Over the years, I have encountered a number of bilingual Christian manuscripts. And I have even seen a number of interesting palimpsests written in different languages. But I have to say that I had never seen a Greek and Pahlavi (Middle Persian) manuscript—at least until now! Meet P.Vindob. G 19802 (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek): three partial folios from a significant sixth century Greek New Testament parchment codex (known as GA 0225 among New Testament scholars). The surviving pages of the codex contain portions of 2 Corinthians. Not long after the composition of this text, a Persian scribe tore (at least) a bifolium (=two folios, four pages) from the codex, sewed on an additional sheet (see example of the sewing at right), and wrote a Pahlavi text at right angles in black ink across the Greek text (now the scriptio inferior). The Persian scribe did not efface the Greek text. Instead, the scribe knew that the comparably smaller Greek script would not get in the way of the large brush strokes, so he/she did not go to the trouble of washing the Greek text off the parchment. Nonetheless, the thick black strokes of the ink make the Greek text difficult to decipher at times.
The lower, Greek text is generally dated to the mid-sixth century on the grounds of palaeography. In addition, the Persian occupation of Egypt (615-618 C.E.) provides a terminus ante quem (latest possible date) for the Greek text. The Pahlavi text belongs to an important group of Pahlavi documents written exclusively in Egypt during the reign of Persian ruler Khosrow II, the last great king of the Sasanian Empire. On this group of Pahlavi documents, see here. The secure dating of these two separate texts allows us to see that the biblical codex did not have a very long life. If the biblical codex was composed some time in the mid-sixth century and the Pahlavi text sometime around 620, then this once-beautiful codex lived for approximately 70 years. But this raises an interesting historical question: is the demise of this codex connected in some way to Persia's occupation of Egypt? If so, how? The wife of Khosrow II was a Christian, and the Christian religion was tolerated under his reign, so I doubt there were any Bible-burnings going on. Nonetheless, we can only wonder how the biblical codex came into the hands of this particular Persian scribe.
Letter writers in the ancient world who chose papyrus as their written medium could use a new sheet of papyrus cut from a roll, or an already-inscribed papyrus. In many cases, when the recipient of a letter wished to respond to the sender, he/she would turn the letter over and write (or have a scribe write) his/her response on the back. In very rare cases, writers would wash the text off of a previously inscribed papyrus surface and then compose their letter. In these cases, it probably means that the respondent actually had no other material at his/her disposal. In other words, it was out of necessity that some papyri were re-used for inscription. We find a case of this detailed in one fourth century C.E. papyrus (P.Abinn. 21): "To my Lord and Father Abinnaeus, Alupios. Since I could not find at the moment a clean sheet of papyrus (χαρτίον καθαρὸν), I have written on this (i.e., the back of another letter)." Sometimes, blank papyrus sheets were actually sent directly to the correspondents. In one papyrus letter dated to the reign of Augustus (P.Wash.Univ. 2.106), Dionysia chastises her brother for not sending her a sheet of unwritten papyrus: "You did not send me word or remembrance or a sheet of unwritten papyrus (κόλλημα ἀγράφου). So write to me a letter and send it." And in another letter dated to the third century C.E. (P.Flor. 3.367), the letter writer complains that his would-be correspondent did not use the "letter-writing papyri" he sent him: "For I wrote to you many times and even sent letter-writing papyri (χάρτας ἐπιστολικο[ὺς) so that you would be supplied to write to me." Fresh, blank papyrus was, after all, not free, so it is understandable why this particular writer was frustrated. These sheets probably cost him good money. I suppose availability of new or "clean" papyrus also depended on one's location in relation to vendors, markets, and manufacturers of papyrus. Surely not everyone kept full papyrus rolls in their dwelling for future correspondence (though this is possible for the more well-to-do; on one request for papyrus rolls, see here, at bottom). It has often been stated that papyri could not be bought as individual sheets, but I hasten to agree with Bagnall and Cribiore's conviction that "people could find on the market papyrus stationary and could purchase individual pieces, whether whole sheets or not, and not only rolls" (Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BCE – AD 800 [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006], 36).
So, next time you go to grab that sticky note, be reminded that the ancients did not have such a luxury!
Codex Seidelianus II (University of Hamburg, Cod. 91 in scrin.; Gregory-Aland 013) is a ninth century Greek parchment codex containing the four canonical Gospels. In the margins of two separate pages in this codex, we find some interesting doodles. Ancient scribes and readers doodled often, and in the medieval period, there are thousands of the most interesting examples (see here). But what do we imagine these figures to represent? Are they bishops? Monks? And what is going on with the feet and heads of these figures? Are they holding crosses? What is on the top of the first figure's head? Let your imaginations run wild!
I am currently editing a small Greek papyrus that refers to a boat in the harbor of a monastery, which belongs to a certain Victor. Since transportation in Egypt was frequently done by boat along the Nile, it is no surprise that we find many references to boats in the papyri. Boats were most often owned by social elites, such as officials, aristocrats, and wealthy businessmen. What is surprising (at least to me anyway) is that several papyri actually mention boats that were owned by monasteries, bishops, and monks. From two related fourth century papyri (P.Col. 7.160 and 161), we learn that a bishop by the name of Hierapollon owned four boats. In P.Harr. 1.94 (fourth century), we learn that a Christian priest named Apollonius, son of a bishop named Dionysus, was the owner of a boat. P.Oxy. 34.2729, a fourth century Christian letter, mentions the boat of Thodoros the bishop. These boats were most likely the private property of well-to-do Christian clergy or their churches/monasteries. Jean Gascou has argued that monasteries made their boats available to the service of the state. Certainly, from the documentary record, we can see that some monastic communities were holders of much property and other kinds of assets. Perhaps some monks retained portions of their pre-monastic wealth. Some of these possessions were used to generate income and establish monastic estates. We learn of the leasing of part of a water wheel (P.Oxy. 16.1900), a boat anchor (SB 8.9683), and land (P.Ross.Georg. 3.48). Anyway, monastic life didn’t always mean empty, unadorned, and dark cells. Some monastic circles were participating in the lively economy of Byzantine Egypt just like everyone else. And some apparently had boats!