“The unpardonable crime in archaeology is destroying evidence which can never be recovered; and every discovery does destroy evidence unless it is intelligently recorded. Our museums are ghastly charnel-houses of murdered evidence; the dry bones of objects are there, bare of all the facts of grouping, locality, and dating which would give them historical life and value.”
These sentiments, published by the archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1904, caused a visceral reaction when I first read them several years ago. They perfectly captured my frustrations when studying some of the earliest Christian books from antiquity. Ancient manuscripts are more than just carriers of texts. They are archaeological artifacts and deserve to be studied as such. But when we begin to look for the archaeological context of our earliest Christian manuscripts, only rarely are we led to the Egyptian sites excavated by archaeologists like Petrie. Much more frequently we find ourselves mired in the murky world of the antiquities market.
The commercial trade in ancient Christian manuscripts has received no shortage of attention in recent years. The opening of Steve Green’s Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. in 2017 prompted increased scrutiny of issues of provenance and ownership history. The so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife raised many of the same issues. But this intensive and widespread interest in provenance seems to be a relatively recent development within the study of early Christian manuscripts. A little over a decade ago, the sensational publication of the Gospel of Judas by the National Geographic Society garnered attention mainly for the contents of this “lost” gospel. Relatively few questions were raised about its provenance. Even less attention was paid to the fact that the book containing the Gospel of Judas was one of four papyrus codices whose fates were intertwined on the antiquities market. All four books were said to have been found together near Qarara in Egypt in the 1970s. In addition to the book containing the Gospel of Judas, one of the books contained the letters of Paul in Coptic. Another contained a mathematical treatise in Greek. And the other was a copy of Exodus in Greek.
It is this last book on which I want to focus. Despite the titillating backstory supplied by National Geographic about the discovery of these books in rural Egypt in the 1970s, the first publicly documented appearance of the books occurred when they were offered for sale together in a hotel room in Geneva in 1983. No purchase took place on that occasion, but the Coptologist Stephen Emmel made a characteristically meticulous report of what he saw in the few minutes he had to examine the codices. His attention, however, was focused on the Coptic codices, and so he noted only in passing that one of the four codices contained Exodus in Greek. No other details were forthcoming and Emmel’s informal report was not published, so only a small circle of scholars learned about the existence of these books. At about the same time, the Vatican Library is said to have been sent low-quality photocopies of the leaves of the codex as part of an offer for sale, but they also declined to buy.
The codices resurfaced for sale in New York in the early 1990s. Again, the books did not sell, but the records of the Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen state that the Exodus codex consisted of more than fifty leaves at that time. At that point, the codex seems to have been divided for sale. One leaf of the codex was purchased by Yale University from a company associated with the Swiss dealer Frieda Tchacos in the mid-1990s.
At least one leaf was acquired by the art dealer François Antonovich apparently around the same time. Five leaves were purchased by Schøyen at some point before 1998. In the early 2000s, some leaves of the codex became part of an ownership dispute between Tchacos and the American dealer Bruce Ferrini, whose sloppy handling of the Gospel of Judas codex is well known. Other pieces of the Exodus codex began to appear online and in traveling exhibitions in the United States. The scattering of the manuscript seemed bleak, but when I began to track the various parts of the codex a couple years ago, I got the feeling that I was re-inventing the wheel. A lot of the difficult work of tracing the parts of the codex on the antiquities market had in fact already been done in 2006 by Matthew Hamilton and Ernest Muro. Some of the fruits of their labor are documented on one of the helpful pages of Roger Pearse. Muro’s own website, however, which was the hub for information about the Exodus codex, disappeared upon his death in 2007 and now must be dug up through the Wayback Machine. And even the work of Hamilton and Muro that was more easily available on the web has not made its way into the most of the print publications concerning the codex.
The earliest publication of any part of the codex seems to be Antonovich’s holdings in 1996. An initial report about Schøyen’s leaves of the codex appeared in a 2004 listing of manuscripts of the Septuagint, which also mentioned the existence of at least eight other leaves known only through photocopies. The first publication of parts of the codex from American holdings occurred in a 2006 article in the journal Vetus Testamentum.
These included a fragmentary leaf kept at Ashland Theological Seminary and six fragmentary leaves in the possession of an “anonymous owner.” A second set of five fragmentary leaves again in the possession of an “anonymous owner” was published in 2007. In this article, a connection was made to the leaves owned by Schøyen, which were then still awaiting publication. At least three of these five pieces were at the time part of a traveling exhibition of various biblical artifacts called “Ink & Blood” run by William Noah, a medical doctor in the United States.
Schøyen’s five leaves were eventually published in 2013. While the editors of these leaves did include an edition of the leaf in the Antonovich collection, no mention was made of the Yale leaf, or the Ashland leaf and the “anonymously” owned leaves that were already published in 2006 and 2007 (identified by Hamilton and Muro as all belonging to the same codex). As the preceding story makes clear, our knowledge of the codex has been frustratingly and needlessly complicated by the operations of the antiquities market. Through the publicly available information that I have been able to verify, we can make the following list which adds some ownership details to the outline produced by Muro:
- Exodus 3:16-4:3 “anonymous owner”/Ink & Blood, 1 leaf
- Exodus 4:16-6:12 Schøyen Collection (Oslo), 5 leaves
- Exodus 6:12-6:27 Beinecke Library, Yale University, 1 leaf
- Exodus 6:28-7:11 Antonovich Collection (Paris), 1 leaf
- Exodus 10:3-10:9 Ashland Theological Seminary, 1 leaf
- Exodus 10:12-11:5 “anonymous owner,”/Ink & Blood, 2 leaves
- Exodus 11:7-12:6 “anonymous owner”/Ink & Blood, 1 leaf
- Exodus 12:9-12:29 “anonymous owner,” 2 leaves
- Exodus 12:30-12:41 “anonymous owner”/Ink & Blood, 1 leaf
- Exodus 12:45-13:7 “anonymous owner,” 1 leaf
- Exodus 26:21-33 “anonymous owner”/ex Bruce Ferrini (Akron), 1 leaf
- Exodus 30:11-21 “anonymous owner”/ex Bruce Ferrini (Akron), 1 leaf
- Exodus 34:12-24 “anonymous owner,” 1 leaf
- Exodus 35:9-25 “anonymous owner,” 1 leaf
Thus, of a codex that originally contained perhaps 90 leaves, of which 50 leaves were reported to have survived until 1990, we now know the whereabouts of perhaps 10 leaves. The rest, along with the leaves that are known only by photographs, appear to remain in the hands of “anonymous owners.” The fate of Ferrini’s leaves is also opaque, since much of his collection was auctioned off in haste during his bankruptcy in 2008.
The situation is, to put it mildly, not ideal. From the leaves of the codex that have been studied and published, it is evident that the book preserves a distinctive type of text for Exodus that has been only minimally harmonized with the Masoretic Text. From a text critical standpoint, the codex is thus quite important. Nevertheless, to draw on Petrie’s observations, this artifact has not only been murdered, it has also been dismembered. Any contextual knowledge about where and when this text was used has been lost. And that loss of knowledge does not even begin to touch upon the cultural heritage issues at stake with an Egyptian artifact whose history cannot be reliably traced prior to the early 1980s. But there is one piece of good news. Notre Dame doctoral candidate Jeremiah Coogan is studying the extant fragments and photographs to undertake a detailed investigation of the codicology of the book. His important work marks the first step toward making redress for the damage that we have allowed to happen to this artifact.
I’m not so naive to think that simply telling stories like this will make a dent in the illicit trade in antiquities. But I do think there is value in focusing our attention on an easy-to-forget but nevertheless indisputable fact: the basic building blocks that we use to “do history” themselves have complicated, sometimes troubling histories.
Brent Nongbri is the author of God's Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts and Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.