Reviews of

I papiri letterari Cristiani

In Angelo CASANOVA, Dan Batovici, Early Christianity, Guido BASTIANINI, Instituto Papirologico “G. Vitelli”, Manuscripts, Papyrology on April 12, 2014 at 10:00 am


2014.4.8 | Guido Bastianini and Angelo Casanova, eds. I papiri letterari Cristiani: atti del Convegno internazionale di studi in memoria di Mario Naldini. Firenze, 10-11 giugno 2010. Studi e Testi di Papirologia N.S. 13. Firenze: Instituto Papirologico “G. Vitelli,” 2011. Pp. vi + 205 + 27 illustrations. ISBN 978-88-87829-45-7. Papeback.

Review by Dan Batovici, KU Leuven.

Many thanks to Instituto Papirologico “Vitelli” for providing a review copy.

Stemming from the 2010 annual colloquium of Instituto Papirologico “Vitelli” held ten years after Mario Naldini’s passing away, this volume is a Gedenkschrift in his memory. The first paper, “Mario Naldini e la Papirologia,” is signed by Carlo Nardi and offers both a laudatio and a presentation of his life and works, especially related to early Christianity and papyrology.

Eleven contributions then follow, signed by R.S. Bagnall, G. Bastianini & G. Cavallo, P. Parsons, J. Chapa, A. Carlini & M. Bandini, E. Ginnarelli, O. Zwierlein, P. Marrassini, J. Gascou, M. Stroppa, D. Minutoli & R. Pintaudi, written in English, Italian, German and French. To keep within a reasonable size for a review, in what follows I will be presenting and discussing in some detail a relevant selection of them, only briefly presenting the others; some concluding remarks on the volume will then follow.

i. Roger Bagnall’s paper, “The Readers of Christian Books: Further Speculations” would surely be of interest to our readers, as it picks up on a speculation of his 2009 book, Early Christian Books in Egypt (RBECS review here) with regard to who might have owned and used papyri: “the expanded civic elite of the early third century, particularly the members of the newly founded city councils of the nome metropoleis, might have provided a major part of the audience for ownership of Christian books” (p. 23). The starting point being “the dominant positions of the metropoleis in the survival of our Biblical manuscripts, especially those of the New Testament” (p. 23), Bagnall goes on to identify possible urban owners of papyri, of which the most obvious group would be the clergy. In particular, the higher clergy is shown to more likely own papyri than the lower clergy: “It is bishops and presbyters we find in the papyri as substantial landowners, even in the sixth century, not subdeacons and readers” (p. 25).

The discussion of another group susceptible of owning Christian papyri, which the author calls “collectively the boethoi, or assistants” (p. 25) is the most interesting: “they were mostly, in fact, what today we refer to as managers. … In this group I include estate managers, business agents, tax collectors, especially those who did the actual work for which liturgists were responsible, and others of this kind. … The earlier examples of such men known from the Roman period are village notables who owned their positions not to landholdings but to skilled work” (p. 25). Bagnall offers five examples of known such individuals who owned and copied themselves literary texts or bilingual exercises (indicative of their education), usually in a somewhat more readable cursive than their usual document hand. He further notes that “in fact, most of the highly fluent writers of accounts and documents were probably not ‘scribes’ in the narrow sense of writing things down for other people from dictation, but professionals who wrote a great deal in the course of their work, where the work was primary and the writing an instrument. … If we think of them merely as clerks, drudges of the writing-bench, we underestimate their knowledge and interests” (p. 28).

Finally, I would just note this author’s emphasis that “literary texts written on the versos of documentary rolls seem a fertile area for looking for this managerial class.” Since the current assumption that “reused rolls would have borne texts ordered to be copied for the benefit of wealthy readers with literary and scholarly interests … does not rest on much evidence,“  Bagnall asks: “Is not as likely that it is our managerial and agent class, which had a high level of comfort in writing in both rapid scripts and the more leisurely, but still ‘informal’ scripts that are that are like typical letter-hands, that would have had access to rolls that were no longer necessary and reused them in this way?” (p. 29).

ii. Guido Bastianini and Guglielmo Cavallo sign the following contribution, “Un nuovo frammento di Lettera Festale (PSI inv. 3779),” which is an edition of a fourth century papyrus containing a part of the 9th festal letter of Cyril of Alexandria, with an introduction, transcription, a nice description of scribal habits displayed (spaces, corrections, nomina sacra, diplae,etc), and line by line commentary.

An image of the papyrus is conveniently appended on a folded page at the end of the volume. The introduction includes a comparison with five other papyri of the same text (also handily featured with reproductions in the illustration section) – against which PSI inv. 3779 is the oldest – in order to argue for an evolution of the form of the Alexandrian writing style of these papyri in the normative context of the Alexandrian patriarchal chancellery. A side note: this reviewer wonders whether more general end-of-line scribal behaviour does not account at least in part for the modular alternation in drawing letters (the alternation being otherwise employed by the two authors to describe such an evolution).

iii. Peter Parsons’ paper, “A People of the Book?,” inquires into what this designation might mean in early Christian Egypt. To that end, he draws attention to the decentralising effects of the distance separating Alexandria (where for instance Origen can express a need to regulate the transmission of the NT texts) and the chora (e.g. Oxyrhynchus, as the “closer to ground” space where one can still find the vulgarisation of χριστός to χρηστός, various misunderstood nomina sacra, illiterate ἀναγνώστες, hymns to the Nile, proliferation of amulets “in spite of the disapproval of the more intellectual Fathers,” p. 51, therefore a rather ‘free’ space).

The effect of the latter is that if early Christian texts “show a special degree of textual variation, we are left to attribute this to the amateurishness of those who copied them,” the context being that “they might have spread, not by multiple copying from standard exemplars, but by chain transmission, each reader making, or having made, a single copy for himself” (p. 52). Parson does not find that Christian papyri “exhibit a special degree of careless copying beyond what we find, for example, in papyri of Demosthenes” (p. 53) and other classical authors. The article ends by proposing that, even if Christian books have their peculiarities, in order to understand them “we need to familiarise ourselves with the scribal habits, lectional expectations and haphazard transmissions that our papyri of pagan Classics illustrate in such realistic detail” (p. 57). Side note: the discussion of the issues involved in dating papyri on pp. 55-56 (“however, ‘palaeographic probability’ covers a whole range of uncertainties” p. 55) is particularly instructive (the paper is readily available here).

iv. Juan Chapa’s contribution, “Su demoni e angeli: Il Salmo 90 nel suo contesto,” is a very interesting investigation into the reception history of Psalm 90 (LXX), starting from the fact that among the manuscripts (continuous or not) up to the 9th century the Psalms are far better represented than any other biblical book, with 209 witnesses, in the second position being Matthew, with 50 (p. 59). The best represented Psalm, however, is Psalm 90, and Chapa sets out to determine why this text was so appealing to its Egyptian users, by placing its 34 witnesses in their socio-cultural context, especially with regard to their use (p. 59). This is a fine contribution, both welcomed and important, in the ongoing discussion of the meaning and relevance of any such ‘quantitative criterion’ in assessing the authority of a text in the early centuries of the C.E.

Chapa discerns three directions of use: liturgical, scholarly, and apotropaic. To the first category he assigns 4 manuscripts, to the second 1, and to the latter the rest of 29 witnesses. The bigger part pertains then to the papyri, parchments and tablets susceptible of reflecting an apotropaic use of Psalm 90. It aptly includes a discussion of the criteria (past and present) for establishing whether or not a given manuscript is an amulet (pp. 70-76). (This reviewer would have loved to read here a similarly careful discussion of suitable criteria for assigning manuscripts to the various liturgical uses mentioned starting with p. 62: public/private readings/prayer, monastic/church use). The author concludes that Psalm 90 has enjoyed (and still is) a largely apotropaic function, due to its content, and also that further study of its manuscripts can explain the popular traditions at use in the social location of its reception. The 34 manuscripts discussed of Psalm 90 are conveniently listed in an appendix with their references, dating, bibliography, contents and brief notes of their graphic peculiarities (staurogram, nomina sacra, etc).

v. Antonio Carlini and Michele Bandini sign together “Il Pastore di Erma: nuove testimonianze and e vecchi problemi.” This is an analysis of the textual relevance of recent manuscript findings containing the Shepherd of Hermas: the recently published leafs of Codex Sinaiticus from the New Finds of 1975, and the P.Oxy papyri published in 2005. This analysis, authored by two major scholars of this text, will be essential to any new edition of the Shepherd (I am aware of two such projects). Noticeably, footnote 36 on p. 103 contains a number of corrections to the transcription offered on the website of the Codex Sinaiticus Project.

vi-viii. Three further contributions are then devoted to apocryphal literature. Elena Giannarelli approaches “Papiri, letteratura cristiana antica e apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento: apporti e problemi vecchi e nuovi,” basically offering a discussion of M. Naldini’s take on the matter. Otto Zwierlein’s paper, “Griechische Papyri in der Überlieferung der Acta Apostolorum apocrypha,” offers a catalogue of Greek papyri containing the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (offering transcriptions, translations, commentary and bibliography; six of them are featured among the illustrations at the end of the volume). Supported by further images, Zwierlein also analyses the apocryphal correspondence in P.Bodmer X and the Acts of Paul. Paolo Marrassini investigates the “Scoperta e riscoperte dell’Apocalisse di Pietro fra greco, arabo ed etiopico,” focusing rather more on the later Ethiopic translation, manuscripts and text, than on the earlier Greek fragments, being in this respect somewhat off with the rest of the volume.

ix-xi. The last three papers discuss unpublished papyri. Jean Gascou, in his “La montagne d’Antinoopolis, hagiographie et papyrus,” adduces a selection of nine unpublished documentary papyri from the Weill collection in Paris (of which several now lost) to a batch of other published papyri from other collections witnessing to the activity of a monastery in a mountain North of Antinoopolis, from the end of the fifth century to the beginning of the seventh. Adducing hagiographical data in the discussion (“C’est dans cet enracinement géographique que réside l’authenticité et la valeur historique de cette littérature,” p. 161), Gascou proposes that the ἀγία Πέτρα, the monastery mentioned in the papyri, would have been located in today’s Gabal al-Tayr.

Marco Stroppa then contributes the publication of “Un papiro inedito del Fisiologo (PSI inv. 295).” The Physiologus, a Christian text whose earliest sections are dated from the second to the fourth century, is probably best known today through its Medieval Latin reception. Dated here in the sixth century, PSI inv. 259 is both the oldest Greek manuscript (the next is five centuries later) and the only one on papyrus. Stroppa offers a textual analysis and assesses its place in the textual tradition of the Physiologus; he then produces a detailed description of the fragment (which is also illustrated at the end of the volume) and attempts a reconstruction in view of the possible initial destination and use of the papyrus. He shows that it most likely did not come from a codex, but rather from an isolated leaf (possibly for educative purposes) or a roll.

Diletta Minutoli and Rosario Pintaudi sign together the concluding paper of the volume: “Un codice biblico su papiro della collezione Schøyen: MS 187 (Esodo IV 16 – VII 21).” The codex in the title is not edited here; the authors have published it in the mean time in Anal. Pap. 23 – 24 (2011-2012), pp. 17-55. They offer instead information concerning its finding, acquisition, and a description of its textual and nontextual features. The analysis is supported by a number of illustrations of papyri but also of various scholars and of Schøyen himself. (At this point one may wonder why there is no picture of Naldini in the volume).

xii. To conclude: apart from some typos (e.g. the number of the main papyrus in the last paragraph of p. 31 or the name of the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité on p. 64) the volume is rather nicely edited, and usefully rounded up with 27 black and white images, mostly of papyri, which are quite clear and very useful. (Surely a papyrus index would have been nice too.)

The contributions included in the volume, written by prominent authors in the field, vary in scope and size, offering nonetheless a good deal of fresh material. This makes for a very useful book to those interested in Christian papyri, Biblical or otherwise, and a very appropriate offering in the memory of Mario Naldini.


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