In the concluding chapter of my book on Christian amulets, I briefly discuss an identifiable pattern in the corpus of Greek amulets under investigation: nomina sacra (abbreviated sacred names) were written oddly at times and they are frequently written out in full form (i.e., not abbreviated). I gave a few examples in that dicussion:
ερ for σῶτερ
χ for χριστός
θου for θεοῦ (see image at left)
κ for κυρίω
I have recently accepted an invitation to contribute a chapter to an edited monograph to be published by Brill, and my plan is to address the question that I left unanswered in my book: “Why was such a well-established Christian scribal convention altered in many paraliterary texts?”
Here is a working abstract:
Over the last century, the Christian scribal practice of abbreviating sacred names (nomina sacra) has received ample attention. Their presence in our earliest Christian material evidence suggests that this scribal phenomenon developed early on and may have spread widely within Christian circles. It is a generally held view that nomina sacra within a written document are markers of Christianity. While some irregularities in the writing of these names have been noted, the most common sacred names (i.e., God, Jesus, Lord, Christ) are abbreviated with a high degree of consistency in Christian manuscripts. However, when we turn to certain genres, like amulets and private letters, nomina sacra frequently exhibit idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. For example, we find odd forms of abbreviation, and sometimes the nomina sacra exhibit scriptio plena (i.e., spelled in full) where one would expect abbreviated forms. Given the abundance of these “errors” (as they have usually been classified) and inconsistencies in the writing of nomina sacra outside biblical and other Christian literary texts, it prompts the question: why was such a well-established scribal convention altered in many paraliterary texts? This chapter explores this question by looking at specific cases within Christian amulets. The study then considers these texts within the context of “magic,” monasticism, private reading, and Christian ritual practices to see how Christian scribal habits may have been affected.
The question the study poses is challenging, because when you start to think about an answer, you realize that there are all sorts of related, complicated questions. For example, who wrote “Christian” amulets? There are many possibilities: clergy, monks, priests, ritual experts (secular/Christian?), individuals who used amulets, and so on. To what extent were they aware of the Christian convention of abbreviating sacred names? And were they copying from memory or an exemplar? If they were copying a text in front of them, did these copyists understand the “system” they were carrying over into their text? How many of these amulets were actually read? Some were obviously folded and worn on the body, probably after an initial ritual. Many of these were surely never unfolded and read. Some are more likely candidates to have be used more than once. In those cases, who was reading them and how well could they read? Would the readers have understood the nomina sacra? Might the quality of scripts correspond to the care given to things like abbreviations, punctuation, textual character and the like? All of these questions are relevant for the question driving the study.
A tempting answer would be to say that these are private and ephemeral documents written by careless scribes, which explains why amulets exhibit so many idiosyncrasies. That’s typically the answer one encounters. And this may indeed be true to some extent. But are there other ways to approach the question?
I welcome the thoughts and suggestions of others here.
I am glad to see that, in just a few months, The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media (DBAM), edited by Tom Thatcher, Chris Keith, Raymond F. Person, Jr., and Elsie Stern, will be published by Bloomsbury T&T Clark. This book is a collection of "individual entries of 300-5000 words on terms and topics commonly encountered in studies of the Bible in ancient media culture." Several years ago, I happily accepted the editors' invitation to author three individual entries ("Papyrus," "Parchment/Vellum," and "Scrolls") and co-author one entry with Profs. Emanuel Tov and Christopher Rollston ("Writing and Writing Materials"). This is a reference tool that will be useful for anyone interested in the ancient world and the Bible. Click here to pre-order your copy and to learn more about the volume, including a full list of entries and contributors.
About The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media
"The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media (DBAM) is a convenient and authoritative reference tool which relates specific terms and concepts to the study of the Bible and related literature in ancient communications culture. Particularly since the early 1980s, scholars have begun to explore the potentials of interdisciplinary theories of oral tradition, oral performance, personal and collective memory, ancient literacy and scribality, visual culture, and ritual for considerations of critical and exegetical problems in the study of the Bible, the history of Israel, Christian origins,and rabbinics. DBAM responds to the rapid growth of the field by providing a reference tool that offers definitions and discussions of relevant terms and concepts and the relationships between them.
This volume begins with an overview of "ancient media studies" and a brief history of research to orient the novice reader to the field and the broader research context of the book. It features individual entries of 300-5000 words on terms and topics commonly encountered in studies of the Bible in ancient media culture. Each entry defines the term/concept under consideration, then offers more sustained discussion of the topic often with particular attention to its relevance to the study of the Bible and related literature. For convenience, individual entries are catalogued alphabetically and cross-referenced to indicate connections between the various topics; electronic versions of this resource are internally hyperlinked using the same reference system."
People who know me know that my favorite papyrus collection is the one at the University of Michigan. And it's not necessarily because of the papyri in their collection. The people who are involved in the collection are remarkable: the archivists, collection managers, curators, conservationists, and so on. I have edited quite a few Michigan papyri (and am working on several currently) and the assistance I have received has been second to none. When I was beginning to enter the field of papyrology as an editor of texts, Prof. Arthur Verhoogt was especially helpful to me in securing reservations, providing high-resolution photographs, and formal letters of reservation.
I am excited to announce here his forthcoming book on the history of the Michigan Papyrus Collection, due out this fall:
Discarded, Discovered, Collected: The University of Michigan Papyrus Collection (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017).
I think the cover photo is perfect: these are some of the various boxes and containers (e.g., a Kodak film box!) in which the papyri were transported from across the Atlantic in the early twentieth century. Here is the description from the publisher's website:
Discarded, Discovered, Collected: The University of Michigan Papyrus Collection provides an accessible introduction to the University’s collection of papyri and related ancient materials, the widest and deepest resource of its kind in the Western hemisphere. The collection was founded in the early part of the 20th century by University of Michigan Professor of Classics Francis W. Kelsey. His original intention was to create a set of artifacts that would be useful in teaching students more directly about the ancient world, at a time when trips to ancient sites were much harder to arrange.
Jointly administered by the University of Michigan’s Department of Classical Studies and its Library, the collection has garnered significant interest beyond scholarly circles and now sees several hundred visitors each year. Of particular note among the collection’s holdings are sixty pages of the earliest known copy of the Epistles of St. Paul, which are often featured on tours of the collection by groups from religious institutions.
Arthur Verhoogt, one of the current stewards of the University of Michigan Papyrology Collection, provides clear, insightful information in an appealing style that will attract general readers and scholars alike. Extensively illustrated with some of the collection’s more spectacular pieces, this volume describes what the collection is, what kinds of ancient texts it contains, and how it has developed from Francis Kelsey’s day to the present. Additionally, Verhoogt describes in detail how people who study papyri carry out their work, and how papyri contribute to our understanding of various aspects of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Translations of the ancient texts are presented so that the reader can experience some of the excitement that comes with reading original documents from many centuries ago.
Publication made possible in part through the support of Virginia and William Dawson.
Arthur Verhoogt is Professor of Papyrology and Greek and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan.
In the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, Brent Landau and T.C. Hoklotubbe provide the edition of a fifth/sixth century papyrus (P.Oxy. 81.5260), which preserves a variant of a Christian hymn known from several Greek patristic sources. The title to their entry is, “Hymn of the Cross: Amulet?”
Each line of the fragment begins with a standalone staurogram (the combination of the Greek letters tau and rho) representing the word “cross” (this is highly unusual), followed by a descriptive phrase. Here is an example from column 2:
I here want to draw attention to the fact that a variant of this “cross hymn” is found in another, earlier Greek papyrus fragment housed at Michigan. The papyrus, P.Mich. inv. 1628 (LDAB 195), was published in 1984 by Nancy Priest, who drew parallels with the text of Alexander Monachus’ De inventione sanctae crucis (see PG 87:4073). Neither the Michigan papyrus nor the text of Alexander are mentioned by the authors of the new Oxyrhynchus fragment, so a couple noteworthy observations can be made.
In the Michigan fragment, the word “cross” (σταυρός) begins each line and is abbreviated all but two times as σταυρ, with an oblique stroke written through the letter rho (see image at right). It just so happens that this stroke combined with the letter rho resembles a staurogram, which stands alone at the beginning of each line in the Oxyrhynchus fragment. One might be tempted to argue that the scribe created the staurogram in this way intentionally, although this oblique stroke is a typical marker of abbreviation (in fact, he/she uses it as such in l. 16 for another word. So, we cannot be too sure.
More importantly, the Michigan papyrus has textual parallels with the sources cited by Landau and Hoklotubbe: Pseudo-Chrysostom (which, as the authors show, has been attributed to John II, bishop of Jerusalem), Ephrem the Syrian, and John of Damascus.
For example, the Michigan fragment shares a few readings with all three patristic sources: σταυρὸς χειμαζομένων [Ps.C: -οντων] λιμήν; σταυρὸς ἐκκλησίας θεμέλιος, σταυρὸς δούλων ἐλευθερία. Other readings in the Michigan fragment are shared with only one or two of the patristic sources but it is clear that all these sources are drawing on a common literary tradition.
These parallels are important for two reasons: dating the composition of the hymn and reconstructing the text of the Michigan fragment.
The Michigan papyrus was dated to the fourth century ("or perhaps a bit later"); the Oxyrhynchus papyrus was dated to the fifth/sixth century. Landau and Hoklotubbe say, “Although 5260 is dated to the fifth/sixth century, the hymn may have originated earlier, at a time when the composition of new hymns was controversial” (p. 12). Given the dating of the Michigan papyrus, we can at least say that variants of the hymn were indeed circulating around a century prior to the composition of the Oxyrhynchus fragment. As Landau and Hoklotubbe demonstrate, the stanzas of this hymn diverge among all sources, both in content and sequence. The hymn probably has earlier origins and was perhaps reshaped by different authors in different locations along the way for various purposes (this was typical of homiletical texts, for example).
Priest did not reference the sources cited by Landau and Hoklotubbe but those sources are incredibly significant because now some lines in the Michigan fragment can be restored with certainty. I am working on a re-edition of P.Mich. inv. 1628 and will try to submit that for publication soon.
Finally, it is interesting to note that Priest, Landau, and Hoklotubbe all wonder about the function of their papyri. Priest argued that the Michigan fragment may have served as a hand-list of notes for a sermon on the cross. Landau and Hoklotubbe suggest the Oxyrhynchus fragment could have been designed as an amulet or for liturgical use. It is difficult to say with certainty how these papyri functioned (prayer? homily? amulet? notes? private devotion?) but the question is worth pondering. These papyri, especially the Oxyrhynchus fragment, also raise some interesting questions about the development/use of the staurogram in early Christian artifacts.