The Strange “nu” Story of 7Q5

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.

7Q5; image source: Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library (photographer: Tsila Sagiv)

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’ omegaiota-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 (omegaiota) 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.

Sources mentioned:

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.

This entry was posted in 7Q5, Dead Sea Scrolls, José O'Callaghan. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Strange “nu” Story of 7Q5

  1. Greg Matthews says:

    If you click the link up at the top that says View History you can see each edit that has been made since the wiki entry was created. Over the past year extensive edits (a large deletion and a large addition) were made by user MalloryStev99, perhaps someone named Steve Mallory. You can see exactly what those edits were from the View History page. You can also see all the other pages this person has edited which may give a clue as to their agenda. You can change it back if you like. Such is the nature of Wikipedia and topics that are controversial to some.

  2. Roy D. Kotansky says:

    I remember in the 70s as an undergraduate that Robert H. Gundry, our esteemed teacher at Westmont College, had students over to his home, where we all examined projected slides of the fragment. O’Callaghan’s misidentification back then, even to us burgeoning scholars (at least some), seemed all but fatal. In fact, Bob went on to publish years later, in JBL 118 (1999), an article saying NU in line 2 simply cannot be read.

    I say now, after all these years, maybe “not so fast”. Yes, the variant readings required for the Marcan identification probably condemn the identification. The constellation of problems on the papyrus are too many to overcome. But as a palaeographer, NU alone cannot be ruled out in line 2. But the real problem is this: now with computer searches being an advanced tool of science and the available searches that can be done with the TLG database, the question remains: if not Mark (and a difficult argument at that), then what text is it? I don’t think anyone has been able to come up with one, single alternative, identification. The text must be a known literary text (not a documentary text) and one that should have been identified as such by now. I may be misinformed here, but to appeal to a literary text that is unknown or new to us, in this context of religious documents, would be as unexpected, as (to some) reading a NU (etc.) in the fragment to make it a text of Mark. I think then we will never solve the dilemma with so exiguous a fragment and thus this papyrus chit will forever remain a mystery.

    • Thanks for the comment, Roy. I respect your views on these kinds of questions, but I’m unpersuaded by your reasoning here. “The text must be a known literary text.” Really? Why? Taking into consideration all the previously unknown literary texts that came from other caves in the area, it seems to me totally natural that we might have some unknown texts from Cave 7. We have so many legible letters on, for instance, 7Q19, but I don’t think this text has yet been persuasively identified. My colleague Liv Ingeborg Lied has been working on a project called “Books Known Only By Title,” and, well, there are a lot of them from antiquity. Not all were real, existing texts, but many likely were, and these are only the ones for which we have information (that is, titles). I’m reasonably confident that there is a lot of literature (including Jewish literature) from antiquity that has been lost to us. With regard to decoding fragments: I’ll always take an accurate transcription of a text that cannot be identified over a demonstrably incorrect transcription that (sort of) matches a known text.

      • Roy D. Kotansky says:

        How many previously unknown Greek texts have been identified among the Dead Sea Scrolls?

      • That’s an interesting question. It’s well known that there wasn’t a lot of Greek material found in the caves in the vicinity of Qumran (the “Q” caves). But even just among the 20 or so distinct highly fragmentary manuscripts in Cave 7, I think 7Q19 qualifies pretty securely as a previously unknown text. Aside from Cave 7, as far as the “Qumran” caves go, I think there’s just six Greek texts from Cave 4, and one out of these six is a previously unknown text, 4Q127, a text related to Exodus but sufficiently different to not be considered a manuscript of Exodus. (This is exactly the kind of thing that I think we might have in the case of the reasonably extensive Cave 7 fragments that have so far resisted confident identification.)  So, I guess another way to put it would be as follows: From Cave 7: 3 known texts, 1 previously unknown text, several yet-to-be-identified fragments. From Cave 4 Greek texts: 4 known texts, 1 previously unknown text, several yet-to-be-identified fragments. In other words, a little over 20% of the Greek DSS are previously unknown texts (unless my memory and rough counts are off, which is certainly possible). If we cast the net wider to Wadi Murabba’at, we have the unknown text in iambic trimeters. I think I’m still content to say that, at present, 7Q5 is an unidentified text.

  3. Frank Rabinovitch says:

    It seems that there is a lot of ink missing between the first and second photos – the initial tau, the iota adscript, the alpha in kai, etc. Is it an artifact of shadows, or flaking, or what?

    • Thanks for the observations, Frank. I think the black and white images that have been published are taken with infrared light, so they’re showing ink traces that are not visible in a color photo.

  4. Matthew Hamilton says:

    Other possibilities that have been advanced over the years for 7Q5 – usually just to show that the fragment can with various levels of doubt be assigned elsewhere – include the following:
    Gen.46:20; Ex.36:10-11; Num.22:38, II Sam.4:12-5:1; II Sam.5:13-14; I Chron.8:36-37; Neh.5:19.; 6:1; Ezek.23:36; Zech.7:3-5; Zech.7:4-5; Mt.1:2; Mt:1:2-3; Marcian source; Mk.8:3-4; Lk.3:19-21; Heb.11:22-23; I Peter 3:12-14; II Macc.8:3-4; I Enoch 15:9-10; Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus 42-43; Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus 236; Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.526; Josephus, The Jewish Wars 7.380-381; Philo, De Cherubim 44; Philo, De Cherubim 119; Philo, De Plantatione 135; Philo, De Plantatione 136; Philo, De Mutatione Nominum 173; Homer, Odyssey 24.142-145; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.10.2; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.41.2; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.60.1; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 3.109.2; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 4.67.4; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 5.82.5; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 8.55.1
    NT identifications were made for 7Q4; 7Q5; 7Q6 frg.1; 7Q6 frg.2; 7Q7; 7Q8; 7Q9; 7Q10; 7Q11; 7Q12; 7Q13; 7Q14; and 7Q15. Of these 7Q4; 7Q8; 7Q11; 7Q12; 7Q13; and 7Q14 have been identified as being from I Enoch, while 7Q6 frg.1; 7Q6 frg.2; 7Q7; and 7Q9 have been identified as being from Deuteronomy.
    The late Ernst Muro, a carpenter by trade, made the initial I Enoch identifications based in part on matching up the fibre pattern on the front of the fragments, so it is really frustrating is that for all the ink spilt on what can or cannot be seen in the photographs, nobody has taken the time to photograph the back of the fragments to see if the matched fibre pattern on the front can be confirmed or refuted by matching / non-matching fibre patterns on the back.

    • Thanks, Matthew. That last point is something I have been thinking about a lot. I read Muro’s work for the first time just a few weeks ago, and his fiber pattern matching really was a smart move. I’ll look into getting photos of the back of the 7Q pieces.

  5. One retraction of a Dead Sea Scroll attribution may be little known. John Allegro in an appendix to his 1979 book, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, published an edition of what he dubbed 4QTherapeia. It is also known as 4Q341 and 4QM130 (M for a text assigned to J.T. Milik, but traded to Allegro [Milik got 4Q252, commentary on Genesis, I think]). J. Naveh and J. Greenfield et al. considered it a writing exercise.
    James H. Charlesworth, in his 1985 book, The Discovery of a Dead Sea Scroll (4QTherapeia): its Importance in the History of Medicine and Jesus Research, published a somewhat modified edition of it as a medical text.
    In 1987 Charlesworth retracted his edition, no longer supporting it as if a medical document. This appeared in a publication that may not be widely available: Explorations: Rethinking Relationships Among Jews and Christians, vol. 1, no. 2, page 2, “A Misunderstood Recently Published Dead Sea Scroll (4QM130).”

  6. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #193 (March 2022) – The Amateur Exegete

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