“New” Ancient Texts

by Young Kim.

Sometimes I am a bit envious of my colleagues who study more recent history (and by “recent” I mean of the last few hundred years or so).  When they talk about visiting archives chock-full of documents to collate and explore, my borderline-obsessive self feels a tinge of jealousy at the prospect of finding that one letter or piece of evidence that sheds an entirely new light on some important (or even obscure) figure or historical development.  I am also intrigued by the possibility of a day-to-day examination of a people or a place.  This is, of course, not to say that the work of the scholar of modern history is any less (or more) difficult.  We all have to collect, study, analyze, and interpret the sources available to us.

Roland De Vaux and Gerald Lankester Harding with their excavation team. They led the archaeology team surveying the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Roland De Vaux and Gerald Lankester Harding with their excavation team. They led the archaeology team surveying the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

But for those of us who study the pre-modern world, we are entirely dependent on the written and material “texts” that have survived the test of time.  On those extremely rare and fortuitous occasions when a large collection of texts or previously unknown archaeological site is discovered, the impact is potentially earth-shaking and paradigm-shifting.  This was true when the Nag Hammadi codices were found in 1945 and when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1946, and both collections transformed (and still transform) our understanding of developments of Early and Late Ancient Christianity and Second Temple Judaism.

But in most cases, “new” texts or material remains come to us at a trickle, sometimes by accident and sometimes by the pressure to meet the increasing demands and necessities of modern urban life.  Scholars understandably get very excited even by a scrap of papyrus or a few potsherds.  In a bygone era, the study and synthesis of such materials were disseminated to a generally narrow scholarly audience through presentations at academic conferences and publications in academic journals and monographs.  In those days, the process took time, which in some sense allowed scholars to spend a bit more time for analysis, interpretation, and discussion.

However, the digital age has witnessed the advent of near instantaneous platforms of communication by which the public can learn about newly discovered materials.  On the one hand, a benefit of the rapid-fire publicity fueled by modern technology is a broader public interest in pre-modern things.  Stories posted on websites, blogs, and Facebook, links tweeted and re-tweeted, can create buzz and even controversy about things that in the past were the concern of scholars and a few interested people, as for example in the recent debate about the translation and significance of the Gospel of Judas.  On the other hand, one of the unfortunate side effects is the pressure to interpret and explain as quickly as possible a given discovery for public consumption, which can and has led to overstatement and even errors.  The snail’s pace of peer-review and print publication apparently does have a place on the information superhighway.

Gospel of Jesus's Wife papyrus fragment: front.

Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus fragment: front. Karen L. King, 2012

Another trend that I have noticed while observing the intersection of pre-modern scholarship and post-modern technology is the almost instantaneous, even habitual, suspicion that is voiced with the announcement or publication of new materials.  Granted, a healthy dose of critical skepticism is an important corrective to an eagerness to accept anything and everything said by someone with a Ph.D.  That zeal to believe seems to be intensified when it comes to things that appear to confirm the biblical and/or historical Jesus, like the alleged James Ossuary.  There has always been a problem with forged antiquities, and as dating and authentication technology has improved over the years, the talent of forgers has apparently followed suit.  The controversy over the Getty kouros in the early 90s is well known to those of us who work on antiquity, but I wonder how much wider the discussion and public awareness would be today?  The recent debate over the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus, studied by Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King, might offer some indication.  The small fragment contains several lines of text in which Jesus seems to speak of Mary as his wife.  A litany of voices cried foul and forgery before Professor King’s article was even published, and the Harvard Theological Journal delayed publication so that the papyrus could be subjected to more testing.

Indiana Jones in his office, surrounded by ancient artifacts

Indiana Jones in his office, surrounded by ancient artifacts

One of the key concerns with any “new” antiquities is provenance, that is, where, when, and in what circumstances a particular text or object was found and acquired.  The less documentation of such information, the more distrust and even ethical concern.  The black market for things pre-modern has always been (and will be) around.  I am reminded of the Marcus Brody character in the third installment of the Indiana Jones trilogy (let us pretend that the fourth never really happened).  In an early scene, Brody invites Dr. Jones to his home and gushes about his “passion for antiquities,” as he shows off his private collection of archaeological artifacts.  Brody is of course fiction, but there are plenty of anonymous collectors of antiquity, some of whom allow scholars to study pieces of their collections.  Recently, the announcement of fragments of two poems attributed to the archaic Greek poet Sappho has stirred scholarly debate, in no small part because of questions over the provenance and anonymous ownership of the papyrus.  Oxford professor Dirk Obbink has had to defend his work in public even before the publication of his article on these poems.

Finally, the questions (and doubts) about provenance have been exacerbated exponentially in recent years because of contemporary geo-political events.  After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, museums in the country were looted, as the preservation of artifacts and the cultural heritage of Iraq was seemingly very low (or not at all) on the priority list of the invaders.  It should come as no surprise that the antiquities black market swelled with items available for sale, and the debate rages on about how to deal with illicit trade.  The aftermath of the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, has witnessed the rise of similar problems.

I have rambled on in this blog post about several issues relating to the study of the pre-modern world, and perhaps I could be accused a bit of biting the hand that feeds.  Yes, the “discovery” of previously unknown or unpublished texts, written and material, continues to renew the study of the past, and yes, digital technologies have enabled a wider public to enjoy and engage with history in ways unimagined.  But what I hope to have shown in my reflections is that the study of pre-modern history necessitates an awareness of and thoughtful reflection on a wide range of contemporary issues; past and present cannot be studied, interpreted, and understood exclusive of one or the other.

Young Kim is associate professor of history and chair of the classics department.  During the 2012-2013 academic year, he was the senior Fulbright research fellow at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute.

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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