Reviews of

The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology

In Edgar Ebojo, Oxford University Press, Papyrology, Roger S. BAGNALL, Textual Criticism on May 28, 2012 at 9:07 am

2012.05.10 | Roger S. Bagnall, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.  Xxiv + 688 pages. £95.00 (hardback) and £32.50 (paperback). ISBN: 9780199843695.

Reviewed by Edgar Ebojo, University of Birmingham. 

RBECS would like to thank OUP for kindly providing us with a review copy.

One of the most outstanding inventions of ancient Egypt was the making of a writing material manufactured from the papyrus plant—an indisputable natural treasure of ancient Egypt. As early as 3000 B.C., hand-processed sheets and rolls of papyrus provided an ideal surface for writing with reed pen and cakes of carbon black and red ochre pigment. But more than just a writing implement, this material, now preserved in many libraries and museum of the world, has also captured in it a whole universe of social history of the ancient world, for it provided scribes of antiquities to record everyday details such as administrative records, legal documents, letters of business and personal life, and also the texts of their most treasured religious books—including what the Jews and Christians called as Scriptures. But how was it made? To what extent did it affect the life of ancient Egypt and its neighbouring nations? How were these treasure troves discovered in our time? How do experts in the field—the ones we call papyrologists—reconstruct, study, and preserve the rich heritage of this ancient wonder? These are some of the questions that the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, edited by no less than one of the leading experts in the field of our generation, Roger S. Bagnall, the ever active Director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University, seeks to address and explore in this book.

This impressive compendium of 27 articles is a coming together of various but intricately related topics, under the overarching discipline of papyrology (although its interplay with the auxiliary disciplines of codicology and palaeography is pretty much conspicuous throughout), into one magnificently cohesive work, which otherwise would have been available albeit scattered in various specialised monographs and reputable journal articles. The 27 contributors (profiles detailed in pp.vii-viii) to the Handbook represent a wide spectrum of expertise on the various facets of the discipline, each bringing with them their peculiarities in appreciating the almost three thousand years of history that these papyrological artefacts inviolably take with them, both in their history as “artefacts” and the socio-cultural history undergirding their production.

There is an intention to bring the field to broader readership, but some topics are designed more for those who are already in the field, both novice and experts. The impressive lists of bibliography speak audibly of the kind of research that went into each article—progressive at times yet equally thankfully cognizant of the pioneering contributions of the early pillars of the discipline and its humble beginnings.  In this regard, James Keenan’s article is very instructive–not only for the inexperienced, but even the initiated will greatly benefit from it, appreciating better the whole universe of such specialised enterprise. The pieces by Hélène Cuvigny, Jaakko Frösén and Paul Schubert further reinforce that appreciation by graphically bringing out to open the seemingly daunting and impossible mission on how papyrologists “do their thing”—the intricately challenging (sentimental at times) scenes that transpire inside their “laboratories”—from carbonised brittle materials to beautifully restored artefacts from antiquities that are now on proud display in the major museums and libraries around the world.

The editor is very incisive in his treatment of the progress and challenges that the discipline has faced and continues to face, underscoring the need and the limitations of looking at the traditional “boundaries” of papyrology as clearly defined—a point subtly recurring in many of the articles.  “New” components have been added to the traditional Greek-and-Latin-centric approach to papyrology, including introductory discussions on Aramaic, Coptic, Persian, and Arabic papyrology (Dorothy Thompson, Jean-Luc Fournet, and Petra Sijpesteijn’s articles).  Interestingly, while there are scattered discussions on Coptic manuscripts, the editor (p. xix) regretted that a dedicated article on Coptic palaeography was not included in this Handbook (although he took the opportunity to sound-off the forthcoming publications of two UOP handbooks dealing more specifically with that subject).

The use of electronic computing, scientific gadgets, and the mighty power of internet obviously resonates in almost every article, underscoring evidently how the researchers in the field have been significantly enriched and helped by computer science.  Two pages (pp. xv-xvi) are dedicated to itemising select internet sites that general readers can visit for further information; some sites are tools for the experts in the field and other auxiliary disciplines.

Part of the excitement over OHP is its intimidating size—1 ½ inches (almost reflective of an editio luxuria of the olden times), nicely wrapped in a very colourful dusk jacket, featuring a magnificently beautiful papyrus (PSI IV 325 [shown again in p. 104]), with a mark of correction on the very first line—a visual element that immediately conveys to the readers the kind of excitement that is to be expected throughout the book.  All other existing handbooks on the field pale in comparison, if size is to be reckoned the criterion of importance.  Nonetheless, its imposing size implies enormity of textual content—and it certainly does!

The number of paginated leaves is 688, but to this should be added the beginning pages containing preliminary matters numbering to 24, plus 2 more blank pages at the end, or a total of 714 pages! Speaking of pagination, page numberings on the left pages are located on the upper left area and the upper right side for the right pages. However, within the paginated block, I have found 42 pages without numeration, on both sides. These are of two natures: the first one involves the beginning page of the articles (27 pages), and the second involves pages that have comparatively bigger illustrations (15 instances).  The former must be aesthetic in purpose, while the latter is pragmatic—the illustrations (mostly manuscripts) have gone beyond the normal text area. (In fact, on each page there is a visible ruling on top of each text area to designate the limits, with the Handbook’s title [on the left side] and the title of the article [on the right side] on top of these lines).  However, there is no good reason for p. 225 not to be assigned a numeration as the lone figure in it is as normal in size as others but have been appropriately paginated.

At first glance, there appears to be no standard pattern on which side to begin a new article, as 15 article titles are on the right side and 12 on the left. But further investigation reveals that new articles definitely start on a new page—suggestive of preference for aesthetic beauty than economy.  Nonetheless, this practice sometimes left previous pages with “white pages”, with pp. 255, 451, and 622 showing the biggest empty spaces.  The text size is about 0.2 cm. but article titles are set in readably bigger fonts (about 0.6 cm.).  Interestingly, the two longest article titles are those in pp. 179 and 395, both consisting of 88 characters respectively, although the former is set in eight lines only while the latter in nine lines.

There are 116 “Figures” itemised in pp. ix-xii.   Accordingly, eleven “tables” are excluded from the list of Figures, supposedly because they are tables and not “figures” in its strict sense. However, itemised in the list are Figures 18.2 (p. 422), 18.7 (p. 435), and 18.8 (p. 436) which, although are graphs, are essentially “tables”—conversely, “Table 1.2” (p. 25), which is also a graph, is excluded from the list.  The lone map in the whole Handbook (no pagination, but surely it would be p. xxii) is also excluded.  Figure 10.3 (p. xi) is labelled as “Bilingual archive of Totoes, priest of Hathor”. However, looking at p. 223, where the actual figure is, shows that the figure is not about the archive itself but about the “jar(s)” where the archive was kept until its discovery.

The figures (illustrations) can be both impressive and discouraging: impressive as it gives the uninitiated reader a graphic view of what and how these papyrological artefacts actually looks like. However, those who have more advanced appreciation of the field will find some of the manuscript illustrations rather a trade-off between quality and economy—many would surely have preferred the former.

There are 62 images of various manuscripts, five of which are parchments and the rest are papyri. Viewed differently, particularly from the perspective of biblical textual criticism, four of these images are biblical manuscripts (P. Bodl. Gr. Bibl. G.5; P46 ; P.Amh. I 3 [used twice]) and the rest are manuscripts of literary and documentary nature. On p. 596, folio 21v of P46, containing the last line of Romans and τιτλος and text of Hebrews 1.1-7, is labelled (perhaps wrongly) as “leaf 41” (leaf 41 contains 1 Cor 3.16-4.3).

There are obvious overlaps in some of the articles—an inevitable fact also duly noted by its editor. The sticky debates on the transitions 1) from roll to codex and 2) from papyri to parchment remain intriguingly dynamic topics but obviously still an open-ended question even among the circle of dedicated experts—in this regard the discipline is still undecided, perhaps still needing more definitive artefacts to be unearthed to help them decide with the highest degree of certainty.  Although I am cognizant of the intricate continuity, perhaps, two dedicated articles on the subjects of “The Roll” and “The Codex” would have been more desirable, than scattered brief discussions.

A few comments on some aspects that can be improved in the (hopefully) future editions (apart from what I already mentioned) are in order. Elsewhere in the Handbook, “palaeography” is spelt as such except on the copyright page where it is spelt as “Paleography”.  An editorial note on p. 265 mentions, “For details of quire construction see chapter 25”, but going to chapter 25 one is left discouraged to see that the “details” mentioned consists only of 3 sentences, or a little over 5 lines (p. 592, par. 2). A reference to Adam Bülow-Jacobsen’s discussion would have been more informative than Martinez’s, as the former dedicated two paragraphs on the topic, consisting of 16 sentences (pp. 23-24)! But even then this, I think, is not sufficient in a “handbook”.

Documentation style is not standardised. The general pattern seems to be Text, Endnotes, and Bibliography. However, a closer look at each page shows that 5 articles used endnotes exclusively, 9 with bibliographical notes, 12 a combination of endnotes and bibliographical notes, and 1 using footnote-bibliographical note combination. In fact, the only footnote in the whole book is in p. 521 (Maria Rosaria Falivene’s article) where a bibliographical info is presented as a footnote. One can only surmise that the editor has given the contributors the leeway to decide on the matter of presentation style.

By way of a “wish list”, I hope to read in the future edition of this Handbook a dedicated article on the more focused subject of “scribal habits”, encompassing derivable practices, proclivities, preferences, and the likes from the extant papyri. I believe this is a legitimate (and developing) domain of papyrology, yet remains a voice in the margins despite the observable advance in the discussion along social histories of our extant manuscripts and other archaeological artefacts. More extensive discussion on the details of codex constructions is also a desideratum, especially in the area of papyrus manufacture.  For instance, stated on p.19, “The sheets of the roll were pasted together in such a way that the left sheet was always over the right one in any given join”—a statement echoing the belief that the rationale for such pasting direction is text-writing-related (particularly the manuscripts written from left-to-right). But is this the case really? How do we explain calligraphically beautiful manuscripts where the kollemata are pasted in the reverse direction? How about text that are written from right-to-left? I would surely like to see these questions addressed more fully.

This magnificent Handbook is a very rich resource for those who are interested in the science and art of papyrology.  Closer to home, this will definitely be a “textbook” for many years to come that will be constantly consulted by postgraduate researchers dealing particularly with biblical manuscripts, either in a roll or codex format, or whether written on a papyrus or parchment. This Handbook is definitely for everyone who recognizes that the past is a very certain guide for the future. Let me end this humble review with how I would like to see the future of papyrology–similar to how Peter Van Minnen (p. 659) ends this Handbook–with a high sense of optimism, “The past will continue to surprise into the distant future as far as the eye can see”.

Edgar Battad Ebojo
University of Birmingham
ebe810 [ at ]


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