Provenance and The Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Over at rougeclassicism there are a few questions posed about the provenance of the recently publicized identification of a Greek papyrus as The First Apocalypse of James. The papyrus is to be published in an upcoming volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series. Candida Moss has written up a nice summary of the background of this piece and its significance that corrects some mistaken news reports that have been circulating in recent weeks. Since a chapter in my forthcoming book is dedicated to the Christian literary papyri from Oxyrhynchus, I’ve had to work through some of the interesting issues surrounding this collection of material. It’s a little more complicated than is generally recognized. As most scholars know, the name “Oxyrhynchus papyri” refers to papyrus and parchment manuscripts from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. The vast majority of these pieces were excavated between the years 1896 and 1907 by teams supervised by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, acting under the aegis of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society). Further papyri from Oxyrhynchus were excavated by Flinders Petrie in 1922 and Italian archaeologists in 1910-1913 and 1927-1934.

The material excavated by Grenfell and Hunt, as is widely known, is regularly published in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series. What is less well known is that not everything that is published in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series was actually excavated by Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus. So, for example, in the preface to Volume XV of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri published in 1922, the editor (Hunt) writes as follows:

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So, some of the pieces published in Volume XV were bought rather than excavated. Hunt identifies only two of the purchased pieces, 1786 and 1793. Some of the other purchased pieces in Volume XV can be determined through various other records and deductions, but it would have been nice if Hunt was clearer about which pieces came from the antiquities market. In this instance, Grenfell bought the pieces on site, so it is generally presumed that the pieces were found at Oxyrhynchus. This seems to be a safe assumption for P.Oxy. XV 1786, a Christian hymn with musical notation that carries on its flip side an account that mentions Oxyrhynchite villages (which suggests an Oxyrhynchite provenance for the papyrus). But we have to acknowledge at least the possibility that some of the purchased pieces may have come from elsewhere. A more recent publication puts the problem in sharper relief. In Volume LXXIV of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, published in 2009, several well preserved leaves of a papyrus codex containing the book of Acts and carrying the inventory number 89B/1-4 were published as P.Oxy. LXXIV 4968. The editors, however, made the following note about the provenance of the fragments:

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So it seems that some of the material in the “Oxyrhynchus” boxes does have other origins. Given the fact these leaves of Acts are in considerably better condition than is typical of most of the published codices from Oxyrhynchus, I tend to think that these pieces probably do in fact come from somewhere other than Oxyrhynchus.

So what about the newly identified papyrus of The First Apocalypse of James? Well, we’re told that the fragments have inventory numbers and are associated with Grenfell and Hunt’s 1904-1905 season. That is pretty clear evidence that these are excavation papyri and not purchases. But why are they said to have been discovered among a group of unidentified papyri in Dirk Obbink’s personal office rather than in the Sackler Library with the other Oxyrhynchus papyri? This seems to be a holdover from the early days of the collection when individual Oxford scholars simply kept the papyri at their homes or offices. Hunt was the first overseer of the papyri, and after he died in 1934,

Edgar Lobel, also in The Queen’s College, first took over the care of the collection, storing the hundred choicest boxes in his far-from-fireproof college room over the war years, and adding to them twenty even choicer boxes that he retrieved from Hunt’s private house in north Oxford (Revel Coles, Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts [Egypt Exploration Society, 2007], p. 7).

Thus, there does seem to be precedent at Oxford for treating artifacts entrusted to their care in this manner. So, I don’t think there is any good reason to doubt that this copy of The First Apocalypse of James was excavated from Oxyrhynchus. However, whether Oxford is engaged in “best practices” with this kind of treatment of the Egypt Exploration Society’s papyri is another question altogether.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Find Stories, Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

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