Back When Single-quire Codices Were Strange

Since the discovery and publication of the Nag Hammadi codices, the single-quire codex format has become very familiar to papyrologists and historians of the book. It’s interesting, however, to recall that there was a time when the idea of an ancient book consisting of just one single large quire seemed a bit strange. The year was 1899. In the second volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Grenfell and Hunt published a fragment of a bifolium from a papyrus codex containing the Gospel According to John in Greek (P.Oxy. 2.208; LDAB 2780). They assigned it to the third century. For Grenfell and Hunt, it was a curious item, as only the central fold and a few centimeters on either side of the fold are preserved.

P.Oxy. 2.208 (British Library Papyrus 782); image source: British Library

The contents turned out to be John 1:23-41 on one leaf and John 20:11-25 on the other. It is thus very likely to be the remains of one of the outer bifolia of a single-quire codex containing the whole Gospel According to John. For Grenfell and Hunt, this format was something odd, “rather awkward,” as they noted in their edition:

“If, then, the original book contained the whole of the Gospel, which is certainly the most natural supposition, our sheet was very nearly the outermost of a large quire, and within it were a number of other sheets sufficient to hold the eighteen intervening chapters. Written upon the same scale as the surviving fragments, these eighteen chapters would fill twenty-two sheets. The whole book would thus consist of a single quire of twenty-five sheets, the first leaf being probably left blank, or giving only the title. Such an arrangement certainly seems rather awkward, particularly as the margin between the two columns of writing in the flattened sheet is only about 2 cm. wide. This is not much to be divided between two leaves at the outside of so thick a quire. But as yet little is known about the composition of these early books; and it is by no means improbable that the simpler and more primitive form of a large number of sheets gathered into a single quire was prevalent before the more convenient arrangement of several small quires placed side by side came into fashion.”

As usual, Grenfell and Hunt were willing to be surprised and recognized that many of their expectations might be overturned by the vast amount of new evidence they were uncovering in those early days.

This passage came to mind because I just stumbled across a fascinating earlier moment in their process of thinking about this piece. In a preliminary report published in 1898, Grenfell floated a different interpretation of the fragment:

“Since the issue of the first volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Mr. Hunt and I have opened a number of fresh boxes, and the plan of the second volume, which will appear next year, is now for the most part arranged. The department of theology will include 3rd century fragments of St. John’s Gospel, written in parallel columns with another work.”

The idea that columns of writing containing the first chapter of John and one of the last chapters should appear next to each other was so unheard of that Grenfell and Hunt seem to have initially interpreted the fragment as part of a roll containing the fourth gospel and an altogether different text written next to each other in parallel columns. It’s a neat reminder of just how little was known about papyrus codices at the turn of the twentieth century.

In 1922, Grenfell and Hunt published a fragment of another leaf from this codex as P.Oxy. 15.1781, which contains John 16. That leaves from both the inner sheets and the outer sheets were found in the trash heaps at Oxyrhynchus probably indicates that the whole codex was thrown out (and not just a stray leaf that fell out). On this point, see AnneMarie Luijendijk, “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.”

Posted in Book binding, Codices, Codicology, Oxyrhynchus Papyri | 1 Comment

Hugo Ibscher Trading Cards

When I was a kid, I enjoyed collecting sports cards. In those days (early 1980s), the cards came in wax-paper wrappers with a flat rectangular piece of so-called “chewing gum” that was so stale and hardened that it would shatter almost like glass (but I always chewed it nevertheless). Because child-Brent was not entirely different from adult-Brent, even then I looked into the history of sports cards and became aware that early cards came not with gum but with cigarettes. For collectors, the most sought-after baseball card was (and, to the best of my knowledge, still is) a tobacco card, the so-called T206 Honus Wagner, produced from 1909 to 1911:

What child-Brent didn’t know and what adult-Brent just recently learned was that cigarette cards of the early twentieth century were made depicting all sorts of things…including famed book conservator Hugo Ibscher! Regular readers will know that Hugo Ibscher (1874-1943) was an esteemed conservator of ancient books who was based in Berlin. Many of the most important ancient codices discovered in the early twentieth century passed through Ibscher’s hands, and his descriptions of them are often our only evidence for the construction of these codices (here, for instance, are some of his notes on the Berlin Coptic Proverbs codex).

The Ibscher cards came with packages of Churchman’s Cigarettes in 1937. Here are the cards, in all their glory (front side on the left, reverse on the right):

The cards depict Ibscher working on mummy cartonnage (card number 29) and on what appears to be one of the Manichaean codices from Medinet Madi (card number 30). The images on these cards seem to be derived from a photo shoot that took place a couple years earlier. They are very similar to photographs published in The Sphere (an illustrated newspaper published in the UK) in 1934:

The rest of the series of cards (50 in all) are equally interesting. They depict various archaeological topics that were current in the 1930s. Some show contemporary excavations in Italy carried out under Mussolini:

And of course there is a card relating to the British Museum’s acquisition of Codex Sinaiticus:

I’m almost certain that child-Brent would have been bitterly disappointed to open a pack of cards and find Hugo Ibscher and Codex Sinaiticus, but adult-Brent is pretty delighted (and in any event, child-Brent should not have been buying packs of cigarettes).

Posted in Codicology, Mummy cartonnage | 6 Comments

Further Revelations from Sampson’s Article: The Sappho Papyrus and the German Officer

In a previous post on C. Michael Sampson’s article in the most recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Association of Papyrologists, I mentioned that Sampson’s essay contained a number of interesting but somewhat complicated revelations about questions surrounding the Sappho papyrus.

One seemingly intractable mystery that Sampson has (to my mind, anyway) solved involves one of the first provenance stories associated with the Sappho papyrus. Early on, it was claimed that the papyrus had originated in mummy cartonnage that had once been owned by “a high-ranking German officer.” This provenance story quickly evaporated and was never explained. A little background will help to illuminate Sampson’s discovery.

In an article in the Times (2 February 2014) that announced Professor Dirk Obbink’s forthcoming publication of the Sappho papyrus, Bettany Hughes noted that the owner of the papyrus, an “elderly gentleman,” had engaged professor Obbink to examine “material from an ancient Egyptian burial.” Professor Obbink, after “prising the layers of shredded papyrus apart,” recognized the text on the papyrus as poems of Sappho. At the conclusion of the article, Hughes had hinted at the provenance of the cartonnage from which the Sappho papyrus had allegedly been extracted:

“The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.”

In his own article published a few days later (7 February 2014) in the Times Literary Supplement, Professor Obbink also referred to the “ancient mummy cartonnage panel” that was the alleged source of the Sappho papyrus.

The difficulty with this story, as Roberta Mazza pointed out a few months later in May 2014, was that the Sappho papyrus, which Professor Obbink assigned to the “late second/early third centuries” CE, was very unlikely to come from mummy cartonnage. The practice of using inscribed papyrus to make mummy casings seems to have died out two-hundred years earlier:

“According to standard papyrology manuals, the practice of fabricating cartonnage for mummy masks and panels went on throughout the entire Ptolemaic period, and ended towards the end of the Augustan era, so at the beginning of the first century AD.”

Thus, when Professor Obbink revisited the question of the provenance of the papyrus in 2015, there was no mention of the “German officer.” The story was now that the cartonnage did not come from a mummy casing after all, but rather was “domestic or industrial cartonnage” purchased at auction in a lot derived from the Robinson Papyri, the somewhat murky collection of an American academic. In a story in Live Science published on 23 January 2015, Megan Gannon asked Professor Obbink what had happened to the “German officer” mentioned in the article by Hughes. Professor Obbink responded that Hughes had simply fabricated the story.

“Obbink characterized Hughes’ story as a ‘fictionalization’ and an ‘imaginative fantasy. …Bettany Hughes never saw the papyrus,’ Obbink said. ‘I never discussed the ownership with her. She published the story without consulting me.’ (Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.)”

The “German officer” did not appear again in any discussions of the possible source of the papyrus. So, the matter rested there for five years.

But now the Christie’s brochure analyzed by Sampson brings the “German officer” back into view. The Christie’s brochure includes a photograph of a Ptolemaic-era panel of mummy cartonnage sitting next to another clump of “plain” cartonnage. The caption beneath the photograph states that “The Sappho fragment was initially thought to derive from a painted mummy cartonnage panel (left), with which it was simultaneously dissolved, but this was discovered to be a confusion of processing.” This is quite similar to the explanation that Professor Obbink had presented in his paper on the provenance of the papyrus in January 2015: “The owner originally believed that he had dissolved a piece of ‘mummy’ cartonnage, as I reported in TLS. But this turned out upon closer inspection of the original papyri not to be the case.”

Charlotte Higgins had interviewed Sampson and mentioned the panel of mummy cartonnage in her article in the Guardian back in January 2020:

“In the brochure, there are, at last, images that purport to show how the two different types of cartonnage – mummy cartonnage and industrial cartonnage – were confused. One picture shows a brightly painted blue-and-red piece of mummy cartonnage lying in a ceramic basin beside a brown mass of what appears to be flattened papyrus, described as ‘cartonnage’. The caption recaps the final story reported by Obbink – that the two items were muddled up in a ‘confusion of processing’. However, in the opinion of Sampson, it ‘defies belief’ that the entirely different objects could have been confused.”

What is new in Sampson’s article is the identification of this Ptolemaic-era cartonnage. With some impressive sleuthing, Sampson was able to identify this panel as (the lower half of) one that was purchased through Sotheby’s in 2008:

What was especially intruiging was the alleged provenance of the panel:

The person listed as the previous owner of the panel was Rainer Kriebel, “military attaché to the German Federal Republic’s embassy to Egypt in Cairo.” It’s hard to believe that there would be two pieces of cartonnage connected to both the Sappho papyrus and a German military official. It seems that Sampson has found our “German officer.”

Sampson’s reconstruction of events is sensible: As mentioned in my previous post, Sampson’s analysis of the metadata associated with the pdf file of the Christie’s brochure indicated that there were likely two attempted sales of the papyrus, one in 2013 and one in 2015. For the 2013 sale, the images of Kriebel’s mummy cartonnage panel very probably served to reflect the “Original Provenance Fiction,” as Sampson calls it: the idea that the Sappho papyrus had come from a Ptolemaic-era panel of mummy cartonnage. The sale in in the summer of 2015 continued to use the same images (likely in an effort to preserve some aspects of the story, namely extraction from cartonnage of some sort), but the text of the brochure reflected the “Revised Provenance Fiction,” that the Sappho papyrus had come from “domestic or industrial cartonnage” and had only been associated with the mummy material through a mistake of the owner.

While there are still many questions about the ultimate origins of the Sappho papyrus, it is satisfying that Sampson’s research has explained the mysterious “German officer.”

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Find Stories, Mummy cartonnage, P.Sapph. Obbink | 3 Comments

More on Dirk Obbink and the Provenance of the Sappho Papyrus

The latest issue of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists was just published. It contains an article by C. Michael Sampson, “Deconstructing the Provenances of P.Sapph.Obbink.” The article brings a load of new evidence to bear on the question of the origins of the papyrus. Some of this was hinted at in Charlotte Higgins’ excellent piece on Professor Obbink in The Guardian back in January:

“Mike Sampson, a papyrologist at the University of Manitoba, has found evidence, seen by the Guardian, suggesting that the origin-story of the Sappho manuscript reported by Obbink may be a fiction. Sampson was sent a PDF by an academic source. The document is a glossy, lavishly illustrated brochure produced by Christie’s. It advertises the Sappho fragment for sale by private treaty. A ‘private treaty sale’ is a service whereby an auction house will broker a sale between vendor and buyer discreetly, outside the relatively public auction schedule. (The document is quite separate from the 2011 auction, and was produced some time after it.) The brochure will have been circulated very discreetly, too, to a few key collectors. Sampson has analysed the metadata of the PDF, and believes that the Sappho fragment was in fact probably offered for sale by private treaty twice – once in 2013, prior to the public announcement of its existence, and again in 2015.”

Now Sampson has published the details of his analysis and the results of his investigations. Sampson notes that despite multiple queries, Christie’s has neither confirmed nor denied that they produced this document, citing “reasons of client confidentiality.” That they do not deny they produced the brochure is telling in itself.

Some of the revelations from Sampson’s article include an alleged asking price for the Sappho papyrus when it was offered for sale in 2015: £12,000,000. It’s not clear if any sale actually took place.

Sampson’s article includes photos from the Christie’s brochure. Among them are images said to document the extraction of the papyrus from cartonnage. Using metadata from the images in the file, Sampson compellingly demonstrates that these photos were staged.

The metadata from the photos of this alleged “extraction” also badly clash with the timeline of events provided in Professor Obbink’s most recent and ever-shifting account of the origin of the fragments. In a volume published by Brill in 2016 (The Newest Sappho), Professor Obbink claimed that when the large Sappho fragment (“P.Sapph.Obbink”) was extracted, additional material was removed at the same time but not recognized as belonging to the Sappho papyrus:

“Some twenty smaller fragments removed from the exterior of this piece, being not easily identified or re-joined, were deemed insignificant and so traded independently on the London market by the owner, and made their way from the same source into the Green Collection in Oklahoma City.”

We now know that these smaller pieces of the Sappho were purchased by Hobby Lobby (the Green Collection) from the Turkish dealer Yakup Eksioglu (“Mixantik”) on 7 January 2012 in the form of wads of papyrus that Eksioglu claims he manufactured himself. We also know that Scott Carroll has admitted to faking their extraction from a mummy mask on 16 January 2012. We also know that the Green Collection Sappho pieces were framed and waved in front of an audience by Carroll in Atlanta on 7 February 2012. It is thus surprising that the photographs of the alleged “extraction” of “P.Sapph.Obbink” should be dated seven days later, 14 February 2012. The story just doesn’t hold up.

Dirk Obbink with the Sappho papyrus in 2015 (image source: BBC, “Sappho: Love & Life on Lesbos) and Scott Carroll with the Green Collection fragments on 7 February 2012 (image source: Passages Speakers Series)

There are a number of other revelations in Sampson’s carefully researched article, but they’re a bit complicated to explain and will have to wait for another post. What does seem clear now is that all of the different origin stories that Professor Obbink has provided for the Sappho papyrus have fallen apart.

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Green Collection Sappho, P.Sapph. Obbink, Passages Speakers Series, Scott Carroll | 5 Comments

The Trojan Horse in Pakistan and Questions of Provenance

In the process of preparing to teach a course on ancient trade networks, I encountered a very informative chapter by Rachel Mairs in The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization (2017), which introduced me to a fascinating artifact of which I was wholly unaware. It is a schist relief in the British Museum from the region that is now Pakistan. It depicts the Trojan Horse episode. According to the British Museum website, the sculpture likely dates to the second or third century CE. The vivid relief shows the wheeled horse being pushed toward the city, Laocoön stabbing the horse, and Cassandra trying to block the city gates:

Relief showing the Trojan Horse episode, from Gandhara(?), British Museum, 1990 1013 1; image source: British Museum

Mairs puts the relief to excellent use in demonstrating that it was not only people and goods that travelled the ancient trade routes but also stories and ideas.

It is indeed a fascinating object. But there is a problem. Mairs states that the relief “was found at the site of a Buddhist monastery (Allan 1946).” Yet, I can find no evidence for this claim. The publication cited by Mairs makes no mention of a monastery, and indeed no mention of a precise provenance, only the observation that the relief was “believed to have come from one of the numerous mounds in the Mardan subdivision of the Peshawar district.”

This description is in fact a direct quotation from the earliest report of the relief that was published in 1926: John Marshall (ed.), Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-1924. At pp. 125-126, ” Mr. H. Hargreaves” published a short piece entitled “Two Unidentified Reliefs from Gandhara.” Hargreaves described the panel as “now in possession of F.V. Wylie, Esquire, I.C.S., Mardan” and stated that “the provenance of the sculpture is uncertain, but in all probability the relief came from one of the numerous mounds in the Mardan sub-dvision of the Peshawar district.”

If we turn to the data provided by the British Museum online catalog, we find some (genuinely impressive) educated guessing about the provenance:

“In a printed version of an address to the Tibet Society of 1976, Sir Olaf Caroe, who knew Sir Francis Wylie, states that it came from the Swabi Tahsil, near Hund, a part of that subdivision. Wheeler’s suggestion (1968: 137), on the other hand, that the piece came from Charsada, not in the Mardan subdivision, is supported by Sir Francis Wylie’s having been Assistant Commissioner at Charsada from May 1919 to May 1921. While it is less likely that he acquired the piece during an interval as Political Agent in Tochi, the possibility increases again with his appointment, from September 1923, as Settlement Officer at Peshawar, when it may have come into his possession from one or other source between late 1923 and the first publication.”

The suggested find spots (Mardan, Hund, Charsada, and Peshawar) cover an area of well over 1000 km2, so it would seem we have a general sense of where this piece was found but no specifics.

But there is a bit more to say. In a 2016 article, Peter Stewart unearthed an endnote in Olaf Caroe’s long account of The Pathans (p. 444, note 11). Stewart reports:

“In his acclaimed study of The Pathans, Caroe writes, in reference to the Roman influence on Gandhäran art: ‘These treasures are not confined to representations of the Buddha or his life. They include Western mythology, e.g. a Trojan Horse relief discovered on a well near Hund in 1923.'”

Stewart accepts this account and draws out the implications:

“Traditional wells of the region do not have elaborate superstructures as in the European tradition. They were principally ‘Persian wells’ designed for animals to draw up water for irrigation, although ‘rope and bucket’ wells also existed. Nevertheless, it is very easy to imagine sculptures being built into them as decoration, whether in the structure of the well itself or in the surrounding stone-work, such as walls supporting a water-wheel. The setting is significant because it implies some kind of interest in Gandhäran sculptures as decorative spolia among the rural population in the 1920s, or at any rate in post-antique times, before their commercial value turned them into lucrative collectables.”

This seems reasonable, but it is worth dwelling a moment on Stewart’s grounds for accepting Caroe’s provenance story. Stewart lists six “strong reasons” for preferring this account (he elaborates and supports each of these assertions, but I quote only the salient point):

  1. “It is the most precise and most confident account that exists.”
  2. “Caroe repeated the claim, in general terms but with equal confidence, in his 1976 lecture to the Tibet Society.”
  3. “Caroe seems to have been intimately familiar with the area around Hund.”
  4. “The ‘Trojan Horse’ relief was present in the room when Caroe delivered his lecture to the Tibet Society. … This fact emphasizes Caroe’s familiarity with the sculpture and with the Wylie family.”
  5. “The date which Caroe gives for the discovery, 1923, fits perfectly with Sir Francis Wylie’s career. Hund was at that time part of the Mardän District. Wylie served only briefly as Assistant Commissioner at Mardän, from 21st April to 12th July 1923.”
  6. “Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sir Olaf Caroe’s unpublished autobiography reveals that he not only worked with Sir Francis Wylie, but was an intimate, life-long friend.”

Of these six reasons, only number 5–the date fits nicely with Wylie’s career–seems relevant. Confidence, precision, repetition, and friendship with the alleged finder and his family remind me too much of the recent debacle with the Kando family and the fake Dead Sea Scrolls.

Caroe’s story is plausible, but it is far from certain. What is certain is that when it comes to the “Trojan Horse” relief, we just don’t know for sure the exact context in which the piece was found or in which it was displayed in antiquity. And in that respect it resembles all too many other schist reliefs from the region.


Allan, John. “A Tabula Iliaca from Gandhara.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 66 (1946), 21-23.

Caroe, Olaf. The Pathans: 550 B.C. – A.D. 1957. London: MacMillan, 1958.

Hargreaves, H. “Two Unidentified Reliefs from Gandhara.” Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-1924 (1926), 125-126.

Mairs, Rachel. “Lapis lazuli, Homer, and the Buddha: Material and ideological exchange in West Africa (c.250 BCE – 200 CE). Pages 885-898 in  T. Hodos (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization. London: Routledge, 2017.

Stewart, Peter. “The Provenance of the Gandhāran ‘Trojan Horse’ Relief in the British Museum.” Arts Asiatiques 71 (2016), 3-12.

Posted in British Museum, Find Stories, Sculpture | Leave a comment

BnF Copte 135E and Codex Construction

After a recent conversation about early Coptic codices with Alin Suciu, I spent some time with the several distinct manuscripts catalogued under the designation “Copte 135” at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the so-called Akhmim Papyri. There are some really fascinating things happening with these books in terms of codex construction.

I returned again to these codices a couple days ago after a stimulating talk by Anne Boud’hors in the the Workshop “Koptische Paläographie und Kodikologie.” She mentioned a very recent publication on these books:

Nathan Carlig, “The Achmîm Papyri: Codicological Study and Reconstruction Attempt,” pp. 115- 131 in Paola Buzi (ed.), Coptic Literature in Context (4th-13th cent.): Cultural Landscape, Literary Production, and Manuscript Archaeology (Rome: Edizioni Quasar di Severino Tognon S.r.l., 2020)

I’d like to add one detail to Carlig’s informative discussion of the make-up of one of these manuscripts, the leaves designated 135E, a small, square-ish format papyrus codex containing parts of the Apocalypse of Sophonias and the Apocalypse of Elias in Coptic (LDAB 108728).

The books seem to have been purchased as a group in 1884 or 1885 by Gaston Maspero in or around Akhmim (I need to read more about this). Georg Steindorff produced an edition and translation in 1899, and the BnF made good color images of this manuscripts available back in May (or I should say, the portions of these manuscripts that are in the care of the BnF; some leaves are in Berlin, P.Berol. inv. 1862; I cannot find images of them online; if anyone knows where to find them, please let me know).

What jumped out at me about these leaves was an indication of an unusual construction technique. Looking at the horizontal fibers of one of the leaves, everything appears basically normal at first glance. The leaf shows some stripping of horizontal fibers, but nothing out of the ordinary.

BnF Copte 135E, folio 24, horizontal fibers

Things get interesting when we flip the leaf over and look at the vertical fibers:

BnF Copte 135E folio 24, vertical fibers

It is clear that we’ve got a break in the writing surface. In both the upper half of the page and the lower half of the page, we have vertical fibers, but there is a distinct break showing that we are dealing with two discontinuous pieces of papyrus that have been pasted together, the top portion overlapping the bottom:

BnF Copte 135E folio 24, vertical fibers (detail showing kollesis)

What we seem to have here are horizontal kolleseis (sheet joins) rather than the more typical vertical kolleseis that run up and down the height of the pages of many papyrus codices. This hypothesis would seem to be confirmed by the presence of similar horizontal breaks on several other leaves of the codex, though usually closer to the top of the leaf…

BnF Copte 135E, folio 23, vertical fibers, detail of kollesis at top of page

…or bottom of the leaf:

BnF Copte 135E, folio 22, vertical fibers, detail of kollesis at bottom of page

It is curious that in these latter examples the kollesis is bottom over top rather than (as in the first example above) top over bottom. In any event, it does look like these bifolia were cut from the roll in pieces that were the intended height of the bifolia:

Model of papyrus roll being cut into bifolia for a square-format codex by intended height of the bifolium

It also looks like there is evidence for the use of the protokollon, the first sheet of a roll that was generally pasted on to the roll with the fibers oriented at a 90 degree angle relative to the rest of the sheets in the roll (again, see my earlier discussion here). Using the protokollon for a codex leaf can result (as it does here) in pages that have both horizontal fibers and vertical fibers on the same surface, as this detail image shows:

BnF Copte 135E, folio 16, detail showing probable use of protokollon to make this leaf

I have not yet been able to identify the other half of this bifolium among the Paris leaves. I wonder if it would be possible to reconstruct the roll from which these bifolia were cut (as Hugo Ibscher did for the Berlin Proverbs codex and as Stephen Emmel and others did for the Nag Hammadi codices)?

Off the top of my head, I know of only one other codex (or portion of a codex) that seems to have horizontal kolleseis, P.Bodmer 13+12, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post. I haven’t done a systematic search for this feature. It would be interesting to learn how frequent this phenomenon really is.

Posted in Book binding, Codices, Codicology | Leave a comment

A New Article on P52 in New Testament Studies

The latest issue of New Testament Studies contains an article I wrote on P.Ryl. 3.457, a.k.a. P52, the fragmentary leaf from a codex generally regarded as the earliest surviving copy of the Gospel According to John (and indeed earliest surviving copy of any of the texts that eventually ended up in the New Testament).

“Palaeography, Precision and Publicity: Further Thoughts on P.Ryl. III.457 (P52)”

Fifteen years ago (time flies!), I wrote one of my first academic articles about this papyrus. At the time, I thought I had been pretty thorough. Is there really anything more to say?

Postcard from the John Rylands Library (bought in 2014) showing the front and back of P.Ryl. 3.457 (P52); on the reverse is a rather unhelpful description: “Papyri (sic) fragment of St. John’s Gospel, written in Greek and dated to 125A.D. This is the earliest surviving piece of the New Testament.”

In 2014, Roberta Mazza invited me to a conference she had organized at the University of Manchester, “From Egypt to Manchester: Unravelling the John Rylands Papyrus Collection.” During my visit, I took the opportunity to comb through their archives a bit with the helpful guidance of both Roberta and of Elizabeth Gow. I was able to learn some interesting things about the purchase of the papyrus. When Colin H. Roberts published P.Ryl. 3.457 in 1935, a preface by Henry Guppy (the librarian at the John Rylands Library) gave an account of the origin of the papyrus:

“The precious little fragment of a papyrus codex which is described in the following pages, forms part of the hitherto unpublished portion of the collection of Greek papyri in the John Rylands Library. The particular group to which this fragment belongs was acquired in Egypt by the late Professor Bernard P. Grenfell in 1920.”

I think most of us had been under the impression that Roberts “discovered” the fragment of John amongst a mass of material left unsorted by Grenfell after he died in 1926 (indeed, the remainder of Guppy’s “Prefatory Note” strongly gives that impression). But it turns out this is not the case. Grenfell wasn’t purchasing blindly in 1920; he knew quite well what he was buying. His trip to Egypt is in fact reasonably well documented, and even his activities purchasing papyri are detailed in his letters and in the diary of his travel companion, Professor Francis Kelsey of the University of Michigan (pictured below walking together with Grenfell in Theadelphia during their trip in the spring of 1920).

Francis W. Kelsey, Bernard P. Grenfell, and an unidentified individual in Theadelphia, Spring 1920, photograph by Easton Kelsey; image source: Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

So, we have some new information about the acquisition of the Rylands fragment of John. I’ll leave the details for you to read in the article.

I also dedicate a bit of space in the article to engaging with some more recent scholarship on P.Ryl. 3.457, and in this connection I introduce some previously unknown material from the papyrologist Eric Turner. Background: When I was working in Australia several years ago, I ordered a copy of Medea Norsa’s big palaeographic album through interlibrary loan. When it arrived, I noticed two things: It came from the University of Western Australia in Perth, and Turner’s name was inscribed in his own handwriting on the inside of the front cover. A quick check of UWA’s library catalog revealed that UWA held the personal papers and library of Eric Turner. When I later visited Perth, I stopped in at UWA and examined Turner’s materials. My trip was short, so I didn’t have time to work thoroughly through everything there, but I did get an overview of the collection, and I was able to look at several of his books, including his copy of the editio princeps of P.Ryl. 3.457.

What I found was quite revealing. Next to a selection of the palaeographic parallels suggested by Roberts, Turner had simply written “Not dated,” indicating that Roberts was using one undated manuscript to assign a date to another undated manuscript, a procedure that is now recognized as dubious. Turner also added in the margins references to several (precisely dated) manuscripts for palaeographic comparison.

An opening of Eric Turner’s annotated copy of Colin H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library (University of Manchester Press, 1935), pp. 14-15; University of Western Australia Library

So, a second part of my article gathers images of Turner’s suggested parallels for the handwriting of the Rylands John fragment and reassesses the evidence for assigning a date to this fragmentary leaf.

It was fun to revisit this papyrus. I’m very grateful to Roberta and everyone at the John Rylands Library for their help, to Todd Hickey for sharing his knowledge of Grenfell’s trip to Egypt in 1920, and to the Australian Research Council for giving me the time and freedom to carry out research like this.

Posted in Antiquities Market, Bernard Grenfell, Eric Turner, New Testament, P.Ryl. 3.457, Palaeography, Rylands Papyri | Leave a comment

Mr. Spock and Qumran

Thanks to Stephen Goranson for drawing my attention to an episode of the television show “In Search of…” that aired on 9 February 1978. The topic of this episode, narrated by Leonard Nimoy, was the Dead Sea Scrolls. The content is fairly mundane, but there is a nice little segment with John C. Trever. He describes his first encounter with the scrolls and talks about his concern (immediately alleviated!) that they might be forgeries.

The video has some nice footage of the caves and the site, and it is interesting from the standpoint of the conservation of the scrolls to see a plate of fragments from that period. I believe this is 1Q22:

Now, it’s only by chance that I recognized this plate because I have been spending some time looking at old PAM images, and just yesterday I saw a really interesting image of 1Q22, which seems to show that when it was found by excavators as a decayed roll in the cave, a stone was embedded in it.

1Q22; image source: PAM 40.511 The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library

But I digress. You should watch the video just to hear Spock tell the story of Muhammad ed-Dhib discovering the scrolls.

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls | 3 Comments

Two Unheralded Excavators of Cave 1 at Qumran: Ibrahim Asuli and Mohamed Mustafa

In spare moments, I continue to work on the manuscripts generally associated with Cave 1 at Qumran. I’ve become very interested in the photographs of the excavations of Cave 1. Both Gerald Lankester Harding and Ovid R. Sellers took pictures during the excavations at the site in 1949. I’ve seen a scattering of these published in different places, but I stumbled across a very interesting one recently. I had seen a couple versions of this image before. The first one appeared in an article by Sellers in BASOR in 1949:

Photographs by Ovid Sellers showing the excavation of “the cave at ‘Ain Fashkha”; image source: O. R. Sellers, “Excavation of the ‘Manuscript’ Cave at ‘Ain Fashkha,” BASOR 114 (1949), p. 8

Another “colorized” version appeared in a detailed article on Cave 1 that was published a few years ago:

Joan E. Taylor, Dennis Mizzi, and Marcello Fidanzio, “Revisiting Qumran Cave 1Q and its Archaeological Assemblage,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 149 (2017), 295-325.

The authors of the article had identified a collection of tinted slides at Oberlin College that included photos taken by Sellers.

Photographs of the excavation of the “Ain Feshka cave”; image source: Oberlin College Libraries (The Professor Herbert G. May Teaching Collection on Biblical Archaeology and the Bible)

The label on the slide reads as follows: “Ain Feshka cave, BASOR 114; (1) interior of cave from the entrance (2) interior of cave from the entrance. Harding & de Vaux looking at box MSS fragment[s].” It is of course interesting to see de Vaux and Harding at work, but who are the others carrying out the excavation in these images? I came across yet another version of the photo on the left recently that answers this question. It has a caption naming the two excavators in the photo: Ibrahim Asuli and Mohamed Mustafa. It’s included in an article by Harding in the Illustrated London News:

Image source: Illustrated London News (1 October 1949), p. 493

Harding elaborated a bit on the information in the caption:

“In addition to Père de Vaux and myself, the actual work of excavation was carried out by Ibrahim Asuli, a veteran excavator of twenty-three years’ experience, Azmi Khalil, both of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, and Mohamed Mustafa, a Jordanian, and a newcomer to the profession. He had the usual beginner’s luck and found most of the best pieces.”

Both Ibrahim Asuli (sometimes spelled Assuli) and Azmi Khalil also worked on de Vaux’s 1952 expedition that explored the region and inventoried the other caves in the area. They are mentioned as part of the team in an article by William L. Reed, “The Qumrân Caves Expedition of March, 1952,” BASOR 135 (1954). During that project, they oversaw (together with Hasan Awad Qutshan of Amman) a crew of 24 Bedouin searching the cliffs looking for artifacts.

Presumably, it is these two who were still working with de Vaux in 1956 on Cave 11. In one of his notebooks from that year, de Vaux mentions “Ibrahim and Azmi” as team members (see Humbert and Fidanzio, Khirbet Qumrân and Aïn Feshkha IVA, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019, p. 12, note 5). These men were clearly important participants in the excavation of the Qumran caves. It is good to be able now to put faces with the names.

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls | 1 Comment

A New Radiocarbon Calibration Curve and Early Christian Manuscripts

I gave a talk on early Coptic books a few weeks ago in which I mentioned the results of some radiocarbon analyses of Coptic codices. Now I learn that some of what I said is already out of date! A recent e-mail from Mike Holmes prompted me to check in on the OxCal website, where I saw that a new version of the OxCal calibration program is up and running using new data (IntCal20). The new calibration curve appears to have a noticeable effect on the dates of some early Christian manuscripts.

The results of radiocarbon analysis yield ages in terms of “radiocarbon years before present (BP).” Because levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere fluctuate over time, these results need to be converted into calendar dates through a process of calibration. Objects with known dates, usually tree rings, are subjected to radiocarbon analysis, and these results are compiled and used to translate radiocarbon years BP into calendar dates for objects of unknown dates. Every so often, the accumulated and refined data for calibration is used to generate a new calibration curve.

The appearance of a new calibration curve means that older analyses can be re-calibrated using the new data. For this reason, authors who publish the results of radiocarbon analyses should report not only calendar ages but also radiocarbon years BP so that the calendar dates can be easily recalculated when new calibration data becomes available (less conscientious authors will omit BP dates). In some cases, the new calibration yields very little change to the resulting calendar dates, but in other cases, the change is meaningful.

I’ll illustrate with a couple of the examples that I mentioned in my talk. The first is the Manichean Synaxeis codex at the Chester Beatty Library. Samples of papyrus from a leaf of this codex were subjected to AMS analysis in 2013. The weighted mean for the samples was 1630 ± 22 radiocarbon years BP. The calibration (using IntCal13) yielded the following outcome:

Image source: Jason BeDuhn and Greg Hodgins, “The Date of the Manichaean Codices from Medinet Madi,” in Samuel N.C. Lieu et al. (eds.), Manichaeism East and West (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), p. 28, Figure 8.

The resulting span of calendar years was 350-534 CE (95.4% probability). The authors who published the analysis quite reasonably interpreted these results in the following way: “70 to 72% of the probability density function spans the period 380 CE to 435 CE. All things being equal, it is most probable that the Medinet Madi codices date to somewhere within the last quarter of the 4th to the early decades of the 5th centuries AD.”

Calibrating this radiocarbon years BP date with the new program noticeably adjusts the calendar dates.

Image source: OxCal v4.4.2

The calendar range is now 405-538 CE (95.4% probability). Using the new calibration curve, then, the possibility of a fourth century date for the papyrus appears diminished. The probability of a date in the first part of the fifth century remains relatively high, but a date in the sixth century is no longer quite so easily excluded.

We see less change in the case of another Coptic book, the Glazier codex. In 1994, a piece of the leather wrapping band of the codex was tested and yielded a result of 1565 ±45 BP. When this data was published in 1999, the calibrated age was reported as 420-598 CE (95% probability). Using those numbers with the new curve, we get the following results:

Image source: OxCal v.4.4.2

The range of calendar dates is now 418-590 CE (95.4% probability). So, we see in this instance very little change.

From a general comparison of the IntCal13 and IntCal20 curves over the period of 100-700 CE, it seems that IntCal20 will shift calendar dates slightly later in most cases or keep them roughly the same. One of the frustrating things about the fluctuations of carbon-14 levels is reflected in the wiggle in the calibration curve that occurs during the third and fourth centuries CE. This dip has become more pronounced in IntCal20 with a higher peak and a lower trough, which means that the usefulness of AMS analysis remains very limited for distinguishing between material dating to the third century CE and material dating to the fourth century CE.

Posted in Glazier Codex, Radiocarbon analysis | 5 Comments