Sappho Papyrus on Display

I happen to be in New York this week; and I plan to get to the Morgan library to see a fabulous display of items on loan from the Bodleian Library of Oxford; including an 1800-year-old fragmentary papyrus of  Sappho’s hymn to Aphrodite. If you want to study the poem before going to the exhibit, Sean Palmer has compiled a very helpful page of the Complete Poems of Sappho that have survived, with Greek Text and English translation.

More New Papyri

Eighteen-hundred-year-old papyri discovered–of all places–in a late professor’s files.  Actually, this kind of things happen fairly often.  There have been many important discoveries in libraries and archives.

Luther College

One document is a libellus, issued under the persecutions of Decius.  A libellus was a document proving that the owner had sacrificed to the gods of Rome, and thus was not a Christian eligible for torture.

An Egpytian “People’s Dictionary” in Chicago

I may have a chance to see this display next month, of papyrus in Demotic Egyptian, the basis of a new dictionary.,0,6669532.column

While in graduate school in the 1970s, Johnson began the project using as a springboard a 700-page demotic glossary published in 1954. Her new version is an updated 4,500-page volume that is now only available free online ( She said it eventually will be published in book form by the University of Chicago Press.

Jesus and the Historians

In a paper soon to be published Professor Karen King describes a fourth-century Coptic papyrus fragment which quotes Jesus as referring to “my wife.”  The fragment is of course important to historians of early Christianity.  It verifies what was already known about certain Coptic-speaking Christian sects, namely that they had a fascination with Mary Magdalene and the possibility that Jesus and she were married.

Professor King is quick to point out that

“this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.”

The article also points out that the “provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery.”  What that means is, somebody in a dark robe went up to somebody in a dark alley and said,

Hey buddy, you look like a scholar –You talking to me?  –Yeah, you, you’re a scholar right?  –Uh, yeah.  –You wanna buy a papyrus fragment?  For you my friend, I’ll make you a special deal . . .

Or something like that.  Professor Chris Rollston is an expert on forgeries.  Technically he is an expert on epigraphy, meaning ancient inscriptions.  Within that realm his expertise is more in Hebrew, or even Aramaic and Akkadian texts written on stone or pottery.  He’s not a Coptic specialist, but he knows a lot about real, forged, and uncertain ancient writings.  His policy is generally if it’s unprovenanced, its inadmissible in the court of history.  In particular, dramatic claims require dramatic evidence.  He has an interesting review of a book based on another dramatic claim about an ancient inscription purported to mention Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Back to the papyrus, Professor King and other experts say the text has all the signs of being authentic.  Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton examined the fragment and concluded “It would be impossible to forge.”  That may well be true.  There are probably a few Coptic scholars in the world who know the language well enough to compose a grammatically correct fragment.  I would guess the directory of Coptic scholars in the U.S. (and Australia!), for example, would only take a page or two.  But there must also be many Coptic monks unknown to the world of Academia.  Who’s to say that one of them with time on his hands may not have tried a little exercise?

But I will defer to the experts and assume it is genuine and interesting.  It gives us a window of the beliefs of some fringe-group of Christians living in Southern Egypt several centuries after the age of Christ.  And we should be grateful for that historical window.

Digging up Solomon

My colleague Wes forwarded this article about the work of Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem:

Interesting article.  Thanks Wes.