Someone has done a real number on the Wikipedia page for 7Q5. [[Update 20 March 2022: I see that a good citizen has cleaned up some of the Wikipedia page. The version I cited is here. Let’s hope the page keeps improving.]] Some older versions of the page were both more informative and much less cluttered. Now it is a mess. So it goes with Wikipedia.
For those who might not know this manuscript, it was one of several small fragments of papyrus found when archaeologists excavated Cave 7Q at Qumran. The profile of the manuscripts from this cave was a bit different from that of the other caves near Qumran. The Cave 7 manuscripts were all papyrus (as opposed to animal skin) and all in Greek (as opposed to Hebrew or Aramaic). Maurice Baillet (1923-1998) published the 7Q texts in 1962. He was able to identify two texts (7Q1=Exodus, 7Q2=Letter of Jeremiah). Unfortunately, many of the fragments contain just a few letters and could not be identified with known texts with any degree of confidence. Among these was 7Q5, a small fragment that Baillet published with the assistance of Marie-Émile Boismard (1916-2004). Here is the plate published in DJD alongside the editors’ transcription:
Beginning in 1972, José O’Callaghan (1922-2001) tried to identify several of the 7Q scraps as New Testament texts. Because the material in the caves near Qumran is generally thought to have been deposited before or during the war against Rome in the 60s CE, any manuscripts found there could in theory be assigned on objective grounds to a period before the war. Hence, O’Callaghan was claiming to have identified the earliest surviving Christian manuscripts, allegedly copied within thirty years of the death of Jesus. O’Callaghan’s claims thus attracted a great deal of attention. Most specialists were not persuaded by O’Callaghan’s arguments, and some of his proposed identifications have been conclusively refuted (for instance, 7Q4 and 7Q8, which O’Callaghan identified as parts of 1 Timothy and James, are now widely regarded as both being part of a roll that contained 1 Enoch). But the identification that has received the most attention was O’Callaghan’s claim that 7Q5 was a fragment containing the remains of Mark 6:52-53. O’Callaghan’s diplomatic transcription is below at left, and his transcription with reconstruction is at right.
This proposed identification provoked a strong reaction. The vast majority of qualified scholars emphatically rejected O’Callaghan’s arguments for several reasons. O’Callaghan’s reconstruction
- depended upon highly suspect readings of several letters (such as the proposed nu in the second line, omitted in O’Callaghan’s diplomatic transcription but present in his contextual transcription).
- required the existence of an otherwise unattested textual variant (the absence of the words επι την γην in Mark 6:53).
- necessitated that one of the nine undisputed letters on the papyrus must be a scribal error (tau for delta in line 3).
After a flurry of articles in the 1970s demonstrating the problems with O’Callaghan’s thesis, the guild moved on. But the idea was resurrected by Carsten Peter Thiede (1952-2004) in the late 1980s and 1990s. Thiede made his case mostly through a sensationalist media campaign. This effort again elicited an overwhelmingly negative response from scholars, but, as the current version of the Wikipedia page indicates, the theory refuses to die in some circles, despite its documented weakness.
Over the years, much of the discussion about the papyrus has revolved around the identity of the letters after the omega in line 2. O’Callaghan read a nu while the original editors read an iota-space-alpha. If the nu is not present, then O’Callaghan’s already shaky identification loses any plausibility. In the years after O’Callaghan’s proposal, better images of the fragment were made available (such as the one below), and the original editors’ reading of an iota after the omega has been accepted by nearly all specialists. But the palaeographic argument–to the extent that there even is a meaningful argument–is not what got my attention in this story.
In a short pamphlet published in 1989, Stuart Pickering and Rosalie Cook of Macquarie University pointed out something that I had not noticed before: Much (or all?) of the hoopla surrounding this fragment was based on O’Callaghan’s misreading of a printed text. It’s kind of amazing. The whole debacle of this proposed identification seems to have resulted from O’Callaghan’s inability to properly equate a photographic plate with a printed transcription. Let me unpack this a little. Here is what O’Callaghan wrote back in his 1972 article criticizing the original edition of the papyrus:
“After the ⲱ, the ⲁ suggested by the editors seems inadmissible. The traces of the facsimile are too uncertain to allow a satisfactory reading, even though one comes to discover the left vertical stroke and the peculiar descending contour of a ⲛ similar to that of line 4. However, I am not quite able to explain the movement of this inner stroke, which rises too much in its last phase. For all these reasons, in the new transcription, I prefer to limit myself to putting a dot instead of a letter.” (“Detrás de la ⲱ la ⲁ sugerida por los editores parece inadmisible. Los trazos del facsímil son demasiado inciertos para permitir una lectura satisfactoria, a pesar de que se llega a descubrir el palo vertical izquierdo y el peculiar contorneo descendente de una ⲛ semejante al de la línea 4. Sin embargo, no me acabo de explicar el repliegue de este trazo interior que en su última fase sube demasiado. Por todo ello, en la nueva transcripción prefiero limitarme a poner un punto en vez de una letra.”)
O’Callaghan seems to have mistakenly thought that in the view of Baillet and Boismard, an alpha followed immediately after the omega in line 2. So, it’s not the case that O’Callaghan judged the editors’ omega–iota-space-alpha sequence to be a bad reading in need of improvement. Rather, he appears to have failed to understand that Baillet and Boismard rendered the script ⲱⲓ (omega–iota) by means of a printed ῳ employing the iota subscript. O’Callaghan took the printed ῳ to represent just one letter–ⲱ–and then believed the editors had misconstrued the following vertical line (“el palo vertical”) as part of an alpha. Amazing. So much ink spilled as a result of nothing more than a silly error.
But wait! There’s more! In the following issue of Biblica, Baillet, one of the original editors, weighed in and actually pointed out O’Callaghan’s mistake: “After the omega, the reading ⲛⲏ is absolutely impossible. There is first of all an iota, which is adscript in the document but subscript in the edition, and which J. O’Callaghan has completely ignored. The iota is certain, and it is absurd to see it as the left stroke of a nu.” (“Après l’oméga, la lecture ⲛⲏ est absolument impossible. Il y a d’abord un iota, qui est adscrit dans le document, mais souscrit dans l’édition, et que J. O’Callaghan a complètement négligé. Cet iota est sûr, et il est absurde d’y voir le jambage gauche d’un nu.”)
With this mistake pointed out already in 1972, the same year of O’Callaghan’s publication, the matter should have ended there. A quick retraction from O’Callaghan would have been appropriate. But O’Callaghan did not admit to his initial mistake. Instead, after his own visit to see the papyrus in person, O’Callaghan defended his readings, even this obvious error, in a series of subsequent publications (though in 1976, he allowed that some of his other 7Q identifications were open to question).
We all make mistakes, and if we’re lucky, the peer review system catches them before they go into print. It is disappointing that the journal editors and peer reviewers did not catch this particular error and save all of us a great deal of time and energy.
Baillet, Maurice. “Les manuscrits de la Grotte 7 de Qumrân et le Nouveau Testament.” Biblica 53.4 (1972), 508-516.
Baillet, Maurice, J.T. Milik, and R. de Vaux (eds.). Les ‘petit grottes’ de Qumrân, DJD 3.2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.
O’Callaghan, José. “The Identifications of 7Q.” Aegyptus 56.1 (1976), 287-294.
O’Callaghan, José. “¿Papiros neotestamentarios en la cueva 7 de Qumrān?” Biblica 53.1 (1972), 91-100.
Pickering Stuart R. and Rosalie R.E. Cook. Has a Fragment of the Gospel of Mark Been Found at Qumran? Sydney: Macquarie University Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1989.