Methodius of Olympus was a Christian bishop who died as a martyr in c. 311 C.E. Unfortunately, we know very little about Methodius. Most of what we do know comes from a brief biographical account in Jerome’s On Illustrious Men, which was composed at the end of the fourth century. Methodius was mainly known as an antagonist of Origen. In particular, he had a problem with Origen’s doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which he rejects outright in his treatise On the Resurrection.
Methodius wrote several important works (see Roger Pearse’s list here), but almost all of these come down to us in fragmentary form. The only complete work of Methodius that we possess is his Symposium or Banquet—a treatise in praise of voluntary virginity. Until quite recently, the earliest manuscript of this text was an eleventh century codex known as Patmiacus Graecus 202, which is housed in the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos.
But, a remarkable discovery was recently been made in the Montserrat Abbey in Spain. Sofia Torallas Tovar and Klaas A. Worp, who have been working on the manuscript collection in the Montserrat Abbey for many years, published a fragment of Methodius’ Symposium that they date on palaeographical grounds to the fifth-sixth century—about 450 years earlier than the Patmos codex mentioned above. (On another recent, important discovery by Tovar and Worp, see here.) Published as P.Monts. Roca 4.57, this fragment is the first attestation of a work of Methodius from Egypt. It is a narrow strip of parchment, with thirty partial lines preserved on the hair side (see image of fragment at right). The text on this side of the fragment comes from Oratio 8:16.72-73, 3:14.35-40, 8.60-61, and 9.18-19 (in that order). The flesh side contains thirty-five partial lines of text unrelated to the Methodian text. This is an unidentified Christian text with “Gnomic” sentiments, as the authors explain.
In addition to the wonderful fact that we now have a significantly earlier manuscript witness of Methodius’ text, there is also another remarkable feature in the new manuscript: a previously unattested saying about the Nile. In lines 5-8, the manuscript reads:
“The rise of the Nile is life and joy for the families”
ἡ ἀνάβα̣σ̣ε̣ι̣[ς] τοῦ Νείλου̣ ζω̣ή̣ ἐστι κ̣[αὶ] χαρὰ ἑστία[ις]
As the authors note, this saying does not occur in Methodius. And indeed, it does not fit the immediate context. Where it comes from is a mystery, but the saying is nonetheless very interesting. All in all, this is a fascinating discovery for scholars of Early Christianity and we commend the authors for their editorial work in making this text available to the world.
Very exciting news came out of a session at the 2017 annual Society of Biblical Literature conference in Boston: Geoff Smith and Brent Landau announced their discovery of the first known Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James, a Coptic text known from a Nag Hammadi codex (Codex V) and the famous Codex Tchacos. This early Christian text consists of a dialogue between Jesus and James the brother of Jesus. Scholars have argued that this Coptic text was probably translated from Greek, but until now, no Greek witnesses have been known to exist.
The papyrus codex fragments are housed in the Sackler Library at Oxford University and were found during the dig season of 1904/05. The two fragments have different inventory numbers but are written in the same hand and belong to the same codex. The papyri are fragmentary but offer a decent amount of text. I noted from the photos shown in the session generous margins and a letter in the top corner of one page, which may be a quire number (so Smith). Smith and Landau offer a tentative dating of fifth-sixth century, offering a preliminary comparison with the so-called “Gospel of the Lots of Mary,” a fifth-sixth century miniature Coptic parchment codex housed at Harvard University, published recently by AnneMarie Luijendijk. The Nag Hammadi Codex and the Tchacos Codex are typically dated to around the fourth century so the Oxyrhynchus fragments are probably at least a century removed from them.
There are some variants in the text (only one was discussed in the session), but Smith and Landau note that the text of their fragments aligns more closely with Codex Tchacos than the Nag Hammadi tractate. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this papyrus is that the scribe employed middle dots to separate syllables. This is rare in literary texts, but it does appear in school texts, which prompts the question as to how this document was used. Was it a school text? The editors suggest the papyri are fragments of a larger codex that probably contained the entire text of the First Apocalypse of James. Could the middle dots have served a liturgical function, facilitating easier reading on the part of the anaginoskon? The raison d’être of the codex is thus still being considered by the editors.
The editors announced that the edition of the Greek fragments is likely to appear in a forthcoming Oxyrhynchus Papyri volume, which we all look forward to.
Those with an interest in early Christian manuscripts will want to have a look at the latest issue of Adamantius — Journal of the Italian Research Group on Origen and the Alexandrian Tradition. This most recent volume (21) includes a thematic section with several articles dedicated to the Bodmer papyri, the results of a conference on the Bodmer collection held in 2014 (noted on this blog here). The editors' introduction to the issue along with a full table of contents is available here.
For now, I'll just single out a couple of the contributions. Pasquale Orsini provides a palaeographic overview of the collection that includes multiple illustrations and a table presenting his revised palaeographic datings of the codices. Paul Schubert wrestles with the problems of figuring out what books actually make up the "Bodmer papyri" proper. Paola Buzi examines the codicology of the collection. As an appendix to the articles, a very short contribution by me gives an overview of my recent work on the construction of the Bodmer "composite" or "miscellaneous" codex; it can be downloaded here.
Most exciting, however, is the publication of more papyri extracted from the cover of P.Bodm. XXIII (the Coptic Isaiah codex) by Jean-Luc Fournet and Jean Gascou. Among these papyri is a document (now designated P.Bodm. LVI) that mentions the name of a person who is very likely a known individual from Dendera, which is just 30 km east of Dishna, the location that James M. Robinson identified as the site where the codices first appeared on the antiquities market. This would seem to be another piece of evidence pointing to the area around Dishna as the place of the production of the codices (as opposed to Panopolis further north).
The Bodmer papyri have a lot to offer students of early Christianity, but it's a challenging corpus for many reasons, so it's great to see these essays begin to treat some of these problems in a systematic way.
Dr. Brent Nongbri is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University.
Prof. Stephen J. Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. He specializes in the history of ancient and medieval Christianity, with a special focus on the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
For the last ten years, from 2006 to 2015, the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project (YMAP) has been engaged in surveys, excavations, and archaeological analysis at late ancient and early medieval Egyptian monastic sites.
YMAP-North: Monastic Archaeology in Lower Egypt
In 2006, the YMAP team conducted a geophysical survey at the site of Kellia-Pherme in the Delta region, and we also initiated surveys and excavations at the Monastery of John the Little in Wādī al-Naṭrūn (ancient Scetis). Continuing from 2006 to 2012, excavations at John the Little focused on a monastic midden (i.e. trash deposit) and an early medieval mud-brick monastic residence.
The excavated residence at John the Little is organized around a central courtryard and contains kitchen installations, a latrine, and a room (perhaps an oratory) with an extensive program of wall writings (dipinti) and figural paintings, including images of martyrs and monks, and an apocalyptic scene of Christ depicted as a horned Lamb of God.
Ceramic evidence has shown that the building was occupied until around the end of the ninth century CE. Two of the surviving wall writings are accompanied by tenth-century dates, evidence that raises the possibility that the building functioned as a place of gathering and visitation after it no longer functioned as a fulltime residence.
Analysis of archaeobotanical and archaeozoological data promises to shed light on monastic diet and practices related to local agriculture and animal husbandry. Documentation of this work continues, with a major collaborative volume currently in preparation.
YMAP-South: Monastic Archaeology in Upper Egypt
In addition to this work in northern Egypt, in 2008 the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project also assumed responsibility for archaeological documentation and conservation at the White Monastery near Sohag in southern Egypt. There, we have focused our attention on archaeological remains related to water distribution and food production and on a tomb chapel related to the fifth-century head of the monastery, Shenoute of Atripe.
Another important focus of our work has been on the architectural history of the monumental monastic church built by Shenoute in the fifth century. In the church, excavations conducted in 2011 unexpectedly also led to the discovery of hundreds of manuscript fragments, surviving traces of the monastery’s formerly vast library collection. Photographs of these fragments have since been made available for study online.
In February and March 2015, our work in the church included two urgent conservation initiatives. First, an Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF) Grant from the American Research Center in Egypt helped support work to stabilize two sections of the church walls that were in danger of collapse. A three-dimensional test scan of the church’s north wall was also conducted to gauge patterns of deformation.
Second, the discovery of a partially detached section of painted plaster in the church sanctuary led to another emergency intervention dedicated to the consolidation and conservation of a severely threatened early medieval wall painting of the Virgin and Child.
Ongoing and Future Work
Ongoing work in Lower Egypt includes a new project to catalogue Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic manuscripts in the Monastery of the Syrians, one of the medieval monastic foundations in Wādī al-Naṭrūn that has remained active to the present day. The library collection contains almost a thousand manuscripts. Cataloguing work began in December 2013, and plans for digitizing the massive collection are currently under discussion. With an eye toward future work in Upper Egypt, YMAP has recently entered into collaborative arrangement with a German archaeological mission from Universität Tübingen to document Coptic-era remains at ancient Atripe, the site of the women’s monastery in Shenoute’s federation, located only about three kilometers south of the White Monastery. The plan is to begin excavations in February-March 2016.
Project Leadership and Support
The Yale Monastic Project was founded by Professor Stephen J. Davis (Yale University) who has served as its executive director since its inception in 2006. Professor Darlene Brooks Hedstrom (Wittenberg University) and Dr. Gillian Pyke (Yale University) have served as the project’s archaeological field directors. YMAP receives generous annual support from the Simpson Endowment for Egyptology and the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt, and the project has benefited from its longstanding cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), as well as the ecclesiastical and monastic leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church.