Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Doing Coptic Papyrology in Leipzig

I attended the Second International Coptic Papyrology Summer School in Leipzig, Germany last month. It was a first class experience. We had an 18:6 student to teacher ratio, with 26 lectures, a tour of the Egyptian museum, a papyrus-making practicum, and about 28 hours of hands-on manuscript analysis. Students were given their own Coptic manuscript (dating back to 5th to 8th centuries), and were given responsibility for transcribing, translating, analyzing and presenting them to the Summer School, with guidance from the teaching staff. Additionally, students and teachers alike generally ate all their meals together, affording the opportunity for excellent informal discussion. The setting at the University of Leipzig also was first rate.

Well known Coptologists on the teaching staff included Anne Boud’hors, Stephen Emmel, Sebastian Richter, guest speaker Uwe-Karsten Plisch, and others. Georg Schmelz (Mannheim/Heidelberg) in particular spent hours with me working on my transcription. Students attended from Spain, Sweden, United States, United Kingdom, France, Austria, Germany, Finland, and Canada.

I was given a papyrus manuscript about the size of a regular sheet of paper (27 cm x 17 cm) with seventeen lines of text written lengthwise. The text itself measures 23 cm x 14.5 cm. Perhaps as much as 20-30% of the text has been lost, mostly broken off on the right (especially in four finger-like lacunae), but also due to ink fading and holes elsewhere. The manuscript varies unevenly from a light to medium brown colour, with dark brown ink.

The manuscript is a letter, written from someone named Stephanos John the Less (or perhaps, the Lowly) to a superior named Papa Damine; their names are written on the verso (back side). Given the extensive reference to prayers and to God, a reference to the Church and to a deacon, as well as the reverential tones of address, the letter seems to have been written in a religious setting, perhaps having something to do with a monastery. The main topic of concern, judging from the surviving text, is that certain books had arrived in good order. The Coptic word for book occurs six times. Its provenance is unknown.

This letter had not been analysed previously by any modern scholar. In recent years, it was encased in glass, but had not been catalogued in the old inventory at Leipzig. Indeed, since this was a letter sent from one individual to another, one might assume that I was one of the very few people to have ever read it, now or then. While somewhere deep in my subconscious mind I may have held out hopes that the letter contained clues about the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, or about some important bit of missing history, letters of this kind usually are not important by themselves. Instead, they are most useful when they are fitted together with scores and hundreds of other letters to give us a picture of life in antiquity.

The text was written in a “regular hand;” the scribe lacked the sort of skill typically requisite for fine literary works. The letters are rather awkward, tight, and thin, without artistic variation in thickness. They typically have a pronounced slant, especially with the letters tau and iota, and were written in unligatured block letters. Sometimes the letters are so tight that they were probably difficult to read even when the ink was fresh. At places, one may easily discern where the scribe had to re-ink his writing tool. Further analysis is necessary to discern if the formation of the letters might suggest a date or provenance.

The text is written in fairly “normal” Sahidic, with few dialectical indications. For example, there is but one occurrence of the beta personal suffix instead of fai. At some points, there is deviation from literary Sahidic, such as the unexpected use of the definite article with holokotte, as if the gold coins were some specific, known coins, as well as the unexpected absence of one or two object markers. There occurs also an otherwise unattested variation of the name Enoch. There appears to be three instances of apparent spelling errors. In the six occurrences of ϫwwme(book), it inexplicably occurs once as ϫwwmi. In addition to nomina sacra, there is one titular abbreviation.

The text seems to follow standard letter writing conventions of the day. A good half of the letter appears formulaic. The actual issue which is addressed is found in the middle nine lines, while the introductory and concluding lines consists of standard greeting and closing formulae.

One of the unresolved difficulties of this letter is the shift of narrative voice. It begins in the first person plural. Then at some point, it shifts to first person singular. Later, it makes a reference to a certain Stephen. This last fact is especially odd since the author’s name is said to be Stephen. Indeed, although the text is lacunose, the closest context is a warning not to look (or consider?) something…of Stephen.

Here is a preliminary translation:

With God, before all things, we greet and bow a multitude of times
before the footstool of the feet of your piety of honoured father
…from least to greatest
…greatly your prayers…
through your fatherhood in… …these two books…
(to receive?) the money in books to us. As for the rest, I sent (and) they…
…to us on the fourth. And they brought them in good shape. Behold God!
your prayers brought the remaining books to us. And…
…the matter which satisfies the will of God. Do not look…
…a book of Stephan to us a little of Marine. You…
…go up to them… …well that…
book and your… God … of the books…
we work well. And as the prayer be upon us, then we are (habitually) doing it for your pi-
ety. And the prayer [be] on us and your holy prayers [be] upon the
church. …bow to your piety…
the Deacon greets you nicely. And Enoch salutes you. Salvation
be to you. Until next time. Be well.

With God of Jesus, Papa Damine. Stephanus the Less.

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