Palaeographic Methodology

Peter Malik on the ETC blog has initiated a useful discussion of palaeographic method that invokes a bit of my own work. In general, he writes in favor of coming to terms with the fact that the analysis of handwriting of early Christian manuscripts cannot provide the very precise dates that we might like to have for these manuscripts. I am definitely on board with that contention. In the course of his post and in the comments, he notes his disagreement with a couple of my arguments, and I’d like to push him for some clarity on those critiques.

Pope and P75

Pope Benedict with P.Bodmer XIV-XV in 2007; image source: Pave the Way Foundation

For now, I’ll stick with one specific example that Pete cites, P.Bodmer XIV-XV (a.k.a P75, a.k.a. Hanna Papyrus 1). In an article that appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature a couple years ago, I argued that the date originally assigned to the papyrus (“175-225 CE”) rested on surprisingly little evidence—comparisons with a handful of manuscripts that had themselves been dated only by palaeography (and which are thus of no real use in assigning dates to other undated manuscripts) and two documents, one probably of the late first century and one from the middle of the second century. In the article I provided images of these documents and argued that the writing they display is not very similar to that of P.Bodmer XIV-XV. Readers may judge that evidence for themselves.

I noted that some contemporary palaeographers ascribe the writing of P.Bodmer XIV-XV to the so-called “severe style,” and I questioned whether this was the best description of the writing. So, according to the contemporary rules of the game (what Pete calls “classic palaeographic method”), what I did essentially was to suggest a change in the assignment of the “style” of P.Bodmer XIV-XV and a corresponding chronological shift in the range of possible palaeographic dates one might assign to the manuscript (part of what I want to do more broadly is challenge this whole framework, but within the confines of that particular essay, I was basically playing by those rules). Here is what I wrote:

The type of writing displayed in P75 is classified by some paleographers as belonging to the “severe style,” a type of writing that seems to have emerged in Egypt in the second century and flourished in the third century. When one compares P75 to datable examples of the “severe style,” some similar qualities are apparent, but the overall appearance of P75 aligns more closely with examples of what some paleographers call the “inclined or sloping ogival majuscule,” which seems to have arisen in the fourth century. Turner’s somewhat looser classification, the “formal mixed” style, encompasses both of these types, and it is probably best not to be too dogmatic about rigidly assigning samples of writing to particular named styles, as such styles are generally modern conventions and not ancient classifications. The important point is that the type of writing that characterizes P75 persisted well beyond the 175–225 CE window usually proposed for P75.

I went on to present fairly detailed comparisons of P75 with two relatively datable examples of the “severe style” (P.Oxy. 7.1012, datable to the period after 204 CE and P.Oxy. 7.1016, datable to the period after 234 CE) and a couple samples of the “sloping ogival majuscule” more precisely datable to the 320s, P.Herm. 4 and 5 (letters from a known archive). Again, there are pictures of all these manuscripts in the article so readers can judge the similarities and differences for themselves. Here is what I concluded:

I would maintain that P.Herm. 4 and 5 constitute the closest securely dated paleographic match thus far proposed for P75. This close similarity does not, however, mean that P75 must also be dated in the fourth century. Rather than definitively ruling out an early-third-century date for P75, the paleographic proximity of P75 and P.Herm. 4 and 5 indicates that the first half of the fourth century should certainly be regarded as a possible date for the copying of P75. To attempt to establish a more precise date, we must consider factors aside from paleography.  

So, the palaeographic portion of my argument calls for an extension of the range of possible dates to include dates in the fourth century (I make other non-palaeographic arguments for a more precise date in the fourth century). From Pete’s posting, I’m left with a couple questions: First, Pete describes some of these manuscripts that I bring into the discussion as “graphically inappropriate” for comparison with P.Bodmer XIV-XV. I’ve seen this word (“inappropriate”) used in palaeographic discussions before, and I have to admit, I have no idea what it means. It seems very vague. I wonder if Pete or someone else would be willing to elaborate.

Second, Pete states his preference for a date for P.Bodmer XIV-XV as “200-300, but probably not much later.” I wonder what is the basis for this preference. Are there particular dated comparanda in mind? Or is it reliance on a more abstract “development”-“perfection”-“decline” model into which the writing of P.Bodmer XIV-XV can possibly be placed?

As I hint in that second quotation, I’m very suspicious about the assumption that graphic similarity between samples of writing necessarily equates to close temporal similarity, and I’m even more suspicious of “development-decline” models, but in the context of this discussion, what I’m really curious about is the meaning of “inappropriate.”

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5 Responses to Palaeographic Methodology

  1. Peter Malik says:

    Hi Brent, thanks so much for interacting with my brief blogpost here. I’m honoured! I responded to your ETC blog comment where you’re asking a similar question. I do agree that terms like ‘graphic background’ or ‘graphic typology’ or ‘graphically inappropriate’ are vague—especially when used by someone who can hardly speak English, like myself! 🙂 At any rate, we do have to use some conceptual terminology when we’re analysing and synthesising the data. Some palaeographers have preferred to emphasis ‘typology’ of scripts, while others have found it less than helpful. To reply to your specific queries concerning P66 and P75, let me just copy-paste what I wrote in the aforementioned ETC blog comment:

    ‘For starters, I don’t think P.Bodmer XX is a parallel hand to P.Bodmer II. Whereas the former is a more ‘angular’ script influenced by the biblical majuscule (admittedly, there’s a mixture of elements), the latter is a clear example of the round chancery-like ‘Alexandrian stylistic’ class. I agree that the second-century dating for P.Bodmer II is unconvincing, but I have yet to see a fitting fourth-century comparandum. That’d be one example. Another is P.Herm. 4&5 adduced in discussing the date of P.Bodmer XIV–XV. As to P.Hermas 4&5, the hand is (in my view and, if my memory doesn’t fail me, before by Cavallo and Orsini, among others) not reflective of ‘severe style’ but rather an early specimen of the sloping ogival majuscule. Looking at a handful of test-letters won’t do; it’s the script as a whole that seems different (starts to include slight roundels at the end of certain strokes, is more compressed [the contrast b/w broad and narrow letters is much less pronounced], etc.). Of course, on the Italian narrative the script attested in P.Hermas 4&5 developed from that used in P.Bodmer XIV-XV, so they are related. By the way, a comparable hand to that of P.Hermas 4&5 is in P.Oxy. VIII 1080 (LDAB 2793). Thanks again for interaction, Brent, and I hope your take-away from the above is that I do appreciate your emphasis on caution in the thorny business of palaeographical dating. I am more optimistic, perhaps, provided that we use the right materials and method and in the absence of the former rather withhold judgement, let alone too strong an opinion.’

  2. Peter Malik says:

    P.S. As with P66, I do agree that the late second-century date for P75 is in all likelihood untenable. But I’d be hesitant to go beyond this.

    • Peter Malik says:

      P.P.S. Do you think it’d be helpful if I posted a revised version of this response in a proper blog post or will this suffice?

      • Thanks for this, Pete. I think I get your point. I still disagree, but I can see the issues with greater clarity thanks to your examples. I think the two cases that you cite are a little different, and it might be useful to tease those differences out a bit. I’ll write a short post later this evening.

  3. Pingback: Palaeographic Vocabulary: (In)appropriate | Variant Readings

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