Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sacred Scriptures as Trash

There have been a lot of discussions about the origins of manuscripts of the sacred scriptures, their texts and usage, etc. (e.g. 'the birth of the codex'); but there have been rather fewer studies of the disposal of those manuscripts which were discarded on the rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus ('the death of the codex'). I recall (admittedly fairly vaguely at this distance) that in 2006 AnneMarie Luijendijk gave a presentation on this subject at SBL in Washington; and a revised version of that presentation has now been published as a very informative article:

AnneMarie Luijendijk, ‘Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus’, Vigiliae Christianae 64 (2010), 217-254.

Here is the abstract:
Most New Testament papyri with a known provenance were found at the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, or more precisely: on that city's rubbish mounds. The fact that sacred scriptures were discarded as garbage is surprising in view of the holiness of Christian biblical manuscripts, intrinsically and physically. Yet the trash aspect of provenance has never been adequately problematized or studied. Taking a social-historical and garbological approach, this article demonstrates that at Oxyrhynchus in antiquity entire manuscripts with biblical writings were deliberately discarded by Christians themselves, unrelated to persecution and issues of canonicity.
The basic claim is that 'studying the praxis of discarding manuscripts provides social information on Christian communities and their habits towards holy scriptures' (p. 218). There is some general discussion of Oxyrhynchus and the manuscripts of the Christian scriptures that have been recovered from the rubbish dumps of that site (pp. 221-228). There is an introduction to 'A garbological approach' - the academic study of garbology (Wikipedia also has an introduction) (pp. 228-231). She then presses the tension between early Christian reverence for Scripture generally and their own Gospel manuscripts particularly (examples on pp. 231-236) and their disposal as trash (as distinct from the possibly more respectful/reverential disposal by burial, pp. 236-240).

AML argues that Christians did dispose of their Scriptures as trash (it was not deposited by persecutors, since that called for burning, pp. 240-241); that they did so while regarding them as Sacred Scripture (pp. 241-243); and that although often only fragments survive the likelihood is that they were discarded as whole copies (pp. 243-245): 'these manuscripts either deteriorated (further) on the trash heap, which may explain their present fragmentary state, or they had been torn up before they were discarded' (p. 244). She doesn't so much explain how or why this was done - the evidence of the final stages of usage is rarely very clear - but insists that it is an interesting datum:
'despite all the evidence for the physical holiness of Christian manuscripts, at Oxyrhynchus in late antiquity Christians deliberately discarded entire manuscripts with sacred scriptures as trash'. (p. 250).
An appendix provides brief notes on NT manuscripts which appear to have been discarded as a whole: P115; P5; P13; P70; P77


  1. I own several bibles, in otherwise fair condition, that are missing pages. What else do you do with a bible once it is less than 100% extant? Carry around two of them and hope that the lacunae don't overlap?

  2. Thanks for the review. The article seems to offer a plausible explanation for the general wildness of the early papyri. Perhaps they were not considered accurate or critical enough by worshippers and were therefore discarded as rubbish.

    Jonathan C. Borland

  3. One wonders why someone would think that early Christians didn't just toss worn copies away. Clearly there was no problem cutting up old bibles and using the pages as stuffing in the later centuries (or scraping them off and writing completely new texts over the top), when it was clear those who did so still had a high view of scripture.

    I think you would need to show evidence that there Christians practised some sort of special disposal warn manuscripts of the bible separate from they way other literature was disposed of.

    The presumption that it was because the text was flawed seems quite a stretch, since we have ample evidence that Christians simply corrected the flawed text in place to rectify that problem.


  4. "garbological approach"

    I had to look that up to see if it was a real word. impressively, it is.

    we could be stumbling upon an entirely new field of studies here!

    how long until the appearance of the distinguished monograph: "New Testament Interpretation: A Garbological Approach"

    Ok, sorry, I'm not sure why I find that so funny; back to your original discussion...

  5. Daniel said "What else do you do with a bible once it is less than 100% extant"
    Well, if you had the option of buying a new Bible out of several hours of wages you could buy a new Bible and toss out the old one. But that is a modern western situation!
    But if you only had the options of either writing out 100% of a new Bible (there goes a year or so of your time plus several thousand dollars for papyrus or parchment) or just writing a few missing pages, the obvious option is to just write out the few missing pages.
    Any thoughts?
    Matthew Hamilton

  6. First of all, we're talking papyrus here. By definition, considerably cheaper than parchment. And less durable. If my Bible were missing the bottom line and a half of every page, the first 19 pages and the last 6, I might just consider it ready for the trash. Especially if it had been copied by a student scribe as a writing exercise and purchased at the publisher's discount outlet when I was a poor seminary student.

  7. Daniel, the example of Bibles you gave was "in otherwise fair condition, that are missing pages" - nowhere did you mention that they were missing the bottom line and a half of every page or that they were the product of student exercise. As for the issue of papyrus cf. parchment - both cost a lot of money, one perhaps moreso than the other, and both would still require you to write out many hundreds of pages, or pay for somebody else to do so.

    In a society where it is likely most Christians could not read, and fewer still who could read could afford to own a Bible (or part of a Bible since there were few pandects), an old or worn Bible (or part thereof) would still have value to some Christians. Haven't yet read the article but from the abstract it sounds questionable.

    Matthew Hamilton

  8. Then we're still left with the question of why Bible portions were thrown in the trash. I'll throw out some possibilities:

    1) Muslims did it. They held some regard for Al-Kitab Al-Muquddis, so they didn't burn them, but they wanted them where the Christians couldn't get them back easily.

    2) Secularists did it. Certain parts of the Scriptures were found to contain Hate Speech, and Christians were ordered to throw their Scriptures in the Nile. Some opted to hide them in the Town Dump instead.

    3) Lucians did it. An early precursor of the King James Only Movement condemned the use of the Alexandrian Text. Extant Bibles were thrown away and replacements brought in from Nicomedia.

  9. Daniel is right that "we're still left with the question of why Bible portions were thrown in the trash". AML doesn't answer the question "why?" That is probably sensible since as whoever trashed their Bible mss was participating in a more general cultural activity of throwing away all sorts of other documents it probably makes most sense to integrate the disposal of Bible mss with the wider phenomenon.

  10. In relation to Matthew's comments one option might be to start somewhere else, garbologically speaking. Could one argue that disposal of relatively good manuscripts actually presumes a ready supply of replacements? I agree that one wouldn't chuck out something that cost six months wages just because it had a couple of bits missing. But maybe we need to rethink opportunity cost issues for the production.

  11. How is it known that these were worn out when discarded? HOw is it known that they were thought of as relatively good manuscripts? Given the expense that was involved in getting scripture it seems odd that they would not keep even partials around, even if there was a ready replacement.

  12. What's the timeframe for these mss being disposed of? I think I asked this question before, but I don't remember getting an answer.

    All it takes for something of value (to someone else) to be thrown in the trash is:

    1. It is no longer of sufficient value to the owner, either because:

    a) Its value went down relative to something else that became available;
    b) The cost of continuing to own it went up.

    2. The value (to someone else) of giving it away doesn't justify the cost of doing so.

    As an example of why something of value could be thrown out, just go diving in dormitory dumpsters at the close of a term. Departing students:

    a) Have to clean out their rooms.
    b) Have limited space to take things with them.
    c) Can hardly give anything away, as all the others in their dorm are in the same situation.

    Thus, they characteristically throw out perfectly good clothes, working electronic equipment, and even jars of small change.

  13. Do we actually know that MSS or substantial parts of MSS were thrown out with the trash, as opposed, for example, to minor broken off BITS of MSS where perhaps repairs were done.

    Leaving aside substantial MSS such as the Chester Beatty papyri that were NOT thrown out with the trash, I can't think off the top of any early biblical MSS for which we know complete MSS or substantial portions of MSS were disposed of as garbage.

    Two added problems:
    1. Details of finds of biblical MSS at Oxyrhynchus are mostly pretty brief, reconstructing the "garbology" of MSS sounds dubious
    2. We don't know how representative Oxyrhychus is as a site for the study of biblical MSS "garbology", as for example, the ratio of NT to OT MSS there differs from that at other findsites.

    Matthew Hamilton

  14. What is the timeframe for the Oxyrhynchus MSS? Is it a fairly tight timeframe? If so, two other (however improbable) possibilities present themselves.

    The first is economic. Perhaps it was less expensive to obtain new copies of the NT documents than is currently taken for granted, thus making older, worn out copies more "disposable." How much DID it cost at that time, in that place, to purchase hand-copied documents? Perhaps for a few years it was less expensive than we now suppose.

    The second is sociological. Perhaps there was, at the time, for whatever reason or to whatever degree, an apostasy of the faith, rendering NT documents, for some, either unimportant or "toxic."

    One is reminded of David Macaulay's book, Motel of the Mysteries. I mean, how can we seriously examine "garbiology" without also understanding the immediate (and often complex) economic and cultural context? A thousand years from now, what might an archaeologist conclude after finding all the electronic detritus in our garbage dumps? That we had all decided en masse to reject technology?

  15. These are all good questions, it shows how a garbological approach can raise new and interesting questions.

    AML argues that some complete manuscripts were disposed of (on the basis of P115; P5; P13; P70; P77 - which show reasonably extensive remains). She seems to be sympathetic to the view that some of the more fragmentary manuscripts were also complete at the moment of discardation. One could make an argument against this on the basis of the number of single page manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus. Figuring out a way of probing rates of damage during and after initial discardation might offer a way forward.

  16. Please carefully read the early reports by Grenfell and Hunt and look for the details of the finding of each of the MSS discussed in AMLs article, look at the details of location of each rubbish pile, the precise description of all the contents such as foodstuffs, nightsoil, building rubble, pottery, coins, textiles, and the illumination that non MSS rubbish provide to our understanding of the MSS. Go further and read articles such as "The Coins of Oxyrhynchus" and look for details of dated coins found in specific layers of specific rubbish piles with specific MSS and see how this non MSS rubbish illuminates the dates the MSS were discarded

    Unless there has been in very recent years a release of previously unpublished reports by Grenfell and Hunt, or unless AML has had private access to such reports in an unpublished state, how does she know that scriptural MSS found in garbage heaps were placed there with any intention by Christians - placed there intentionally as garbage, and how does she know it they were found in the rubbish heaps?

    From what has been said about the article (I look forward to reading the actual article), Christians for whatever reason discarded sacred scripures with garbage, but
    1. How do we know it was Christians who discarded the MSS?
    2. Do we even know they "discarded" the MSS with intent and not incidentally? (eg: building falls down, the rubble and ruined contents (including MSS) pushed aside to build anew, and other rubbish added to the building rubble pile)
    3. How much do we know about the specific findsites at Oxyrhynchus of many of the MSS being discussed, given that Grenfell and Hunt were not always the ones to excave the MSS? At least 2 of the MSS noted as being more extensive, were found partially by Grenfell and Hunt's team, and partially by the Italians. For the parts found by Grenfell and Hunt's team, do we know who found them and where at Oxyrhynchus they found them?
    4. If whatever exactly AML is saying is true - why does it only apply to the NT and not the OT? Numerous early OT MSS at Oxyrhynchus, but only one of any extent - and it is probably Jewish.

    Matthew Hamilton

  17. Thanks Matthew,
    I agree that this would be a good way forward. AML does a bit of this, but not a great deal. I guess following the trend to think that the stratigraphy and even associations are largely not recoverable.

    There is an interesting article on this (which AML refers to): Don C. Barker, "Codex, Roll, and Libraries in Oxyrhynchus" TynBul 57.1 (2006) 131-148.