Bart Ehrman writes on his blog:
"O frabjous day! Callouh, Callay! I’m chortling in my joy. Today my textbook on the entire Bible – Genesis to Revelation – gets published: The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. This was a long time in the making, and it is a huge relief to see it finally out. I think Oxford did an amazing job on it – as they usually do. I love the cover, the layout, the whole production. You can buy it on Amazon or most anywhere else. It is priced a little higher than most of my books this size, but that’s because it’s a textbook, and that’s just what happens with textbooks. Even so, it is priced lower than the competition. And in my humble and completely unbiased opinion, you get a lot more bang for your buck."
I can only assume that this textbook will be worth everyone's while. Bart is a fantastic writer and erudite historian and his NT textbooks are used in universities and seminaries around the world. I am assigning his "brief" NT introduction to my own NT class next semester. You can preorder the book on Amazon here.
I was revisiting a passage from B.H. Streeter this week whose The Four Gospels: A Study of the Origins (London: Macmillan, 1924) is a classic in the field of New Testament textual criticism. For some reason, I never noticed that in my personal copy there is a newspaper clipping from 1937 concerning Streeter's death. According to this newspaper (apparently from Basle, Switzerland), Streeter "was killed yesterday when a Berne-Basle passenger plane in which he was traveling struck a fog-obscured mountain near here. He was 63. Mrs. Streeter and the pilot of the plane were also killed." I did not know the cause of Streeter's death, nor did I know that he was Provost of Queen's College, Oxford. The clipping goes on to quote parts of a letter that Streeter wrote to Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman (in image above, alongside Streeter and his wife), founder of the Oxford Group. These extracts are interesting since they highlight Streeter's extensive travel and his care for world affairs. Here are the two extracts from the letter followed by the newspaper clipping from my copy of Streeter's Four Gospels:
"All my life I have been interested in world affairs, and have made use of the opportunities for travel in Europe which vacation time afford to an Oxford don; and I have visited India, China and Japan. I was at the institute of Pacific Relations Conference at Kyoto in 1929, and was again in Japan on a lecture tour two years later when war broke out in Manchuria; and I have been to America both before and after the great slump. The more I have seen of the trend of things, the less grounds I have had for hope. I was one of those who expected much from the Leauge of Nations and from the various projects stated since the war for dealing with economic conflict and social reform. These things are failing humanity, not from any imperfection in the machinery, but from the lack of sufficient good will in the mass of mankind and in their leaders, to make such machinery work."
"History shows that in the case of wars, revolutions, strikes and other major conflicts, a relatively small weight of public opinion on the one side or the other, or the presence or absence of moral insight and courage in a few individuals in possession of influence, has often turned the balance between a reasonable settlement and a fight to the finish. Modern civilization can only be served by a moral revival; but for this it would suffice if every tenth or every hundredth was changed. For each such person raises the level of those whom he touches in the home, in business and in publi affairs. What I saw happening in Denmark can happen in Britain. It will happen, if those who lead Britain learn to find in God their inspiration and direction. And Britain, thus led, would save the world. But the opportunity must be seized during the period of uneasy respite from major calamity which at the moment appears to lie ahead."
As with everything else that he writes, Roger Bagnall has produced a first-rate work titled Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011). As Bagnall mentions in the preface, this work is an extended treatment of issues that he discussed in his Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History (1995). Bagnall attempts in this recent book to map everyday writing in the Graeco-Roman East by looking at various forms of writing and writing material (graffiti, papyri, ostraca, wood, etc.) within various geographical locales (Egypt, Asia Minor, Palestine, etc.). The introduction really sets the tone of the work, in which Bagnall asserts that his interest lies more in the physical forms and social usages of everyday writing rather than their content. It is clear that Bagnall strongly disagrees with William Harris' "minimalist" stance on literacy rates in his Ancient Literacy (the standard work on ancient literacy) and this book in many ways offers a fresh take on literacy—though that is not its main point—by demonstrating that people were writing everywhere. The ubiquitous, everyday writings discussed by Bagnall show that writing was more widespread than what Harris and others admit, and of course the real benefit here is that Bagnall gives attention to certain physical forms of writing that Harris neglected (e.g., ostraca). In any case, Bagnall points out that literacy rates are becoming somewhat old-fashioned, since the emphasis "has shifted to characterizing social systems in which the use of writing and written text are embedded" (2). He quotes Michael Macdonald's (2005) definition of literate society:
"I would define a 'literate society' as one in which reading and writing have become essential to its functioning, either throughout the society (as in the modern West) or in certain vital aspects, such as the bureaucracy, economic and commercial activities, or religious life. Thus, in this sense, a society can be literate, because it uses the written word in some of its vital functions, even when the vast majority of its members cannot read or write, as was the case, for instance, in early mediaeval Europe or Mycenaean Greece, where literacy was more or less confined to a clerical or scribal class."
While Bagnall does note the possible weakness of some aspects of this definition, he does accept the idea that a society may be called "literate" even when many of its members are not, in view of the broader social functions of writing. Bagnall discusses papyri and parchments in the book, but my favorite two chapters are the first and last, which deal with graffiti and ostraca, respectively. I will comment on these chapters briefly here.
The first chapter deals with the graffiti found on the walls of the basement level of the basilica in the agora of Smyrna. There are several bays in the basilica which contain plaster, onto which several thousands of graffiti were drawn. Bagnall observes that, since many of the graffiti are written in ink and not merely carved into the stone like most graffiti, there was some thought and preparation put into some of these public writings. Many of the graffiti are sexual in content, and there is also "a widespread presence of drawings of ships" (11). The most interesting discussion is that of the use of isopsephisms (playing with numbers), which, as we know, was a popular Christian practice. There is also apparently a letter square that someone created, whose presence in such a public sphere suggests that even the everyday person had enough knowledge of letters to experiment with puzzles. Bagnall mentions that William Harris "has consistently denied that graffiti have anything to teach us about levels of literacy in ancient society, adopting a position of pure agnosticism..." (25). He criticizes Harris for putting so much stock into categories such as "semi-literate" and "illiterate" when it comes to the graffiti, claiming that "[t]erms like illiterate and semi-literate are used too readily to refer to people who spelled phonetically and let the syntax of oral express enter their writing. They were literate" (26).
The last chapter on ostraca was equally fascinating because while papyrologists and historians have generally deemed these forms of writing inferior to those of papyri and parchments, Bagnall claims that "ostraca will come to play a larger and larger role in new discoveries of texts in the coming years" (136). This chapter does a good job in demonstrating the importances of these written artifacts. One thing is for certain: ostraca are found everywhere. They are found in many different languages from all over the ancient Near East. We have so many of them today because "ostraca survive more humidity than papyri do" (122). Bagnall discusses some important ostraca, some of which are not discussed elsewhere in modern literature. One of the ostraca mentioned is from the agora of Smyrna, which is written in a beautiful hand in detached letters. The fact that this ostracon contains some rare Greek words should remind us that ancient writing is important no matter what material it is written on! There are also some interesting minuscule ostraca found at Amheida that measure 2 x 3 cm containing the name of a well, the name of a person, and a regnal year. These were "embedded in the top of a mud sealing on a jar of wine or oil, perhaps sent to the owner of the well as payment for use of it during the year in question" (133).
There are fifty plates, nine tables, and two graphs, which help to illustrate nicely the discussions. The only issue with some of the data in the tables is that they have changed. I made several spot checks using the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis der griechischen Papyrusurkunden Agyptens (HGV) and the numbers have increased due to new discoveries since 2008-2009, when the data for most of the tables were collected. The bibliography contains works that are up-to-date, most of them stemming from the last decade or earlier. There are other wonderful topics of discussion in this book (such as the Bactrian language, code switching between Coptic and Greek, slavery, archives, etc.) but I thought I would highlight only a few things here to whet the appetite. A superb little book, written by one of the finest papyrologists, deserving a spot on every historian's and papyrologist's book shelf.
In Roger Bagnall's Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History there is an interesting section which discusses the office archives of the village of Tebtunis, now in the Michigan collection. The group of registers of contracts is particularly interesting, since it documents the kinds of contracts that were registered in a given year, thereby affording opportunities for social and historical analysis. Bagnall draws attention to Deborah Hobson's study of the role of women in the economic life of Tebtunis. Hobson noticed that in more than half of the references to women the transactions had to do with marital property rights. Hobson concludes that women "do not seem to participate in the agricultural or commercial life of the village directly" (cited in Bagnall, Reading Papyri, 44). Their roles were restricted to the home as wives and daughters. Interestingly, though, there is a sudden increase in the contracts reflecting withdrawals of assets during two years in Egypt that are known to be a period of economic hardship due to the flooding of the Nile. Hobson was able to show that during this time contracts for wet-nurses, return of dowries, and loans borrowed by women are more abundant in the papyrological record, suggesting that women became sources of household revenue. Bagnall refers to these women as "reserve assets" and "holders of assets," whose work was considered a financial security in times of debt. This is a wonderful example of how the study of papyri can help us understand the economic life of ancient Egypt. In the case presented by the contract registers from Tebtunis, we learn that women, through various services, were responsible for mitigating the level of household debt when the Nile floods disrupted the agricultural industry.
For more general information on the Tebtunis papyri, visit Berkeley's Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, which includes all sorts of introductory and bibliographic information as well as a lot of very good images of the papyri.