Last week Stephen Carlson of Hypotyposeis and other bloggers mentioned an article from the BYU (Brigham Young University) web site about new technology that could aid in reading some of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (“Mysteries of Ancient Egyptian Papyri Revealed,” Feb. 14). It appears now that the article was either a case of an overzealous (and confused) reporter or an intentional attempt to mislead readers. The article has been removed from the web site but here is the excerpt that appeared on Carlson’s blog:
Three BYU professors have uncovered mysteries in ancient Egyptian writings aided by new technology that allows people to see inscriptions invisible to the naked eye.
The professors Roger Macfarlane, Stephen Bay and Thomas Wayment, have been working on deciphering these writings on papyrus found in an Egyptian dump where an ancient city known as Oxyrhynchus previously existed. The papyri are now housed at the University of Oxford in England and studied by various scholars around the globe.
The technology developed by BYU called multispectral imaging, can penetrate through dirt, stains and other material on the papyri, making it possible to expose obscured lettering.
. . .
Specific material in these texts include an unidentified Christian apocryphal Gospel, a new ending to the Gospel of Mark, a different version of two verses in the book of Philemon, and a missing section in Luke 22:43-44. In the King James Version, these verses in Luke talk about Christ shedding blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.
When I first read the article I thought the “discoveries” made using this technology too good to be true. A new ending to Mark? Justification for including the infamous tears of blood scene in critical editions of Luke? (if that is what is implied) This sounded to me like the Christmas wish of a King-James Fundamentalist. So I decided to wait on the news for a few days before posting it here.
It seems I was wise to do so. The Ars Technica web site features a discussion of a related (and similarly overzealous) article published in The Independent several years ago. Here is an excerpt:
Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the world
Scientists begin to unlock the secrets of papyrus scraps bearing long-lost words by the literary giants of Greece and Rome
By David Keys and Nicholas Pyke (17 April 2005)
For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure – a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation. If only it was legible.
Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.
In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament.
The author of the post raised some important questions about the report including that it implies the Oxyrhynchus papyri are a horde of texts that are intact but simply too filthy to read, when in fact the problem with the remaining unpublished papyri is piecing the many fragments of them together to form coherent texts.
Another article, this time from the Washington Post, confirms that there is indeed a BYU team using multispectral imaging on the Oxyrhynchus papyri, after having used it successfully on the horde from Herculaneum, papyri which were carbonized by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The results from using the technology on the Oxyrhynchus papyri will be rather small, recovering lines of text from underneath dirt rather than entire texts or considerable portions of “lost” texts. The Oxyrhynchus On-line site also describes the BYU project and includes an example of the dramatic results of the technology.
Perhaps the BYU reporter combined news of the Oxyrhynchus project with the information about Herculaneum and his own wish list of lost texts. For now, at least, there is no new apocryphal gospel from Oxyrhynchus. And this story should be seen as a cautionary tale when it comes to reading (and transmitting) unsubstantiated news about manuscript discoveries that are too good to be true.