Menander at a Monastery

Even though I have a long chapter on the Bodmer Papyri in my book, there is still much that I didn’t get a chance to discuss in detail. Because of its time on the antiquities market, the ancient find we call the Bodmer Papyri has unclear borders. While there is disagreement about the exact contents of the find, one of the pieces that everyone agrees was a part of the ancient collection is a papyrus codex containing three works of comic playwright Menander (LDAB 2743). What is it doing there among all these Christian books?

Bodmer Menander Codex

P.Bodmer IV, part of the Bodmer Menander codex; image source: Charles Méla, Légendes des siècles (Éditions Cercle d’Art, 2004), p. 10

In terms of format and construction (single-quire papyrus codex with height about twice its breadth), the Menander codex looks a lot like some of the other Bodmer books (such P.Bodmer XIV-XV, a single-quire papyrus codex of the Gospels according to Luke and John in Greek, LDAB 2895). There are also other excerpts of “classical” literature among the codices generally agreed to be a part of the Bodmer Papyri–a portion of book VI of Thucydides in a codex with parts of the biblical books of Susanna and Daniel (LDAB 4120), as well as extracts of Cicero and Latin hexameters on Alcestis in the Barcelona-Montserrat codex (LDAB 552), which also contains a hymn to Mary. But the codex containing three full plays of Menander and nothing else has puzzled scholars. For those who have maintained that the Bodmer Papyri are the remains of a Pachomian monastic library (most notably James M. Robinson, 2011), the presence of the Menander codex has often proven difficult to explain. Following the editors of the codex, Robinson argued that the Menander codex was simply a relic, not something produced or read in the monastic community that he imagined owned the ancient library. For other scholars, most recently Jean-Luc Fournet (2015), the presence of the Menander codex in the collection is enough to render it unlikely that the collection had monastic origins at all.


Ostracon from the Monastery of Epiphanius with sentences extracted from the works of Menander (P.Mon. Epiph. 615); image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund 1914, 14.1.210

It is perhaps worth noting in connection with all this that there is in fact an example of some text of Menander that has emerged from a securely monastic context, namely the excavations of the Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes. Among the many ceramic and limestone ostraca excavated from the monastery and its environs in 1912-1914 is P.Mon. Epiph. 615, (LDAB 2454),  a piece that contains sentences extracted from the comedies of Menander. They are arranged in (roughly) alphabetical order by the first letter of the first word of the sentence.

The archaeological context of the find gives us a date in the late sixth or early seventh century. And the assemblage of which it seems to have been a part, a group of ostraca containing mostly Psalms, prayers, and hymns found in a monastic cell, makes it clear that the Menander ostracon belongs to a monastic setting (Winlock and Crum 1926, p. 42). Thus, even at this relatively late date, and even in this most decidedly Christian context, Menander could still be a part of monastic life, either as a part of basic education, scribal training, or in some other capacity. So, it seems that the Bodmer Menander codex (assigned on the basis of its handwriting to the third century by Kasser and to the fourth century by Turner) might not be so out of place in a monastic setting as is often thought.


Fournet, Jean-Luc. “Anatomie d’une bibliothèque de l’Antiquité tardive,” Adamantius 21 (2015), 8-40.

Robinson, James M. The Story of the Bodmer Papyri: From the First Monastery’s Library in Upper Egypt to Geneva and Dublin. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011.

Winlock, H. E. and W. E. Crum. The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, Part I. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1926.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Bodmer Papyri, Monastery of Epiphanius, Ostraca. Bookmark the permalink.

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