Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Oxyrhynchus explained

A book on the Oxyrhynchus discovery and its significance by Peter Parsons is reviewed by William Dalrymple in the New Statesman (April 23, 2007).

On the second day of the excavation of an Egyptian village in 1896, Hunt noticed a papyrus fragment and read on it the rare Greek word karphos. While it reminded him of Jesus' saying about "the mote in your brother's eye," the wording was sufficiently different so that he realized with a thrill of excitement that the papyrus was from an unknown gospel of Jesus' sayings. We identify that fragment now as part of the Gospel of Thomas.

The review continues:-
In total, the excavation yielded no fewer than half a million fragments of papyrus, some 700 boxes full - enough, remarks Peter Parsons in his fascinating and authoritative new book, not only to keep Grenfell and Hunt busy for the rest of their working lives, but also to swallow up the lives of - so far - "six generations of scholars", with many more boxes as yet unopened: "Volume I of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri came out in 1898; Volume LXII is due out in 2007; at least 40 more volumes are planned."

Parsons has been studying papyri for more than half a century, and for many of those years has been head of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project. Yet there is no sign in his writing that his enthusiasm has been in any way jaded by familiarity with box after box of these endlessly elusive and fragile scraps of scroll. Instead, he brilliantly conveys both the difficulty of working on the material and the excitement of the historical detective involved in the thrill of the chase: open a box of unpublished papyri and you never know what you will find - high poetry and vulgar farce, sales and loans, wills and contracts, tax returns and government orders, private letters, shopping lists and household accounts. Then there is the pleasure of comprehension: as you decipher the ink, still black after 2,000 years, you begin to make words out of letters and then sentences out of words; the eye looks for shapes, and the mind looks for sense, and the two in alliance turn a string of symbols into intelligible text.

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