The New Facsimiles of the Beatty Biblical Papyri

My first post of 2021 was a notice that new facsimiles of some of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri had appeared. At the time, I had not seen the books in person, and all I could do was note their existence and lament the price tag. But with the benefit of a sizable conference discount and the opportunity to examine the volumes in person, I decided to buy a copy. So, for my first post of 2022, I’ll offer a brief review of these volumes.

Stratton L. Ladewig, Robert D. Marcello, Daniel B. Wallace (eds.). New Testament Papyri Facsimiles: P45, P46, P47. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts / Hendrickson Academic, 2020. 2 volumes. ISBN 9781619708440. $399 USD.

This facsimile presents new photographs of three of the eleven “Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri,” the codex of the gospels and Acts (P45), the codex of the Pauline epistles (P46), and the codex containing Revelation (P47). The photographs were made as a part of the ongoing work of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). The set of two volumes comes in in a sturdy cardboard slipcase. The books are nicely bound and consist of 312 pages each. The two volumes are identical except for the fact that in one volume the photographs of the manuscripts have a white background and in the other the photographs are on a black background. The 30 pages of introductory matter are the same in both volumes.

The introduction is concise and informative. It gives a brief history of the discovery of the papyri and lays out the need for improved images. The editors briskly and sensibly discuss the estimated dates of the manuscripts, provide charts coordinating the folios with shelf numbers, and offer a short description of the digitization process. The introduction concludes with a new edition of folio 8 of the gospels-Acts codex based on repositioned and newly discovered fragments.

The facsimile images themselves are attractively produced. The pages are laid out with the manuscript folio number provided in the outer upper margin (along with an arrow indicating fiber direction), with scriptural references in the inner upper margin for ease of navigation. The page number of the facsimile edition itself is in the lower outer margin. The images of the papyri stand alone on the background (there are no scales or color palettes). The quality of the photos is usually excellent, as a comparison with Kenyon’s plates indicates. Kenyon’s plates were very good by 1930s standards, but they tended to highlight the contrast between the ink and the writing surface at the expense of washing out the texture of the papyrus.

CSNTM / Hendrickson Academic facsimile page (left) compared to Kenyon / Emery Walker facsimile page (right)
CSNTM / Hendrickson Academic facsimile detail (top) compared to Kenyon / Emery Walker facsimile detail (bottom)

In the cases when bifolia have survived intact, these are reproduced at a reduced size at the conclusion of each set of plates. This is a very nice touch and something that sets this new facsimile apart from the plates that accompanied Kenyon’s editions.

I don’t really have many critical comments, just a bit of curiosity about some of the decisions that went into the production.

First, the decision to produce two volumes with different background colors. I generally find a white background preferable when looking at photos of papyri, as a black background can sometimes lead to confusion between ink marks and holes in the papyrus. Aesthetically, some of the more damaged papyrus leaves of the Beatty papyri do look better against a black background (this is especially true of the badly damaged leaves of the Gospels-Acts codex, which can sometimes be difficult to read against a bright white background). But for the majority of the leaves, photos on the white background are more than adequate, especially in light of the fact that the CSNTM has provided good digital images of the codices online (against both a white background and a black background). Those who need to study particular readings in detail can do so with the high resolution images online. I’m not sure if a cost-benefit calculation would justify producing a second volume with the images on a black background. If you’re prepared for the extra expense of making more than one volume, I think I would have preferred just one copy of the images, but a copy that was physically divided in a way that reflects the actual ancient manuscripts.

This brings me to a second decision: Why bind photos of the three distinct manuscripts as one physical volume? This decision renders the volumes a little less useful in the classroom. When I talk with students about the Beatty Biblical Papyri (and the Bodmer Papyri), one of the things I point out is that the earliest Christian books seem to have circulated in single units (for instance, Revelation) or smaller groups (for instance, the Pauline letters). Showing Kenyon’s three separate volumes in class reinforces this point. Binding the books together as a single unit (in fact a “New Testament,” as the title of the new facsimile indicates) has a certain familiarizing effect.

This effect is amplified by a third decision regarding the presentation of the images of the Gospels-Acts codex. The editors describe the decision and the reasoning behind it:

“Although the original order of the Gospels in P45 was likely the Western order (Matthew, John, Luke, Mark), the order in this presentation is traditional, following the lead of Kenyon. Since the folio numbers have been standardized, deviation from that in this publication would not have been prudent.”

The evidence for the order of the gospels in this codex is not absolutely conclusive, but it is reasonably strong and worth examining. The facsimile editors cite Kenyon’s edition and Theodore Skeat’s codicological discussion. Kenyon wrote only the following:

“With regard to the order of the books, the only evidence lies in the fact that Mark and Acts were closely associated in the papyrus as brought to England. This makes it probable that Mark stood last among the Gospels, as in the Freer MS. at Washington (W), where the order of the books is Matthew, John, Luke, Mark, the so-called Western order, which is found in the Codex Bezae and several MSS. of the Old Latin version” (Kenyon, The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, Fasc. II: The Gospels and Acts, p. viii).

In 1993, Theodore Skeat gave a much more detailed codicological reconstruction confirming Kenyon’s view, though Skeat’s reconstruction is not without anomalies. One of the key observations that Skeat made was that the pattern of preservation in the surviving leaves clearly suggests that Mark and Acts stood next to one another in the bound codex.

So, as the editors of the facsimile state, the gospels in this codex were most likely in the “Western” order. The decision to print the images in the order Matthew-Mark-Luke-John feels like a missed opportunity to be more true than Kenyon was to the probable appearance of the ancient book. The editors voice a concern for potential confusion in shuffling the numbers of the folia, but in this case I think the benefits of a more plausible codicological reconstruction probably outweigh the costs of a reassignment of numbers that could be relatively easily explained with a chart of equivalencies.

And finally, what about the decision to make a physical facsimile at all? Do we need a print facsimile when the CSNTM’s quality digital images are available online? Here I think the answer is yes. Even if physical copies of Kenyon’s plates were more widely available (digital copies of Kenyon’s plates are online), the improved quality of the CSNTM photos justifies the production of a new facsimile. It is always good to be reminded of the materiality and three dimensionality of these ancient manuscripts. Dan Wallace signed off his preface to the volume on “22 May 2020, Feast Day of Saint Rita of Cascia, Patroness of Impossible Causes.” And with a project like this, it is indeed impossible to please everyone completely. It is clear that a lot of hard work went into the production of these volumes, and we (that is, those who can afford a copy or have access to a good library) can be grateful for the results.

Posted in Chester Beatty Papyri, Codices, Codicology, Frederic Kenyon | 4 Comments

Christianity Today on the Hobby Lobby vs. Obbink Case

Christianity Today has just published an article summarizing recent events in the case of Hobby Lobby vs. Obbink. The article, which contains some details from the most recent court documents, can be found here.

Image source: Christianity Today
Posted in Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Oxyrhynchus Papyri | 1 Comment

Update on Hobby Lobby vs. Obbink Case

A number of people have notified me in recent days that attorneys for Hobby Lobby have requested a certificate of default in their case against Dirk Obbink, who has apparently not responded the summons served in September. A couple days ago, the court granted that certificate: “the default of defendant Dirk D. Obbink is hereby noted.” Thus, Prof. Obbink now owes Hobby Lobby $7 million USD. The updated docket is visible here (once again, I have not viewed the individual documents behind the paywall).

I think many of us hoped that a trial might bring to light further information on the whereabouts of the roughly 80 Oxyrhynchus papyri that still seem to be missing.

For readers of German, a helpful summary of the whole affair by Susanna Kinzig recently appeared in Die Zeit.

Posted in Dirk Obbink, Oxyrhynchus Papyri | 6 Comments

New Book on the Faddan More Psalter

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the Faddan More Psalter, a parchment codex containing the Psalms in Latin that was found in an Irish bog in 2006. John Gillis noted in the comments that he has a book coming out on the Psalter very soon.

Thanks to Stephen Goranson for alerting me that The Guardian has a wonderfully illustrated article out today by Lisa O’Carroll on this forthcoming book.

In my earlier post, I mentioned that “metallic inks can damage or destroy the parchment over time. But under the conditions of the bog, the ink of the Faddan More Psalter sometimes preserved the parchment, such that only the isolated letters survive while the surrounding uninscribed parchment has disintegrated.” The article has an incredible image of this “alphabet soup” phenomenon:

Surviving parchment letters from the Faddan More Psalter; image source: The Guardian

I’m very excited to see the forthcoming book, called The Faddan More Psalter, The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure.

Posted in Faddan More Psalter | 1 Comment

Chancery Writing and Greek Literature

Having spent some time in my last post looking at P.Berol. inv. 11532 and its remarkable handwriting, I am reminded of a couple classic articles by formidable palaeographic experts. The first is a long and in depth study of this type of this type of script (sometimes called “the Alexandrian chancery script of Subatianus Aquila”) by Guglielmo Cavallo, “La scrittura del P. Berol. 11532: Contributo allo studio dello stile di cancelleria nei papiri greci di età romana” published in 1965 (not freely available online as far as I can tell, but purchasable for a not entirely unreasonable price here). Cavallo made a detailed description of the script and brought together several photographic plates containing many samples of similar writing.

P.Berol. inv. 11532; image source: Berliner Papyrusdatenbank

The second article that was on my mind is a short but interesting piece by Eric Turner published in 1956. Turner drew attention to P.Ryl. I 59, small fragment of papyrus published by Arthur S. Hunt in 1911 (Hunt’s original publication can be viewed online here). The papyrus contains the opening words of Demosthenes, De corona copied six times in a hand that shares a number of features with that of P.Berol. inv. 11532.

Writing exercise on papyrus, P.Ryl. Gr. I 59; Copyright of the University of Manchester; image source: John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester

Turner notes the similarities and differences as follows:

“Comparison of the Rylands fragment with [P.Berol. inv. 11532] shows the same exaggerated narrowness and tallness of letters like ο, θ, σ (while η, ν, and τ are allowed to remain fairly broad), a compression probably governed by the desire to keep all the letters within the limits of two generously spaced parallel lines and at the same time to make them fill the vertical distance between these lines. Again, in both examples, the pen has been allowed to rest for a moment at the instant of contact, forming oblique series or circlets in the Rylands text, hooks in that in Berlin. Two letters in the Rylands exercise have a form closer to that of bookhand than their counterparts in the Berlin order: α (which unlike the Berlin α remains firmly planted on the lower line and does not float to the surface of the upper line) has no loop or cross-bar and is strikingly like a contemporary Roman a; ε, if less elongated, could be paralleled from many an example of the so-called ‘severe’ style…”

Turner draws several lessons from this piece (his full article can be viewed online here), but I will emphasize just one: “The fact that a budding chancery scribe should practise by copying a line of Demosthenes seems to confirm that principle of the absence in the ancient world of a sharp division between bookhands and documentary hands.”

This quotation in turn reminds me of another writing exercise that I’ve mentioned here before, P.Oxy. 31.2604, a badly damaged papyrus fragment. Here is how its editors described it:

“On the recto, a document, almost wholly effaced; the few remaining traces are of writing in a practised upright official hand of the third century A.D., written with a very fine pen….It is probably the same scribe who has written on the verso (again with a fine pen) a hexameter line three times; the first in cramped, tall, upright letters of ‘chancery’ type; the second time in similar writing, but a little larger; and finally in large uncial letters, decorated with serifs; the Θ is of an archaic shape, with a central dot instead of a cross-bar.”

Pieces like these writing exercises serve as useful reminders that many ancient copyists were capable of writing in different styles, and many may have been proficient in copying different kinds of texts that included both documents and literary works.

Posted in Palaeography, Rylands Papyri | Leave a comment

Parchment Book Covers for Papyrus Rolls

In a series of earlier posts, I examined some of the vocabulary used to describe papyrus rolls, especially those deluxe literary rolls described by Latin poets. One additional feature of these rolls that is sometimes mentioned is a parchment cover. For example,

Tibullus [Lygdamus], Elegiae 3.1.9:

lutea sed niveum involvat membrana libellum

"But let yellow parchment wrap the snowy white roll"

What seems to be envisioned here is a protokollon (the first sheet in the roll) made of parchment that would serve as a cover by wrapping (involvere) the closed roll. I am not aware of surviving examples of this phenomenon for literary texts (I’m happy to be corrected in the comments if anyone knows of examples). But there appears to be a very nicely preserved example of this in the form of an official document of the prefect of Egypt, Subatianus Aquila copied in 209 CE, P.Berol. inv. 11532:

P.Berol. inv. 11532; image source: Berliner Papyrusdatenbank

This document is quite short (it is fully preserved), which would explain the relatively small size of the parchment cover; the rolled up document would not produce a very thick cylinder. A longer literary roll would presumably have a correspondingly larger parchment cover.

The writing on the papyrus is inscribed along the horizontal fibers, but at the point at which the parchment is joined to the papyrus, a large proportion of the vertical fibers appear to be missing. It appears that they were missing when the parchment was originally attached to the papyrus (it would be hard to explain their loss otherwise, since the horizontal fibers would presumably have “protected” the vertical fibers beneath them). This seems curious to me:

Detail of P.Berol. inv. 11532; image source: Berliner Papyrusdatenbank

This papyrus was published in 1910, and it is actually quite famous because of its striking handwriting–a neat upright chancery hand, sometimes called (with this papyrus as the paradigmatic example) the script of Subatianus Aquila. The papyrus is therefore reproduced with some frequency in handbooks, but the parchment strip is usually (or always?) cropped out. So, this interesting feature can go unnoticed.

It’s always nice to see an uncropped image (or better yet, the object itself!).

Posted in Book covers, Palaeography, Voluminology | 3 Comments

The Faddan More Psalter

One of the most interesting manuscripts to come to light in recent years is the Faddan More Psalter, a parchment codex in a leather cover that contained the Psalms in Latin. It was discovered by a worker harvesting peat for fuel from a bog in central Ireland in 2006. The acidic environment of bogs, famous for preserving human bodies, also preserved parts of this codex in a remarkable way. I first crossed paths with this book several years ago during a visit to the archaeological branch of the National Museum of Ireland. I was just able to see it again this past weekend. It is a truly remarkable survival.

The codex did not look so great when it was first brought to the museum for conservation:

The Faddan More Psalter before conservation; image source: Anthony Read, The Faddan More Psalter: Discovery, Conservation, and Investigation (National Museum of Ireland, 2011), p. 25.

The leaves of the book are heavily damaged, and given the state of the codex when it was found, it’s incredible to see what the conservators were able to recover. Some footage of the conservation process can be seen in this video. A fuller discussion is available in a very nicely illustrated book (from which much of my discussion is drawn): Anthony Read, The Faddan More Psalter: Discovery, Conservation, and Investigation (National Museum of Ireland, 2011).

The book probably dates to the late eighth century (on the basis of combined palaeographic and radiocarbon evidence). It consisted of 30 bifolia arranged in five quires (presumably five three-sheet quires, although I have not found this information specified anywhere). The pages are relatively large (26 cm wide and 30 cm high). Only about 15% of the overall surface area of the leaves survive, but the structural elements can be reconstructed with some confidence. A segment of binding thread survives, as well as the leather cover inside which the parchment leaves were found. Subsequent excavation of the bog at the find site suggests that the book was deposited in the bog not long after it was produced.

There are some fascinating quirks of preservation. Metallic inks can damage or destroy the parchment over time. But under the conditions of the bog, the ink of the Faddan More Psalter sometimes preserved the parchment, such that only the isolated letters survive while the surrounding uninscribed parchment has disintegrated. This is the case in some of the lettering of the decorative opening line of Psalm 51, Quid g[loriatur]:

Surviving portion of the opening line of Psalm 51 in the Faddan More Psalter; image source: Anthony Read, The Faddan More Psalter: Discovery, Conservation, and Investigation (National Museum of Ireland, 2011), p. 67.

For a sense of how the book looked in its prime, the museum provides a very nice reconstruction of the book, opened to the beginning of Psalm 51.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is faddan-more-reconstruction.jpg
Reconstruction of the Faddan More Psalter in the National Museum of Ireland; image source: Brent Nongbri, 2021

The leather cover of the codex survived in relatively intact (after some diligent conservation work). It is a fairly simple construction–a rectangular length of leather (58 cm long and 33 cm high) folded around the codex and latched with three buttons. The cover is now on display wrapped around a filler block:

Leather cover of the Faddan More Psalter in the National Museum of Ireland; image source: Brent Nongbri, 2021

There are several puzzles connected to this cover. According to the experts who have examined the codex, the cover does not properly fit the surviving parchment leaves, in terms of both the dimensions of the leaves and the thickness of the quires. The cover would have first leaves with a width of about 22.5 cm and a height of about 33 cm. It also appears that the cover simply acted as a folder to protect the leaves, as the quires seem not to have been attached to it.

The exterior of the cover is incised all over with various decorative patterns executed with varying levels of skill.

A good deal of black pigment was found on the exterior of the cover. When analyzed, the pigment was found to be lamp black, but it also contained traces of gold leaf. The presence of gold leaf is a mystery, as gold leaf seems to not to have been used in Ireland in this period.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the cover was the discovery that it was lined with papyrus. These last two facts (the presence of gold leaf in the pigment on the cover and the presence of papyrus lining) have led researchers to conclude that the cover is an import. But, as the researchers also point out, the three-button cover is a type that appears to be illustrated in contemporary Irish manuscript illuminations:

Illumination from the Macdurnan Gospels (Lambeth Palace Library, MS 1370, f.115v); image source: Lambeth Palace Library

So, the cover raises a number of questions: Was it produced in Ireland, or was it imported from elsewhere? If it was imported from elsewhere, is that also the case for other similar covers, such as those depicted in the contemporary illuminations?

A cursory search did not turn up too much academic bibliography on the Faddan More Psalter. If anyone has suggested reading, please add it to the comments.

Posted in Archaeological context, Book binding, Book covers, Codices, Codicology, Faddan More Psalter | 13 Comments

Update: Hobby Lobby vs. Dirk Obbink

An anonymous commenter links to the resource below, which appears to show some developments in the civil case against Professor Obbink. I have not accessed the documents in the linked here, as they are behind a paywall:

Screen capture from
Posted in Dirk Obbink, Green Collection | 4 Comments

New Site for Posts on Codices and Codicology

Back in the summer, I mentioned that I would be starting a new research project this autumn, The Early History of the Codex: A New Methodology and Ethics for Manuscript Studies (EthiCodex). For the last few weeks, I’ve been in the process of getting the project up and running.

So, my writing about topics related to codicology will mostly take place on the project website. In the last couple days, I’ve posted there about the publication of an important new work (or perhaps I should say an important old work that is now finally available) on early bookbinding, Theodore Petersen’s Coptic Bookbindings.

Another post deals the question of “When is a Codex Not a Codex?” I take a look at an example of what we might call “ambiguous cases,” when a manuscript is classified as a codex even when there are characteristics of the manuscript that seem to resist that classification. Being aware of these ambiguities is important when we talk about numbers of surviving codices, especially in the very earliest period of the development of the technology of the codex.

For those interested in early codices, I encourage you to follow the EthiCodex blog or subscribe via the WordPress or email options at the bottom of those posts.

Posted in Codices, Codicology | Leave a comment

The Next Book

I’m excited to say that my colleague Liv Ingeborg Lied and I recently signed a contract with Yale University Press to co-author a book tentatively titled Working with Manuscripts: A Guide.

The goal of the book is to demystify manuscript studies by providing a step-by-step guide to the ethical and practical challenges associated with the study of premodern manuscripts.

Both of us benefitted from what might be described as a philological education. We learned languages, and we were trained in the traditional rules of exegeting ancient texts. Along the way, however, we both became increasingly interested in the physical manuscripts that carried these texts.

As our research carried us more deeply into the arena of manuscript studies–in my case mostly Greek manuscripts and in Liv Ingeborg’s case mostly Syriac manuscripts–we gained an awareness that studying actual manuscripts really did offer great rewards, but it also posed numerous unexpected challenges–from ethical questions about manuscript provenance to practical questions about accessing manuscripts and learning the unspoken rules of manuscript reading rooms. While our training prepared us to handle some of these obstacles, in many cases we had to learn new skills and seek out expert guidance.

It would have been ideal if there had been a “one-stop” book that could have helped us navigate these mazes, and this is the book we are writing. Working with Manuscripts will cover the whole research process, from considerations of provenance, ethics, and access to the practicalities of on-site research, analysis, and publication. We want to encourage students and scholars to work with manuscripts and at the same time help them to be aware of the necessary skills, customary processes, legal guidelines, and ethical issues that the study of manuscripts entails.

We hope Working with Manuscripts will be a useful resource and would be happy to have input about what issues readers might want to see raised in the book.

P.Bodmer 16; image source: Bodmer Lab
Posted in Working with Manuscripts | 5 Comments