Monday, February 19, 2007

Oxyrhynchus Papyri Using Multispectral Imaging: Can it help us with Saying 30 in the Gospel of Thomas?

It looks like our knowledge of the canonical and non-canonical gospels may benefit from the research that is being conducted by professors Roger Macfarlane, Stephen Bay and Thomas Wayment of Brigham Young University. Stephen Carlson posted a link to a newpaper article describing this exciting research. Multispectral imaging is a new technology developed to see through dirt and stains on papyri in order to reveal the writing beneath. They are now working on reading the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, at least the pieces housed at Oxford. Some of the pieces include an unknown gospel fragment, another "new" ending to Mark, a different recension of two verses in Philemon, and a missing portion of Luke 22:43-44.

Should they ever decide to use their technology to reexamine P. Oxy. 1, I would be particularly interested in what it might tell us about P. Oxy. 1.23-30, the lines that make up saying 30.1-2 of the Gospel of Thomas. My own physical examination of the manuscript under natural and ultraviolet light revealed a very eroded line (24) that was very difficult to manage. The standard critical reading by Harold Attridge is "e[isi]n atheoi" (they are godless). But my examination makes this reconstruction doubtful, if not impossible. The theta is clear. In the letter space left of the theta are traces of ink in a distinct pattern. Visible traces move from the top left corner diagonally to the lower right corner. There is a dot of ink in the lower left corner and what appears to be a trace in the upper right corner. When the ink traces are connected, the only letters they could be according to the hand of the scribe are chi or nun. To the left of this letter, in the center of the letter space, is a strong vertical stroke that fills almost half the vertical space. This letter must be either tau or iota. The letter space to the left of this letter is extremely eroded and fragile, but the space is indicative of two letters, not three as Attridge's reconstruction has it.

What reconstruction does this leave? Only one, and one consistent with the Coptic manuscript: "e[is]in theoi" (they are gods). This suggests that the P.Oxy. Greek fragments read, "Where there are three, they are gods." Like the Coptic, it is nonsense. Even the Coptic scribe was confused by it, since he tries to make some sense by interpreting "three" as a specific reference to the "gods." So he adds "gods" after "three."

How can we explain the weird Greek? It appears to me to be a mistranslation of a Semitic plural form of "Elohim," since it is a name for God in Judaism, at the same time as the plural form of El, "gods." This saying is one of those that signals to me that Greek was not the original language of the Gospel of Thomas, but Aramaic and/or Syriac, its eastern dialectical sister. The original saying 30 can be reconstructed: "Jesus said, Where there are three people, God (=Elohim) is there. And where there is one alone, I say that I am with him." Such a reconstruction has full parallels in the Jewish literature (see Mekilta Bahodesh 11; Pirke Aboth 3.2, 6-7; b. Berkakoth 6a).

I don't know if multispectral imaging would help us deal with the erosed ink on P.Oxy. 1.24, but I am curious to find out.


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks very much for this interesting post. It would indeed be a bonus if multispectral imaging could help us here. Where I wonder about your proposal, following on from Guillaumont, is what the Greek scribe thought s/he was writing. Did s/he not understand so familiar a Hebrew word as Elohim? That is not to say that this theory is implausible, but just to ask how it understands the process behind the alleged mistranslation. A related thought: if Elohim was behind the odd text here, does that make the Urtext more Hebrew Bible friendly than our Coptic text & Greek fragments? Given the reticence to speak of the God of the Hebrew Bible in Coptic Thomas, could the "three gods" translation actually be a deliberate mistranslation? [By the way, a slight scribal error in your post -- it's Stephen, not Steven Carlson].

April DeConick said...


I don't think we will ever know why certain scribal errors were made. They are errors, either deliberate or accidental, and more common than not in our tradition of hand copied manuscripts. In this case, perhaps the scribe was tired, sloppy, ignorant, or rushed. The importance for us is that the mistake was not made in the Coptic, it was made in the Greek. The Coptic scribe tried to improve upon it because he realized it was corrupted and senseless. So he identified the three as "gods" rather than leaving it ambigious as the Greek does.

BTW, the scribal error in my post came from ignorance. I thought his name Steven. So sorry Stephen. Now I'm corrected and it won't happen again. Try out my name sometime. I am called "Conick" quite frequently, also "Connick", and "de Connick", and "de Conick". What is it really? DeConick. said...

The translation of the Greek given on page 122, Vol.1, Schneemelcher has (lines 23+): 'Jesus says: Wherever there are three gods, there they are gods. And where one is alone with himself, I am with him. Lift up the stone, and there you will find me; cleave the wood, and I am there.'

The translation of the Coptic in the same book has (30):'Jesus said, Where there are three gods, they are gods; where there are two or one, I am with him.'

Why should either text be nonsense from the writer’s view?

For both writers it would seem that a religion that has three gods or more is pagan or different. In their multi-god environment, the gnostics could have seen the Jews as having two gods, the Father and the Spirit.

For Jews, there was one God, and the Spirit was the animating power of God that could even be present in natural unhewn stones or ‘living’ stones.

For Gnostics, although Jesus, as the all, could be present with one of the gods (presumably the Spirit of God) under a stone or in wood, he was not regarded as God himself.

Were these writers rejecting an understood ‘orthodox’ extant view that Jesus was God in the flesh?

I believe that first century Jewish prophets had come to regard the Spirit of God as Lord to be obeyed rather than much of the ritualistic law as taught by the priests. It was this prophetic form of Jewish religion that was initially exported to Rome in the first century. But the Spirit was still then a Jewish concept.

The idea of Jesus being the all on a par with the Spirit would have been completely foreign to Jews.


BobGriffin said...

a couple of quibbling notes:
Elohim is the plural of Eloah
Elim is the plural of El

I'm completely unsure of Jewish and Jewish-Christian Aramaic usage during the first century, but Targum Yonatan (from The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon) has 'Eloqim' in Genesis 1:1, while the other Targumim use abbreviations for haShem and Syriac uses the singular 'Alaha'. Given this, I would guess at Hebrew as opposed to Aramaic.
(Just checked Ezra 4:24 where the word is 'Elaha'. I suspect that Biblical and Rabbinic Aramaic utilized the singular form except where the some form or variation on the Hebrew was used, as in Targum Yonaton on Genesis)

Be Well
Bob Griffin

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

It seems pretty harsh to say the Coptic is "nonsense."

I don't see this as nonsense:
Jesus said this, "The place which has three of God, there they are in God. The place which has two or one, I am with them."