Edinburgh Papyri

Edinburgh Papyri
by larry hurtado

Yesterday, I led a group of about 15 PhD students to the Special Collections unit in the University of Edinburgh main library to examine their collection of papyri from Oxyrhynchus. The library holds about 20 such items, which came from the early years of the excavations in that site. None of the papyri held in our library is a Christian text, but a number of them are lst or 2nd century in date. Nevertheless, for the students, it was their first opportunity to handle and examine directly ancient papyri, and they were understandably excited about it.

The items we looked at included a number of “documentary” texts (a couple of letters, a marriage contract, a dinner invitation, and various legal documents) and also a few “literary” texts (e.g., a fragment of Aratus and a couple of other such items). This gave an opportunity to see for themselves the major differences between the handwriting used in “documentary” texts (cursive and very difficult to de-cipher by anyone who isn’t highly trained in Greek palaeography) and the more legible writing typically used for literary texts (more familiar “majuscule” letters individually spaced). We also noted examples of corrections, very occasionally punctuation, annotations by readers of the literary texts, and re-used rolls (with another text by another hand on the reverse side).

On 11 April, I take a number of PhD students to the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin) to view the marvellous collection of early Christian biblical papyri held there. I confess to sharing the students’ excitement, still after some years studying these matters, in handling and examining actual physical objects of life from those early times.

For those who might want to acquire some acquaintance with ancient papyri, I’d think the best place to start is with the fascinating little book by Eric G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (1968; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), followed by E. G. Turner,Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World, 2nd ed., Institute of Classical Studies Bulletin Supplement, no. 46 (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1987).

For examples of ancient “bookhands” used in literary texts, Colin H. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands 350 B.C.–400 A.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955); Guglielmo Cavallo, Greek Bookhands of the Early Byzantine Period: A.D. 300-800, Bulletin of the Institute for Classical Studies, no. 47 (London: Institute for Classical Studies, 1987); and now Guglielmo Cavallo and Herwig Maehler, Hellenistic Bookhands (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2008).

  • RickC

    Great stuff! Thanks! Truly!

    I can not imagine but would like to do so with regards to the way of daily life back in those time periods. The culture practices and differences would have been so interesting to ‘feel’. Totally wide-eyed amazing to me.

    And in that vein lately I have been thinking about the ancient jewish ‘courting’ practices for young couples something I know nothing about. I wonder what it must have been like and what restrictions, obviously cultural, would have been in place for those that wide eyed saw their future mate/lover for the first time. Jacob obviously loved Rachel very much but what were the restrictions on him during that time period in his life for courting? When it comes to anything ancient jewish or ancient hebrew it’s definitely going to be different than the surrounding cultures simply because I AM THAT I AM, something also approached with very, very wide eyes. I and eye for one would not ignore a burning talking bush that declared I AM THAT I AM. That certainly implies change in so many ways! Culture along with it!

  • Benw333

    Mostly Rick there was not courting. All marriages were arranged marriages in that era, and only the uber-wealthy or royals had any freedom about making their own arrangements.