Oxyrhynchus Papyri
New Light on Ancient Texts

Illuminant by
Robert Wilfred Franson


April 2005

Reassembling Antiquity

For the past several centuries there has been a tremendous ongoing effort by archaeologists and scholars of antiquity to increase our store of ancient manuscripts. So much was lost or discarded or destroyed in ancient times, and much lost or inadvertently ruined since; but an important fraction remains, and more is discovered from time to time. One of the great treasure troves of documents is in fact an ancient rubbish heap of the Greek-settled city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, on the Nile near Memphis.

Between finding ancient documents and understanding them are several difficult steps. Documents often are separated and physically fragmented, so they must be collated and assembled. The resulting texts still may be incomplete, so must be placed in context, including dating, by relating to known events or to similar documents and probable sources, and by chemical analysis. Obscure passages may be elucidated and missing passages interpolated after study and comparison. And then for those who do not know the specific language — or like your commentator whose knowledge of ancient languages could be inscribed on a potsherd — the text or textual fragment must be translated.

All of these tasks overlap and interrelate, of course. Without a basic preparatory understanding it would not occur to us to begin, let alone be able to excavate and research. There is a fine and substantial history of this complex effort of recent centuries in Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts and Records, by Leo Deuel (1965). Deuel has substantial discussion on the discoveries at Oxyrhynchus.

Science aids Antiquity

Many papyrus fragments from two thousand years ago — a span of a half-dozen centuries at Oxyrhynchus, actually — have been published. But the great majority were so far deteriorated that they could not be read. Classical, Biblical, Egyptian, other Near-Eastern items, papyri that look blank or illegible. But not quite illegible, after all:

There seems to be a distinct possibility that more NT material might emerge from the Oxyrhynchus archives. Another possible resource consists of previously published material which can turn out to be more interesting than was once suspected. For example, quite recently a text that was published as an unidentified list of objects turned out, with the help of computer analysis, to be a fragment of Revelation 1:13-20 (now identified as P98).

Peter M. Head
"New Oxyrhynchus New Testament Papyri"
Cambridge Tyndale Bulletin, May 2000

Here is where Science begins to come to the aid of Antiquity. Recently Oxford University scientists announced a major, wonderful breakthrough with Oxyrhynchus papyri:

Now scientists are using multi-spectral imaging techniques developed from satellite technology to read the papyri at Oxford University's Sackler Library. The fragments, preserved between sheets of glass, respond to the infra-red spectrum — ink invisible to the naked eye can be seen and photographed. ...

The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week, include parts of a long-lost tragedy - the Epigonoi ("Progeny") by the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Sophocles; part of a lost novel by the 2nd-century Greek writer Lucian; unknown material by Euripides; mythological poetry by the 1st-century BC Greek poet Parthenios; work by the 7th-century BC poet Hesiod; and an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th-century successor of Homer, describing events leading up to the Trojan War. ...

David Keys and Nicholas Pyke
"Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail'
    that may rewrite the history of the world:
Scientists begin to unlock the secrets
    of papyrus scraps bearing long-lost words
    by the literary giants of Greece and Rome"
The Independent Online, 17 April 2005
400,000 fragments at Oxford

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri at Oxford University comprise 400,000 fragments.

I am sure those joyous-science philosophers and classicists, Francis Bacon and Friedrich Nietzsche, would be thrilled. They are among the preeminent thinkers who proclaimed that antiquity still has more to give us, if we are willing — as we must be — to find and look and understand. Science now comes to the recovery of ancient ideas, and in turn the Ancients may shed fresh light on our Scientific Age.

The excellent online resource for the above work is the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project at Oxford. There are maps, examples of papyri, illustrations of the city of Oxyrhynchus when the archaeologists discovered its buried riches of ancient words, discussions of how the scholars work on the documents and develop the texts.

The Center for Helenic Studies has interesting material on Homer and the Papyri.

For a cultural angle that we rarely consider — presuming that ancient music is lost forever — William A. Johnson provides samples of Ancient Greek Music on Papyrus: vocal music you can listen to online.

Our knowledge of the deep past of our civilization still is growing. Antiquity still has more to give us.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

WHS facilitated this.

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