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The new Coptic papyrus: another puzzle piece

A couple days ago, I posted my initial thoughts on the new Coptic papyrus from an unknown early Christian text. I did some media interviews yesterday -- it turns out there aren't enough Coptic papyrologists to go around! -- and further honed my thoughts about what the new fragmentary papyrus does and does not tell us. I put those thoughts together for the "On Faith" section of the Washington Post today. That piece is here, and here's the lede:

Trying to do ancient history is like assembling an enormous jigsaw puzzlebut we only have a small percentage of the pieces, these are mostly middle pieces, and there is no box lid to provide a model of the completed puzzle. Every once in a while, a new piece comes along with such a clear, vivid picture that we are able to reorient the puzzle and gain a new perspective on the whole.This is not one of those moments.

It's been a really fun week. Sorry I didn't join in the combox of the previous post, but things have been unusually busy. Back to normal now, until the next discovery...  

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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What? This cannot be a comment on the article!

Hope Commonweal also will not have to resort to 'captcha's for comments, as America is already doing.

Michael, do you find that, for you, the artifact itself is important, no matter how prosaic or cryptic the message? It's like an echo of a voice, a whiff of human presence that you can see in letters that are uneven, or places where brush strokes overlap. I always found things like runakefli and the marginalia of monks (especially Irish monks), the scraps and bits of thoughts, fascinating in a very human way.

Jean --The thing about the physical qualities of the scrap is that they are plain, graspable, not dependent on interpretation. On the other hand, I have to wonder if the principles of graphology (handwriting analysis) apply to the writing. As an old amateur calligrapher and graphologist i was struck by the N's in this text. Unlike the other letters, they are often brutal, as if the writer was bashing the reed/pen into the papyrus when making just those letters. But some of the other letters are extremely faint, and the combination of faint-and-strong could be indicative of a mind and hand which at the oment were highly disturbed by something, something perhaps subconsciously associated with the letter N.I'd love to see a professional graphologist's analysis of the piece.

That's interesting, Ann. I was inspired by a paleographer decades ago at the WMU Medieval Conference. He was reporting on having been called in to examine manuscripts long held in storage by the USSR that were finally being brought to light. He was able to identify area of origin for many of the MSS using a variety of evidence. I found it interesting that he seemed able to identify specific scribes due to little ticks like the one you mentioned, which would help them date and place documents. I think that trying to figure out the origins of the scrap Michael Peppard has been writing about is a wonderful human story in itself, and I'm sorry that so much of the discussion seems to be about what it says (or not) rather than the fact that it exists at all.

Thank you for these posts. If I had had to reply on, oh, say the AP, to learn what this is all about, I would be incredibly misinformed by now.

Michael P. ==What sort of writing implement would you think the scribe used for this? At times the lines are very thick, at times they're very thin, but mostly they don't seem to be the work of a broad edge implement. What did the Copts typically use? The great variety of lines here intrigues me. In some cases a line is obviously written over a second time, which thickens it, but that doesn't seem to be the case always.

The academy ought to stay in the academy and out of the newspapers.

The text refers to the mystic marriage of Jesus and St. Catherine of Alexandria and also foretells the establishment of the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai.

David Smith: Feel free to stay out of our comment threads.

Ann,Gnosticism is a modern description with a lot of problems. Docetism, a NT era predecessor, is characterized by believing Christ only seemed to have a body. This attempt to avoid a suffering God merges with Greek dualism to create body hating sects, or perhaps sects that looked that way. OTOH Mani is counted as influenced by dualistic Zoroastrianism, where the body was evil. Zaehner is good on that.There is some discussion of writing style in Karen King's article, most important of which is probably this paragraph:The overall character of the handwriting is functional, neither a formal literary hand nor a purely documentary script. It is legible, but not regular, let alone elegant.14 Indeed, based on viewing low resolution photographs, the third reviewer described that hand as clumsy and labored. Bagnall, too, when he first observed the script judged it to be an unpracticed, messy hand, perhaps even by a modern forger, but on further observation and reflection concluded that the problem was the pen of the ancient scribe. In our initial conversation, he suggested that it appears to have been blunt and not holding the ink well, resulting in the wide letter and thick strokes that appear. With this kind of tool, the copyist may have aspired to imitate the so-called thick and thin style, the type of uncial handwriting used for biblical manuscripts, yet succeeded only in the thick effect, with no thin strokes.

There's been a lot of online discussion on this among NT scholars. There's a round-up of what they're weiting with links at the bottom of this post by James McGrath ...

JIm McK. ==Are you sure you're not thinking of the Manichees' dualism? The Zoroastrians were dualists in that they believed there were two gods, the good one, Mazda, and his opponent, the evil Ahriman. But Ahriman was not body. He was the evil spirit of death and destruction and all things wicked. The good God was the creator of the world and according to the Zoroastrians it is good.What intrigues me about the notion that the body and matter are evil is that it isn't something that all people believe, so it's not some necessary construct of human nature. The notion that body/mattr is evil seems to be indigenous to Mediterranean peoples. So what was its origin? OR were there a number of origins or some historical phenomenon that impelled people to think like that. It certainly has been persistent. I don't think you can simply blame the Greeks. Plato thought the body was a distraction from the world of the Good and even a "prison-house" that prevented the soul from ascending to the Good, but he certainly didn't hate this world.

Ann,I agree that you cannot simply blame the Greeks. But the platonic body/soul divide plays a role. The docetic denial of Jesus' suffering was aggravated by that body/soul dualism, resulting in negative attitudes toward the material world where suffering takes place. Mani was Persian, or of Persian descent. He counts Zoroaster as a prophet who influenced him, alongside Jesus and Buddha. That influence includes an identification of Ahriman with the material world, normal in Zoroastrian circles even if it was not necessary. Zaehner occasionally was exasperated by the inconsistency that derived the 'cold and dry' world from the 'hot and moist' divinity even as it identified the 'cold and dry' with the eternal evil of Ahriman.The real problem is that most of this, including the definition of who was a Gnostic, was done by Westerners who were influenced by their own dualisms, esp. Christianity=good/ everything else = evil. The Infancy Gospel of St Thomas is very different from the Gospel of St Thomas, but Gnosticism was defined so as to include both. What do we say then when we find something that is like both, but different enough to not fit with Gnosticism?

Jim McK. ==I realize that there were many strains in early Christianity, and some of them weren't schools or cults or movements but more like themes that kept reappearing. But I still wonder about where anyone would get the idea that the body/matter was evil, much less that Jesus taught that. It just seems so foreign to the rest of what He (and the OT) taught. Maybe there are some western Caucasian genes that incline some of us to feel that way. Or maybe it is the later Greeks' fault for distinguishing matter and spirit in the first place. (The early Greeks didn't distinguish matter and spirit.) But the notion lingers and it's part of that noxious stereotype of "the Christian" that can poison understanding of Christ's teachings.

This has definitely turned out to be a situation where the text itself is significantly less interesting than the response. Schweitzer has an oft-quoted observation concerning the 1st generation of historical Jesus scholars that basically points out that people will discover a Jesus made in their own image. I think that something like this has been happening with respect to this fragment. From the beginning, I noted that, while this fragment has nothing to do with the historical Jesus, the loudest buzz would be totally about the historical Jesus. And so we have seen a near-frantic burst of responses (a number of them from academics) who felt a huge need to man the ramparts and point out to the public that this doesnt change anythingbut weve also seen a real push for recognition of this fragments potential to, well, change everything, but without much indication as to why that is so. Neither group seems to be ready to just think about what the text, in context, really has to offer. One thing that hasnt really been picked up here is that significant objections have made to the authenticity of this fragment. These objections have been readily seized upon by people who, for whatever reason, feel threatened by the existence of this scrap of papyrus, and so the public hashing of these objections have been near worthless (and this includes discussions on academic biblical studies blogs). I do not have the expertise to comment on the objections, though I could say a lot about how people are responding to them. I will say that I was pretty surprised by how King approached this fragment in terms of publicizing it. Its one thing to present a preliminary paper to a conference discussing the potential significance of the find, but its another to organize a documentary production and contact the NYT when the damn thing hasnt even been subjected to more rigorous analysis. And now the Harvard Theological Review has publicly stated that it isnt publishing any of her work on it until that analysis takes placewhich, of course, is a no-brainer, but it just makes it embarrassingly clear how pre-emptive much of this was. All in all, this is probably a freaking lesson about the scholarly method as much as anything else.


Why some historials refuse to use the traditional BC and AD to note epochs is beyond me. BCE and CE are soo lame - and show the ignorance, not to mention the tediousness, of the user.

I had a constructive reply for you--the sort I'd give to a student in a classroom--but then I remembered that you're not a student in a class, you're a troll on the interwebs. So here is a more constructive reply: stfuadiaf.

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