Reviews of

Christian Oxyrhynchus

In Baylor University Press, Lincoln H. BLUMELL, Matthew J. Hama, Oxyrhynchus, Papyrology, Thomas A. WAYMENT on September 27, 2016 at 3:38 pm

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2016.09.18 | Lincoln H. Blumell and Thomas A. Wayment (eds.), Christian Oxyrhynchus: Texts, Documents, and Sources. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015. ISBN 9781602585393.

Review by Matthew J. Hama, Trinity Western University

Many thanks to Baylor University Press for providing a review copy.

The ancient site of Oxyrhynchus once represented a flourishing and prominent city within its region. In the present day, however, there remains little evidence of its existence. Even with its disappearance from the Egyptian landscape, scholars have still been able to gain considerable knowledge about the town’s infrastructure and existence, not least through finds of papyri from antiquity.

Despite its tremendous significance for New Testament and classical scholarship, a complete, single volume set of the Oxyrhynchus papyri remained inaccessible. Due to later independent excavations and discoveries at the site, along with the local workers’ secret practice of removing papyri at the time of the excavation, finds were scattered around the globe (p. 6).
Blumell and Wayment have remedied this gap in scholarship by creating a comprehensive collection of all currently published Oxyrhynchus documents pertaining to Christianity.[1] This review offers a summary of their book’s method and approach, engaging with the various sections of papyri, highlighting select contents and features from each, and concluding with some final comments and considerations.

Blumell and Wayment concentrate on Oxyrhynchus material dated between the second and fourth centuries. This focus is largely rooted in the fact that the majority of texts written after the fourth century are “overlaid with Christian veneer, whether or not the text has anything to do with Christianity” (p. 8). In centering on this earlier time period they avoid an overabundance of papyri as well as the laborious task of distinguishing the genuine Christian material from the pseudo-Christian writings increasingly prevalent after the fourth century. While this limits the included texts, they simultaneously broaden their parameters and incorporate material found outside of Oxyrhynchus that holds a connection to Christianity in Oxyrhynchus (pp. 8-9).  This includes writings such as those from the Apophthegmata Patrum attributed to the Egyptian bishop Aphou (p. 664–71).

The overall collection is separated into three categories of texts, each organized chronologically: “Christian Literary Papyri from Oxyrhynchus”, “Documentary Papyri and Christianity at Oxyrhynchus”, and “Patristic, Coptic, and Other Sources on Christians and Christianity at Oxyrhynchus”. Within these sections, each text begins with a thorough introduction, a physical description, relevant paleography, a synopsis of contents, and an overview of any other prominent features or textual variants. Additionally, each text is accompanied by its Trismegistos Number for online referencing and an updated bibliography containing further material pertaining to the text. An updated edition of the text along with an apparatus is also included. Welcome additions to the majority of the included papyri are English translations, many of which are the first of their kind.

The Christian Literary Papyri is separated into three separate text types: “New Testament Texts”, “Extracanonical Texts”, and “Other Christian Literary Texts”. The section of “New Testament Texts” includes an impressive 53 out of the 127 New Testament papyri discovered. The “Extracanonical Texts” section includes 26 Christian texts, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Acts of Peter, while the “Other Christian Literary Texts” contains 27 papyri, including the works of several church fathers, select Christian prayers, and various amulets.

The “Documentary Papyri” section consists of an assortment of 57 texts. These include various types of official documents. Additionally, the section also contains a selection of Christian letters, distinguished by the use of Christian language and or symbolism. Although many of the official, non-letter documents do not make direct reference to Christianity, Blumell and Wayment felt that their significant role in shaping the Christian world at Oxyrhynchus justified their inclusion. Among these documents are Decian libelli, which functioned as official applications for individuals and households to participate in Emperor Decius’ edict. This edict, which extended throughout the empire, required all citizens to offer official sacrifices. Consequently, this far-reaching edict had a considerable impact upon the Christian world at Oxyrhynchus and is therefore included in the collection of papyri.

Bringing together these papyri along with other Christian documents, Blumell and Wayment afford readers the opportunity to gain a multi-faceted perspective on the everyday events of Oxyrhynchus in the convenience of a single volume.

The final section includes 13 texts with origins outside Oxyrhynchus, each with a distinct connection to the Christian world at Oxyrhynchus. These texts include patristic writings, the Apophthegmata Patrum, and select hagiographies. The translations in this section mark a notable contribution especially in the example of the Sahidic Coptic hagiography of Aphou, the first available English version of this papyrus (pp. 638–57). Although these texts do not originate from Oxyrhynchus, they once again “help to round out the picture of Christianity at Oxyrhynchus derived from the papyri” (p. 16).

Blumell and Wayment create a tremendous resource in Christian Oxyrhynchus commendably designed to be accessible to a wide range of scholars. From the English translations, to the informative introductions preceding each text, all the way to their consideration for the scholarly world evidenced in their intentional shaping of volume, Blumell and Wayment do an exemplary job.

One area, however, which might benefit from further consideration relates to the texts selected for inclusion in the volume. While Blumell and Wayment quickly move to identify the difficulty of this task (p. 11), their approach in selection at times appears curious and even inconsistent. Texts are first chosen based upon geographical provenance. Papyri are included “where a strong connection can be made to Oxyrhynchus” (p. 11). The process for determining inclusion based on this criterion is highly scrutinized. In light of their findings, select texts previously recognized as native to Oxrhynchus are excluded from the collection due to uncertain provenance (p. 12).[2] Similar degrees of precaution are taken with the second factor of date. Although there is certain flexibility to account for the difficulty of dating papyri (p. 12), and consideration given to previously excluded texts through a re-verification of date process, the inclusion of a text based upon date is also strictly monitored. Overall, texts with any degree of uncertainty surrounding their origin or date are excluded.[3] The process is stringent but consistent.

Apparent inconsistency, however, arises with the third factor for inclusion: Christian provenance. Although certain concessions are made for select entries such as the various New Testament Syriac fragments, decisions to include other texts appear to become much more subjective. Qualities such as “sufficient context” and “signs of Christianity” act to legitimize the inclusion of later texts. For example, the LXX texts are omitted despite their use of nomina sacra (p. 13), while others in the final documentary papyri section are included because of their employment of nomina sacra (p. 15). This pattern continues with the Christian letters and into the Patristic, Coptic, and Other sources section where either select Christian language or a contribution to understanding the Christian world of Oxyrhynchus merits inclusion.  Although the process for determining the inclusion of texts is certainly complex and well developed, the selection process might benefit from further development, or at the very least, further clarification.

In Christian Oxyrhynchus, Blumell and Wayment deliver an invaluable resource for both students and scholars engaged in or connected to Oxyrhynchus study and research. Through their work, students and scholars are afforded a unique glimpse into the early Christian world and are given an ideal foundation for future scholarship in this area. This groundbreaking volume is rich in content, excellent in organization, hugely relevant to a wide range of audiences, and highly recommended for both students and scholars alike.

Matthew J. Hama
Trinity Western University
Matthew.Hama [at] mytwu.ca

[1] Following the submission of their work for publication, two additional Oxyrhynchus papyri volumes were published.  Since they were unable to make further updates, their work is exhaustive in its handling of the Christian Oxyrhynchus papyri apart from the few Christian texts found in these later publications (p. 9).

[2]  According to Blumell and Wayment neither P.Giss.Univ II 17 nor P.Strasb.Gr. inv. 2677 present enough evidence for origin in Oxyrhynchus to merit inclusion.

[3] P.Oxy. L 3581, previously found to originate in the fourth/fifth century is excluded due to findings that suggest a probable fifth-century composition.

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