famous codex containing the Gospel of Judas.

In that article, I gave a brief overview of how these books were mutilated and marketed by various actors. The Exodus codex was split up already in the 1990s Here is what I wrote:

“The codices resurfaced for sale in New York in the early 1990s. Again, the books did not sell, but the records of the Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen state that the Exodus codex consisted of more than fifty leaves at that time. At that point, the codex seems to have been divided for sale. One leaf of the codex was purchased by Yale University from a company associated with the Swiss dealer Frieda Tchacos in the mid-1990s. At least one leaf was acquired by the art dealer François Antonovich apparently around the same time. Five leaves were purchased by Schøyen at some point before 1998.”

What I failed to note in that article was that the Yale purchase (in 1996) creates a problem in the standard “timeline” of events associated with these codices. According to the usual story, Frieda Tchacos supposedly acquired the books only in 1999 or 2000. Yet she was already selling bits of the Exodus codex in 1996.

Leaf of the Tchacos-Ferrini Exodus codex at Yale University’s Beinecke Library; image source: Yale University Library Digital Collections

The Schøyen connection is also interesting in this regard. I cannot now recall why I wrote that Schøyen made his purchase “at some point before 1998.” In fact, a chapter by Diletta Minutoli and Rosario Pintaudi states quite clearly that Schøyen bought his leaves a decade earlier, in 1988:

“L’acquisizione dei frammenti di un codice contenente l’Esodo (Schøyen MS187)…risale al 1988 quando Schøyen ne acquistò dall’antiquario americano Bruce Ferrini.”

I don’t think I had appreciated before that Ferrini had some of this material already in the 1980s and Tchacos had some in the mid-1990s. It’s also odd then that James Robinson reports that Schøyen later passed on buying the Gospel of Judas codex because of “bad provenance” (Robinson, The Secrets of Judas, 65-66), since he already owned the Exodus leaves that allegedly come from the same batch of material. This would seem to suggest that the customary provenance story of these manuscripts has some holes in it.

It is also interesting to note that Schøyen has apparently put up his leaves of the Tchacos-Ferrini Exodus codex for sale, according to a 2020 article by Christopher Prescott and Josephine Munch Rasmussen, which examined Norwegian export permits:

“As far as we have been able to ascertain, all Schøyen’s post-2007 applications for export permits have been approved by the National Library, most recently an application dated 14 October 2019, granted 16 October 2019. An application dated 30 April 2018 is for four items to be sold through Bloomsbury Auctions, London. Among the four is one object described as: ‘MS187. Exodus, papyrus manuscript, 4th c. 2ff. 26 x 32 c, under glass.'”

I’m not sure of the current whereabouts of these leaves.

Sources:

Diletta Minutoli and Rosario Pintaudi, “Un codice biblico su papiro della collezione Schøyen MS 187 (Esodo IV 16 – VII 21)” in Guido Bastianini and Angelo Casanova (eds.), I papiri letterari cristiani (Florence: Istituto Papirologico “G. Vitelli,” 2011), 193-205.

Christopher Prescott and Josephine Munch Rasmussen, “Exploring the “Cozy Cabal of Academics, Dealers and Collectors” through the Schøyen Collection,” Heritage 3 (2020), 68-97.

James M. Robinson, The Secrets of Judas (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007).

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Bruce Ferrini, Frieda Tchacos, Schøyen Collection, Tchacos-Ferrini Exodus Codex | 2 Comments

A Dead Sea Scrolls Photo Shoot from the 1950s

Among the PAM negatives of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is a short sequence of photos that puzzled me when I encountered them last year. The photos occur in a sequence taken in June 1956, PAM 42.139-141. They are described in the following way Stephen Pfann’s chronological list of PAM negatives:

Descriptions of PAM negatives from Emanuel Tov and Stephen J. Pfann, Companion Volume to the Dead Sea Scrolls Microfiche Edition (2nd rev. ed.; Leiden: Brill, 1995), p. 86

PAM 42.139 and 42.140 are said to show a “scroll jar” and several artifacts in a “natural setting.” These two photographs are not, as far as I know available in the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library (as they don’t contain any images of actual scrolls). But it was really PAM 42.141 that had most confused me earlier. This photograph is in the Leon Levy online collection. It appears to have been taken outdoors, and it contains a mix of excavated and purchased scrolls from Cave 1 sitting together on the ground! Specifically, 1Q28a (the largest fragment in the image) was part of a purchase from Khalil Iskander Shahin (“Kando”) and not excavated. So, what was it doing sitting outside on the ground together scrolls excavated by archaeologists?

While doing some research this afternoon looking into Najib Anton Albina (1901-1983), the main photographer who worked on the scrolls on the 1950s, I stumbled across an online image of PAM 42.140 on the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library Facebook page that may shed some light on the question:

Here we see not just any “scroll jar,” but one that is fully reconstructed from fragments, along with other items set out for a nicely staged photo shoot, complete with a tipped over vessel containing a coin hoard. It seems reasonable to conjecture that this photograph was taken on the same occasion as the next one in the sequence, PAM 42.141–our mixed group of Cave 1 scroll fragments in a “natural setting.” But what exactly is this “natural setting”?

The Facebook post describes PAM 42.140 as “excavations of Qumran in the 1950’s,” but the reconstructed jar suggests that this material had already spent a good bit of time in the lab. So, a question arises: Where exactly were these photos taken? Surely the reconstructed jar and scrolls were not brought back out to Qumran! It would be good to learn more about the occasion for which these photographs were made, apparently in June of 1956.

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls, Khalil Eskander Shahin (Kando) | 12 Comments

Online Images of Early Christian Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library

In a previous post, I mentioned that the Bodleian Library had made available nice color digital images of the Hawara Homer papyrus roll. They have also added images of several early Christian manuscripts. I provide links to the images at the Digital Bodleian and links to the editions in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri below:

All of these manuscripts are leaves from codices, but unless I’m missing something, there seems to be images of only one side of each of the first three here (Matthew, Acts, and Thomas). That last one in the list, P.Oxy. VII 1010, is a personal favorite. It’s a single leaf of a miniature parchment codex, and for this one, images of both sides are available:

Bodleian Library MS. Gr. bib. g. 3 (P), P.Oxy. VII 1010, 6 Ezra; image source: Digital Bodleian

Once again, many thanks to colleagues at the Bodleian Libraries for making these images freely available (and maybe we can get the other sides of the three other manuscripts soon?).

Posted in Codices, Oxyrhynchus Papyri | 3 Comments