Just last week, I drew attention to a Coptic papyrus being sold in an eBay auction. That blog post was featured in a column in The Daily Beast on the topic of "Dismembering History: The Shady Online Trade in Ancient Texts."
This week, we are back to eBay, with yet two more Coptic manuscripts. Both manuscripts are being sold by a seller located in Germany. According to the eBay description, both manuscripts are "from the collection of Dr. Christian Grand. Exported from [E]gypt ca. in 1950. (confirmed, with a clear provenance)." I cannot find any information on a Dr. Christian Grand, but it would certainly seem that his collection is a private one. It would be very helpful to know more about that "clear provenance" the seller mentions.
The first manuscript is a Coptic papyrus (see image above) written in a type of handwriting that papyrologists call "documentary." In other words, this is not a literary text: it is a document from everyday life, probably a private letter. Support for this designation (i.e., private letter) is found toward the end of the papyrus, where we find the Coptic phrase "shēn Kosma" ("son/daughter of Kosmas"). Kosmas is a very common name in Coptic documentary papyri from Egypt. So, it is not a liturgical piece, as the eBay description cautiously suggests. As for the date of this papyrus, it is almost impossible to know, since Coptic manuscripts are notoriously difficult to date. The 4th century date given, therefore, must be taken with a grain of salt.
The same eBay seller is auctioning off another Coptic manuscript. Unlike the papyrus above, this fragment is written in a nice literary hand on parchment (animal skin). There is a handwritten note in French on the glass framing the fragment that reads "Fragment homélie, 5-6 siecle" ("Homily fragment, 5-6 century"). I have not made a thorough search for the content, but its does not appear to be biblical. A homily is a good guess but this remains to be determined.
As a papyrologist who studies ancient Greek and Coptic manuscripts, I am quite interested in locating and identifying manuscripts such as the ones above that surface on the antiquities market. Many such manuscripts were purchased by private collectors in the early 20th century and they surface on the market every now and then. Usually, their appearance means that the original owner has died and that the owner's collection is being sold off by someone else (usually a family member). Alternatively, a seller may decide to sell his or her items for financial gain. Just in the last few weeks, we have seen quite a few papyri in online auctions, all from private collections of individuals who are otherwise unknown. And this prompts the question: Just how many ancient manuscripts are sitting in the basements, match boxes, drawers, safes, or shelves of private collectors around the globe? It is almost certain that, as I write this, many ancient manuscripts or fragments thereof are just sitting in the dark closets of their collectors, decaying and crumbling to pieces. The public needs to be aware of the importance of the preservation of antiquities, because once they are gone, they are gone forever.
To cite just one example, the famous papyrus codex of the Gospel of Judas, published in 2006, was stored by one of its owners in a safe-deposit box on Long Island for sixteen years, and then placed in a freezer by a potential buyer because this person thought that was the best way to preserve it! The results of these decisions were horrifying: the codex crumbled into many hundreds of tiny pieces and what was once a virtually complete codex was now badly deteriorated and difficult to restore (see the image here). There needs to be more control in the selling of antiquities to ensure proper preservation and conservation. And I'm not sure eBay is helping the situation, although these auctions are at least providing us with evidence of otherwise unknown antiquities.
In any case, what will ultimately happen to the two eBay manuscripts above? Will the buyer store it in his/her freezer? Will he/she put it in on his/her wall of prize collections, where it will stay for decades? Will it get lost accidentally in the shipping process? Will it get stolen from the collector's home?
Your guess is as good as mine
More news about the so-called "1st century" fragment of Mark, this time from Christian apologist Craig Evans. Still no images. Still no publication.
Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015). Paper $22.
Fills the need for a truly mid-level, qualitytextbook on New Testament textual criticism
This book provides a student-level overview of the foundational elements necessary to grasp textual criticism of the New Testament, also addressing such issues as canonical formation and translation theory.
Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts cover a range of topics related to New Testament textual criticism, including appropriate definitions, the canon, the manuscripts of the New Testament, and the best methodologies for determining the original reading when manuscripts disagree. They also provide a history of the various editions of the New Testament with a how-to guide for using and understanding them.
The end of each chapter includes a list of key vocabulary and a select bibliography, making this text especially useful for teachers and students. An appendix introduces students to the tools of textual criticism and invites discussion on how they might use textual criticism in a future classroom or ministry setting.
Today I came across an auction on eBay with the title "Ancient Egyptian papyrus with Greek letters – Bible." It is listed with a "buy it now" price for $1,098. From the images posted on eBay, it is clear that the language is Coptic, despite the erroneous description that it is "written in Greek" and "from the Ptolemaic period c. 200 years B.C." It is also not biblical, as the title indicates (a crafty business ploy to drive potential buyers to the auction). Aside from the obvious questions about provenance and which private collection this piece stems from, it seems the papyrus may have once belonged to the collection of famous antiquities dealer Erik von Scherling. According to the card on the back, the papyrus was "Collected in the 1960's and from an old Swiss private collection." The description from the seller gives a further detail: "From an old Swiss collection, probably Erik von Scherling collection."
If this is true, then it would be a missing piece from von Scherling's collection. Prof. Klaas Worp and Renate Dekker have diligently been working to reconstruct von Scherling's collection over the years and this one may add to the fragmented picture. Of course there is no way to assess the authenticity of the description unless the seller is willing to talk about the fragment. However, I doubt a seller would know the name of von Scherling unless he saw it somewhere or new about the purchase, the owner, or both. Given that von Scherling's descriptions were usually accurate about language of composition and contents, it is my hunch that the card on the back was written by someone else, perhaps a non-specialist owner. There is a hand-written number on that card that reads "3106." I don't think this is a Rotulus number (von Scherling's private catalogue that buyers and potential buyers would consult), but it could possibly be one of the items sold outside Rotulus (these had different numbers). If it is a von Scherling item, I think it might be no. 1696, listed in the June 1933 issue of Rotulus and described as a "Coptic papyrus. Ten imperfect lines in Cursive uncial letters, part of a document or letter, verso blank (with transcription) (4:2.5 inches) 7th century (Egypt)." Everything is consistent with what we see on the eBay papyrus, except the dimensions listed on the card.
In any case, it is worth knowing about, since, given the nature of the sale (international e-commerce), the chances of the papyrus going missing forever are possible, and even probable. Note the word μακάριος in l. 4 and the Z-shaped horeh in ll. 6 and 7. The straight left edge suggests that the piece has been cut, probably for the purpose of being sold piecemeal to individual buyers – a common (and unfortunately lucrative) practice among private dealers and sebbâkhîn in the Middle East.
Update: I received the following private message from Prof. Klaas Worp (posted here with permission):
"Comparing the description of the piece given on eBay, I conclude that this item MUST be Rotulus 3 (1933) no. 1696. So, this fragment was already on the market in the year 1933 and might have been swimming 'up Rhine' from Leiden (the 'Old Rhine' river curves through part of the town!) to Basel or so already before the start of WW II."