P.Oxy. 31.2604: Writing Exercises and Palaeography

Elijah Hixson has drawn attention this morning to a new volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series that is set to appear. Elijah focuses on a potentially interesting new copy of the Gospel According to Mark, but I must admit that the item that really caught my eye in the description of the new volume was this one:

“There is also a glimpse of the anonymous copyists to whom we owe our texts, practising the various graphic styles from which their customers could choose.”

I wonder if this is another piece similar to P.Oxy. 31.2604, an example of a copyist writing the same hexameter line in different styles of writing that we generally associate with different periods of time:

POxy 31 2604 small

A portion of P.Oxy. 31.2604, a writing exercise; image source: P.Oxy Oxyrhynchus Online

ⲃⲱⲙⲟⲛ ⲟ ⲅ’ⲏⲯⲉ ⲑⲉⲟⲓⲥ ⲍⲁⲙⲉⲛⲏⲥ ⲇⲉ ⲡⲩⲣⲟⲥ ⲕⲉⲭⲩⲧⲟ ⲫⲗⲟⲝ

“He fired an altar to the gods, and a powerful flame of fire poured out.”

As the editor of the piece notes, the hexameter line is a Greek equivalent of the English phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” a sentence that contains all the letters in the alphabet.  So this hexameter line is ideal for a display of writing skills.

In the first two lines, the hexameter is written in different sizes of a “chancery” hand that is generally associated with the third century CE, while the final line is written in larger majuscule capitals usually associated with the first or early second century CE. So much of palaeographic dating is based on the assumption that graphic difference is always indicative of temporal difference. Examples like this that demonstrate that such an assumption isn’t always safe. I will be curious to see the new Oxyrhynchus exercise.

And while I’m on the topic of the problematic nature of palaeographic dating, I’ll also point out that Christian Askeland has just uploaded an important new chapter on the dating of Coptic literary manuscripts. It is available at his academia.edu site here.

This entry was posted in Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Palaeography. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to P.Oxy. 31.2604: Writing Exercises and Palaeography

  1. Josaphat Tam says:

    This is awesome. I have similar questions in my mind on such palaeographic dating. Given the writing style is merely a choice of the scribes such that pursuance to palaeography isn’t safe, would the dating system of NT papyri be overturned? Moreover, in this case, how do we ascertain that P.Oxy.XXXI 2604 is dated third century?

    • “Overturned” seems a little strong, but it should definitely make us cautious and highly suspicious of narrow datings based only on palaeography. As for the dating of P.Oxy. XXXI 2604 itself: It was copied on the back of a document. Of the writing on the front (→), the editor says that “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.”

  2. Robert says:

    Wow. This is so cool. Thanks.

  3. Steven Avery says:

    “it should definitely make us cautious and highly suspicious of narrow datings based only on palaeography.”

    Not to quibble, but don’t you mean “based only on the script”? Or the “palaeographiclal analysis of the script.” ? My understanding is that palaeograhpy as a science (albeit one with circularity pitfalls) incorporates many inputs, including the external factors such as the possibility of the dated chariot receipt on the same papyrus or parchment 🙂

    This is especially important as any script can be maintained a long time, and also can be deliberately copied, for spiritual, calligraphic, play or nefarious reasons. And this maintenance of scripts has been especially common in Bible text copying.

    While the terminus post quem can be tight, since no script can be predicted, the terminus ante qutem is often given as far too rigid and tight. As the learned Brent Nongbri has pointed out in paper after paper 🙂 .

    So, I suggest that it is important that palaegraphy not just be used as a synonym for script dating analysis.

    And great posts on the fragment!

    Steven Avery
    Dutchess County, NY, USA

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