Thursday, August 04, 2011

More on the "Ancient Lives" Oxyrhynchus Papyri project


First, some background on the genesis of the project:
Research grant combines astrophysics and archeology to decipher ancient texts
July 26, 2011 By Jenny Allan (

Lucy Fortson, an astrophysicist and Associate Professor in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota is part of a collaboration called Ancientlives which has received a grant to apply the analysis tools of astrophysics to help decipher a collection of ancient Egyptian papyri.

Co-PIs Nita Krevans and Philip Sellew, faculty members in Classical and Near Eastern Studies, will be working with Professor Fortson and an international team, including a new University of Minnesota post-doctoral fellow in papyrology, to oversee citizen transcribers who will volunteer to identify letters on these ancient scraps of books and documents.

The collection known as the Oxyrynchus Papyri was discovered over a hundred years ago yet archeologists and classics scholars have only managed to transcribe a handful of these fragments. Fortson said the papyri came from an ancient garbage dump and mundane documents such as insurance claims and contracts were mixed in with Homer and works by the ancient playwright Menander. Classics scholars originally had to rely on their personal knowledge of ancient texts in order to determine the meaning of the texts and thus far only 15% of the collection has been edited. The hope is that Ancient Lives will help complete the editing process by harnessing the brain-power of volunteers—no knowledge of ancient Greek required.

It's not too far off to say that only "a handful" of the papyri have been transcribed, but go and sit down and think about the fact that this "handful" consists of seventy-five large volumes. (A few of these are online.)

(Via Abu 'l-Rayhan Al-Biruni.)

Second, Alan Boyle at the Cosmic Log blog has some more information about the new fragment of a lost gospel which keeps getting mentioned:
Among the items recently picked out of the pile are fragments of a previously unknown apocryphal gospel that describes Jesus casting out demons, a lost play by Euripides titled "Melanippe the Wise" and newfound letters attributed to the philosopher Epicurus.


Update for 5:30 p.m. ET Aug. 1: Over the weekend, Oxford papyrologist James Brusuelas sent an email with further details about the juiciest bits of papyri:
Gospel: In its current edited state, the gospel has not been overtly connected to any other sources. It remains a hot topic amongst historians of religion and Christianity. One must think about how the wider apocryphal (i.e., not included in the accepted canon of biblical texts) and biblical stories of Jesus relate to and inform the very act of casting out demons. Where does this particular narrative fit in the tradition of Jesus' acts? We have the text, we've identified it. Now it has to be studied and debated (that's why this project can be so cool).
The e-mail from Brusuelas also has information on the new Euripides play.

A couple of other non-canonical gospel fragments (British Library 840 and 1224) are noted in the Wikipedia Oxyrhynchus Gospels article. No mention yet of this new one, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5072.

Background here, where there is a photo of the new gospel fragment. There have been many PaleoJudaica posts on the Oxyrhynchus papyri. Some interesting ones are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (and follow those links).

UPDATE: The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Wikipedia page has lists of biblical and biblical apocrypha manuscripts (etc.). The list of apocryphal gospels is much longer than in the Oxyrhynchus Gospels page noted above, but the long list has also not yet been updated to include 5072. (HT Roberto Labanti.)