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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Papyri And Ostraca

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PAPYRI AND OSTRACA. Until almost the end of the 19th cent., the most important records of antiquity, apart from the authors, that had been preserved for literary reasons, were the inscriptions on stone and metal. Published in great collections, and utilized by scholars of all civilized countries, they have given new life to all branches of the study of antiquity, to history in the widest sense of the word, and in particular to the history of States, law, economics, language, and religion. The age of modern epigraphy has been extraordinarily productive of knowledge that never could have been discovered from the authors alone. And the end has not yet come. The researches and excavations of European and American archæological institutes and of special archæological expeditions, in which the Governments of almost all civilized countries and many wealthy individuals have taken part, bring to light innumerable inscribed stones every year. Then there are the engineering enterprises for opening up the countries of the Levant to traffic and commerce. In the construction of railways particularly, but also in other similar undertakings, a quantity of epigraphical material is discovered and made accessible to scholars.

These epigraphical records were reinforced in the last quarter of the 19th cent. by two quite new groups of records, both of which have ushered in a new epoch in the science of antiquity, viz. the Papyri and the Ostraca . Both have led to the development of entirely new branches of study. In comparison with the inscriptions they not only constitute an enormous quantitative increase of our materials, but also qualitatively they are of quite special importance: they allow us to see into the private life of the men of antiquity their most private life, in fact much deeper than we could ever have done by aid of the authors and the inscriptions.

Suppose for a moment that chance excavations in an absolutely dry mound of rubbish were to lead to the discovery of whole bundles of original private letters, contracts, wills, judicial reports, etc., relating to our own ancestors of the 10th cent. a.d. what a wave of excitement would run through the whole of the learned world! How few are the documents that we do possess of the private life of those times! History preserves the old inscribed stones, the archives of kings, the chanceries of the great churches and municipalities, but suffers the written memorials of peasants, soldiers, women, artizans, to disappear after a few years without a trace. It was exactly the same in antiquity. The tradition that had come down to us was on the whole the tradition preserved in the history of what was great the history of nations, potentates, the intellectual leaders in art, science, and religion; and that is true in great measure of the inscriptions, which for the most part owe their origin to princes, cities, and wealthy Individuals.

Only those rare inscriptions that originated in the middle and lower classes of ancient society had to some extent counterbalanced the one-sidedness of the materials available as sources. The papyri and ostraca, however, have remedied the defect in a most unexpected manner. Rubbish mounds such as that which we just now assumed hypothetically to be discoverable in our own country, but which in reality, owing to the dampness of our climate, probably do not exist anywhere in the West, occur in large numbers in Egypt. In ancient times the dumping grounds for rubbish and refuse were on the outskirts of the cities, towns, and villages. Whole bundles of documents that were too old to be worth preserving were thrown on these rubbish heaps by the authorities, instead of being burned; and private persons did the same when they wished to get rid of written matter that had accumulated and was considered valueless. The centuries have covered these ancient rubbish-shoots with layers of dust and sand, and this covering has united with the great dryness of the climate to preserve most excellently the old sheets of papyrus and the inscribed fragments of pottery. Of course these texts, when re-discovered in our own day, throw a flood of light upon the upper cultivated class, but for the most part they are documents of the middle and lower classes.

It had long been known that papyrus was in antiquity a very popular writing material. The pith of the papyrus plant, which thrives excellently in the damp levels of the Nile, was cut into strips, and from these strips, laid cross-wise, horizontally and vertically, upon each other, the sheets of papyrus were manufactured by gumming and pressing. Perishable as the material seems, it is in reality excellent. We possess Egyptian papyri of the time of king Assa ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 2600 according to Eduard Meyer’s chronology); and most of the papyri now in our museums have lain more than 1500 years in the earth of Egypt. It is therefore not such a fantastic plan that has lately been suggested in Italy, viz., to re-introduce the manufacture of papyrus and establish it as a State monopoly in connexion with the making of bank notes. It is hoped in this way to obtain a material as durable as it would be difficult to counterfeit.

The first discoverers of written papyri must have been Egyptian fellahîn , digging in the old rubbish mounds for good earth and treasure. In the year 1778 a European noticed a number of papyrus documents in the hands of some of these peasants; he bought one, and watched them burn some fifty others in order that they might enjoy the aromatic smoke. The one document came to Europe; it is the Charta Borgiana, the decipherment of which marks the first beginning of papyrology. Though a good number of other papyri reached the European museums in the course of the 19th cent., only a few scholars took any trouble to cultivate papyrology further, until in 1877, a hundred years after the acquisition of the Charta Borgiana, many thousands of papyri came to light from the rubbish mounds near the ‘City of Crocodiles’ or ‘City of the Arsenoites,’ the old capital of the province of el-Fayyum in Middle Egypt.

This was the beginning of a new epoch that has led to a gigantic development of the infant science of papyri. The period of chance discoveries, the harvest of which used from merely financial considerations to be scattered hither and thither, has been succeeded by a period of systematic excavations carried out by highly trained specialists, who keep together the documents they discover and publish them in collected form. British scholars particularly have performed signal services by discovering and publishing papyri. Flinders Petrie has obtained magnificent specimens from mummy-wrappings which had been made by sticking papyri together. Grenfell and Hunt have carried out splendid excavations at Oxyrhynchus and other places, and have published their treasures with a rapidity and accuracy that place them in the front rank of editors, as the world of scholarship acknowledges. Besides these there are many other editors, and every year adds to the army of workers on the texts; philologists and historians, lawyers and theologians, all have found and are finding abundant work. The young and hopeful science has found a centre in the Archiv für Papyrusforschung , a journal edited by the leading German papyrologist, Ulrich Wilcken.

The papyri fall into two great classes according to the nature of their contents, viz. literary texts and non-literary texts.

Literary texts have come to light in large numbers, though generally only in fragments. They comprise not only very ancient MSS of well-known authors, but also a large number of lost authors; and lost writings by known authors have been partially recovered. These finds would suffice to show the extreme importance of the papyrus discoveries. And many scholars have considered these literary finds to be the most valuable.

But for scholarship as a whole the second group, the non-literary texts, is no doubt the more important. As regards their contents, they are as varied as life itself. Legal documents of the most various kinds, e.g . leases, accounts and receipts, contracts of marriage and divorce, wills, denunciations, notes of trials, and tax-papers, are there in innumerable examples; moreover, there are letters and notes, schoolboys’ exercise-books, horoscopes, diaries, petitions, etc. Their value lies in the inimitable fidelity with which they reflect the actual life of ancient society, especially in its middle and lower strata.

The oldest papyri date from c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 2600, and are among the most precious Egyptological records. To the 5th cent. b.c. belong the Aramaic papyri from Assuan, published by Sayce and Cowley in 1906, and those from Elephantine, published by Sachau in 1907 documents that have furnished astonishing information relative to the history of Judaism. In the 4th cent. b.c. the main stream, as it were, begins, consisting of Greek papyri, and extending from the time of the Ptolemys till the first centuries of the Arab occupation, i.e . over a period of more than 1000 years. Associated with them there are Latin, Coptic, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and other papyri so that, taken all together, they confer an immense benefit, and at the same time impose an immense obligation, upon the science of antiquity.

What is the importance of the papyri to Biblical science? It is twofold. In the first place, they increase our stock of Biblical MSS in a most gratifying manner; and secondly, they place new sources at the disposal of the philological student of the Greek Bible.

Beginning then with Biblical MSS, and first of all MSS of the Hebrew Bible, we have in the Nash Papyrus a very ancient copy of the Ten Commandments. As regards the Greek Old Testament, we have numerous Septuagint fragments ( e.g . the Leipzig fragments of the Psalms, the Heidelberg fragments of the Minor Prophets), together with isolated remains of other translations. For the New Testament we possess an equally fine series of ancient fragments. But besides these we have acquired quite new material, in particular the various remains of lost Gospels and two papyrus fragments and one vellum fragment with sayings of Jesus, some of which are not to be found in the NT. Of course with such finds as these it is always a question how far they contain ancient and genuine material; and the opinions of specialists, e.g . with regard to these sayings of Jesus, are at variance. But in any case, even if, as is not at all likely, they should prove to be of quite secondary importance as regards the history of Jesus, they would be valuable documents in the history of Christianity. Quite a number of the papyri throw fresh light on early Christianity as a whole. Fragments of the Fathers, Apocryphal and Gnostic writings, liturgical texts, homiletic fragments, remains of early Christian poetry, have been recovered in large numbers, both in Greek and Coptic. But to these must be added the large number of non-literary documents, both Jewish and Early Christian, which are to be reckoned among the oldest relics of our religion. From the time of the persecution of the Christians under the Emperor Decius, we possess, for example, no fewer than five libelli issued to libellatici, i.e . official certificates by the authorities responsible for the pagan sacrifices, that the holder of the papyrus had performed the prescribed sacrifices. To the time of the Diocletian persecution belongs probably the letter of Psenosiris, a Christian presbyter in the Great Oasis, relating to a banished Christian woman named Politike. Then comes a long series of other early Christian original letters in Greek and Coptic, from the 3rd cent. until late in the Byzantine period. Centuries that had long been supposed to be knowable only from the folios of Fathers of the Church are made to live again by these original documents documents of whose complete naïveté and singleness of purpose there can be no doubt.

The direct value of the papyri to Bible scholarship and ecclesiastical history is thus very considerable. Less obvious, however, but none the less great, is the indirect value of the papyri, and chiefly the non-literary documents of private life.

This value is discoverable in two directions. The papyri, as sources of popular, non-literary Late Greek, have placed the linguistic investigation of the Greek Bible on new foundations; and, as autograph memorials of the men of the ancient world from the age of the great religious revolution, they enable us better to understand these men the public to whom the great world-mission of Primitive Christianity was addressed.

As regards the first, the philological value of the papyri, these new texts have caused more and more the rejection of the old prejudice that the Greek Bible (OT and NT) represents a linguistic entity clearly determinable by scholarship. On the contrary, the habit has arisen more and more of bringing ‘Biblical’ or ‘New Testament’ Greek into relation with popular Late Greek, and it has come to be realized that the Greek Bible is itself the grandest monument of that popular language.

The clearest distinctive features of a living language fall within the province of phonology and accidence. And in the phonology and accidence we see most readily that the assumption of a ‘Biblical’ Greek, capable of being isolated from other Greek for purposes of study, was wrong. The hundreds of morphological details that strike the philologist accustomed only to classical Attic, when he begins to read the Greek Bible, are found also in the contemporary records of the ‘profane’ popular language, especially in the papyri and ostraca. The recent Grammars of the NT by Winer-Schmiedel, Blass, and James Hope Moulton, have furnished an extremely copious collection of parallel phenomena. Helbing’s Grammar of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) does the same. The Septuagint was produced in Egypt, and naturally employed the language of its surroundings; the Egyptian papyri are therefore magnificent as parallel texts, especially as we possess a great abundance of texts from the Ptolemaic period, i.e . the time when the Septuagint itself originated. The correspondence between them goes so far that Mayser’s Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Ptolemaic Period might in many particulars be used as a Septuagint Grammar.

Questions of Biblical orthography, which seem unimportant to the layman, but cause much worry to an editor of the Biblical text, are of course illumined by the contemporary papyri. The matter is not unimportant to the scientific scholar, who must work with the fidelity of the wise steward.

In the same way problems of syntax and of style are considerably advanced by the papyri. It is possible, for example, to place the whole theory of the prepositions on a new basis. The use of the prepositions in Late Greek is very interesting. To mention but one small point, we are now able to make much more exact statements with regard to those prepositions in the NT which denote a vicarious relation and how important these are in the Apostles’ personal confessions of faith! The syntactical peculiarities of the NT, which used often to be traced back to Semitic influence, can also as a rule be paralleled from the papyri. The whole question of Semiticisms will now be able to be treated afresh. Formerly, when the NT used to be ‘isolated’ far too much, the question was generally answered in such a way that the influence of the so-called ‘genius’ of the Hebrew or Aramaic language, especially on the Primitive Christians, was greatly exaggerated. Linguistic phenomena that could not be found recorded in the ordinary Greek Grammars were described summarily as Semiticisms. It was forgotten that the NT and the Septuagint are for the most part documents of the popular language, and that the popular language in Greek and in Semitic has much in common. For example, the so-called ‘paratactic’ style of St. John’s Gospel and St. John’s Epistles, which used generally to be pronounced strongly Semitic, is in fact simply popular style, and has its parallels in inscriptions and papyri which certainly are not under Semitic influence. The existence of Semiticisms in the Greek Bible is of course not denied by recent Biblical investigators in the books translated from Semitic originals they are really numerous but the number of Semiticisms has been considerably reduced, and in proportion as the Semitic character of the NT recedes, its popular character is made to advance.

It is lexicography, perhaps, that derives most benefit from the new documents. Late Greek is rich in new words and new meanings of old words: the virgin soil of the life of the people is inexhaustible. Grammarians of a later age the so-called Atticists lured by Attic Greek of the classical period as by a phantom, fought against these new words and meanings, branded them as ‘bad,’ and tried to root them out. A number of littérateurs suffered themselves to be bound by the rules of the Atticists, as if they had been living in the 5th cent. b.c. This unhistorical, pedantic, and dogmatic tendency left the men of the NT practically untouched. Men of the people themselves, they spoke as the people spoke, and in the Gospels, for example, they for the first time introduced the language of the people with vigour into literature. By reason of its popular character, the language of the first Apostles is pre-eminently a missionary language, and this language it was that really enabled Christianity to rise to a world-religion. All this is confirmed most amply by the new discoveries. Words that we used formerly to regard as specifically ‘Biblical’ or ‘New Testament,’ we find now in the mouth of the people. Besides the papyri the inscriptions are also rich sources. Illustrative quotations from the papyri are for us particularly lifelike, because we can generally date them even to the day. Turn over the pages of the second volume of Oxyrhynchus Papyri published by Grenfell and Hunt, and you find that the non-literary examples are almost exclusively documents of the 1st cent. a.d., i.e . the exact time in which the NT grew up. It will be possible from these and other papyri to enrich very greatly the future Lexicon of the NT.

Thus we see the justification of the statement that the new texts of popular Late Greek have placed the linguistic investigation of the Greek Bible on new foundations. In yet another direction they yield an important harvest to theology. The more we realize the missionary character of Primitive Christianity, the more clearly we grasp the greatness of the Apostle Paul working among the proletariat of the great centres of the world’s commerce Ephesus, Corinth, etc. the more we shall feel the necessity of studying the men to whom the gospel was preached, i.e . of obtaining, where possible, insight into their life, not only into their economic position and their family life, but into their very soul. As regards Egypt, we now possess wonderful documents among the papyri, especially in the numerous private letters, which were not intended for publicity, but reflect quite naively the mood of the moment. As they have made clearer to us the nature of the non-literary letters of St. Paul and this alone constitutes a large part of the value of the papyri to NT study so they make live again for us the men of the middle and lower classes of the age of the Primitive Christian mission to the world, especially for him who has ears to hear the softer notes between the lines. But we may assume that the civilization of the Imperial age was tolerably uniform throughout the whole range of the Mediterranean lands, and that if we know the Egyptians of the time of St. Paul, we are not far from knowing the Corinthians and the men of Asia Minor of the same period. And thus we possess in the papyri, as also in the inscriptions, excellent materials for the re-construction of the historical background of Primitive Christianity.

In conclusion, reference may be made once more to the fact that recently, in addition to the papyri, a great number of similar ancient texts, written on fragments of pottery, have been discovered in Egypt, viz. the Ostraca . As the potsherd cost nothing (anybody could fetch one from the nearest rubbish heap), it was the writing material of the poor man, and revenue officials were fond of using it in transactions with the poor. The ostraca, which are also numbered by thousands, are on the whole even more ‘vulgar’ than the papyri, but for that very reason valuable to us in all the respects already specified with regard to the papyri. The real founder of the study of ostraca on the great scale is Ulrich Wilcken, who has collected, deciphered, and historically elucidated the Greek ostraca. Next to him W. E. Crum has rendered similar services to the Coptic ostraca. To show that the ostraca, besides their indirect importance, have also a direct value for the history of Christianity, we may refer to the potsherds inscribed with texts from the Gospels, or the early Christian legal documents recently discovered at the town of Menas, but chiefly to the Coptic potsherds containing numerous Christian letters and illustrating particularly the inner history of Egyptian Christianity.

The whole study of papyri and ostraca is still in its infancy. The scholar still sees before him a large portion of the field of work uncultivated. The layman also who loves his Bible may still expect much light from the wonderful texts from the period of the origin of the Septuagint and the NT, and there is no need to fear that the Light of the world (John 8:12 ) will pale before the new lights kindled for us by research. The more we set the NT in its own contemporary world, the more we shall realize, on the one hand, the contact between it and the world, and the more we shall feel, on the other hand, the contrast in which it stands with the world, and for the sake of which it went out to fight with and to conquer that world.

Adolf Deissmann.


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Papyri And Ostraca'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/p/papyri-and-ostraca.html. 1909.

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