The Oxyrhynchus Papyri of Dubious Provenance and Editorial Choice

P.Oxy. 83.5345, the newly published papyrus fragment of the Gospel According to Mark, has the inventory number 104/14b, which is part of a clear sequence of such numbers among the Oxyrhynchus papyri; so there is no good reason to doubt that the new Mark fragment was excavated from Oxyrhynchus. But The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus series has published some items that either were not excavated by Grenfell and Hunt or are of uncertain provenance. As far as I know, there are not very many such pieces. In a previous post, I mentioned a few of them (P.Oxy. 15.1786, P.Oxy. 15.1793, and P.Oxy. 74.4968). I haven’t made an exhaustive search, but the only other pieces of this kind that I’m aware of are P.Oxy. 75.5023 and P.Oxy. 75.5024, the provenance of which the editor described in the following way:

Oxy Parchments Provenance

Editor’s description of provenance of P.Oxy. 75.5023 and P.Oxy. 75.5024

POxy 75 5023

P.Oxy. 75.5023; image source: POxy Oxyrhynchus Online

So, these pieces are very clearly flagged as possibly not being of Oxyrhynchite origin. And indeed, when you look at these long parchment strips written in a very distinctive hand, they really don’t fit very well, at least from a physical point of view, with the other Christian material from Oxyrhynchus (at least the portion of it that has so far been published—more on this caveat below).

As long as the editors properly identify such pieces as having a questionable connection to the Oxyrhynchus excavations, careful scholars will be able to consider them with appropriate circumspection. But the publication of such pieces raises questions. With the wealth of papyri at Oxford that are definitely from Oxyrhynchus and awaiting publication (literally tens of thousands of pieces), why choose to publish items of dubious provenance in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series? It’s puzzling.

Consider the case of P.Oxy. 74.4968, the papyrus fragments of a codex of Acts (P127) I mentioned in my earlier post. Here is the header.

POxy 74 4968 Acts HeaderSo, it’s from Box 89B/1-4 and its provenance is “subject to doubt.” Here is the header for a set of papyri published by Martin West in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik in 1999:


ZPE header 2

So, here are fragments from box 89B/29-33 whose “provenance is not recorded but is assumed to be somewhere in the Fayûm.” Thus we have two sets of fragments from (what appears to be?) the same box, both with dubious provenance. One set is published in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, but the other is published in ZPE and attributed to the Fayum. One can imagine a number of reasons the ZPE fragments were not published in the P.Oxy. series: Aside from the batch of fragments published in the “Description” section of Volume 4 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, there are very few Ptolemaic papyri among the (published) Oxyrhynchus material. That the ZPE fragments are said to come from cartonnage would also make them somewhat irregular with regard to the profile of (published) Oxyrhynchus papyri. But that’s really the rub: It’s hard for scholars to make a good call on how we should regard questionable pieces because we don’t know the overall profile of what was excavated.

As Roger Bagnall has pointed out, the lack of a publicly available inventory of unpublished Oxyrhynchus material can hinder historians’ efforts to use Oxyrhynchus papyri in a responsible way. In the course of discussing the ratio of public and private documents from Oxyrhynchus, Bagnall raises the issue of editorial choice in publication:

“The dominance of finds from public offices surely cannot be taken as evidence that private transactions of all sorts diminished in fourth-century Oxyrhynchos, or that they were relatively few in either century. The decline in the number of land leases visible in the fourth century is probably to be seen as an artifact of excavation and perhaps of editorial choice, something it is impossible to tell in the absence of a publicly available inventory of the Oxyrhynchos collection” (Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East, p. 70)

I ran into a similarly frustrating problem when I was working on the chapter in my book on early Christian literary manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus. It is completely unclear what proportion of the Christian material that was excavated by Grenfell and Hunt has been published to date because there is no publicly available inventory of the unpublished pieces. Does such an inventory exist? All indications suggest that it does to some extent. After all, the recent statement from the Egyptian Exploration Society included the observation that “No other unpublished fragments of New Testament texts in the EES collection have been identified as earlier than the third century AD.” It would be really helpful to know what the pieces are, or at least how many of them there are.

But, to bring it back to my original point: If there are such unpublished pieces, the majority of which probably have certain Oxyrhynchite provenance, why are editors choosing to publish pieces of dubious provenance in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series? I’m genuinely curious.

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