Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Thoughts on the Marzeah Papyrus

As long as we're discussing unprovenanced artifacts, what about the Marzeah Papyrus? The Marzeah Papyrus is currently touring the US as part of a larger exhibition and is touted as either the "earliest Hebrew writing on papyrus" or "the oldest known Hebrew manuscript in the world and the oldest known mention of the name 'Elohim,' a name for God in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible." Taking its cue from this last claim, it is now often called the "Elohim papyrus."

Where was it discovered? No one knows. When was it discovered? No one knows. It was first published in 1990 in the journal Semitica by Pierre Bordreuil and Dennis Pardee, two highly respected experts in the North-West Semitic languages. In their article, the authors describe how photographs of the document came to them from other scholars seeking their views on the authenticity of the papyrus, but the ultimate source of the photographs and the owner of the artifact was not named. They stated only that the text is "now in the hands of persons wishing to sell it at a high price."
We have only had at our disposal two photographic prints of which one, in color, is of excellent quality. It necessarily follows that the test of the document's authenticity cannot be done before an analysis is carried out. However, in the hopes that someday this can be done and in the absence now of external tests, it seems to us that this text shows sufficient internal coherence to dispel the hypothesis of forgery and to present it without prejudice [italics in original] to the attention of specialists.
They base their conclusion of authenticity primarily on the sophistication of the language in the papyrus, concluding that a putative forger must have been a highly trained specialist in the Semitic languages, with a sophisticated understanding of dialectology, as well as a master of paleography. They consider this combination of talents an unlikely one in a forger and conclude in favor of the authenticity of the document.

Recently Bordreuil and Pardee have returned to the papyrus, in another article for Semitica. They announce that they have finally seen the document in person; and they reiterate, "Nothing that we have been able to observe recently leads to a verdict of inauthenticity, and everything that emerges from an examination of the object itself supports our first conviction..." But nothing is said about doing further tests on the papyrus.

Now I am not going to dispute the arguments of Bordreuil & Pardee. As far as the language is concerned, I see nothing in the Marzeah papyrus that raises a major red flag for me. Nevertheless, a philological analysis of such a short text can hardly lead by itself to a verdict of "genuine." There are a host of technical protocols to be carried out on this text, and, as far as I know, they have not been carried out. The original papyrus was said to be discovered sealed with a bulla, which was also published in the first article. Has this bulla been examined for its authenticity? Papyrus can be tested by Carbon-14 dating methods; maybe this text should be. Has a papyrologist, or better, a team of papyrologists, examined this text? What can be learned about its discovery and how did it enter the antiquities market? Can the ink be analyzed? Are there any chemical traces on the surface that help in pinpointing the time and location (whether ancient or modern) of its origin?

Bordreuil & Pardee are maestros in our field, and their opinions on paleography and philology must be heard with respect. Nevertheless, in the opinion of many scholars, even these two were taken in by the alleged forger of the Moussaieff Ostraca, which the same scholars originally published and pronounced to be genuine.

Not only this, the papyrus now forms part of a collection of documents that has had a troubled history. The "Ink and Blood" exhibit, including the Marzeah Papyrus, is soon to open in Knoxville, Tennessee. This exhibit is under the "curatorship" of William Noah, a medical doctor and Bible enthusiast who is said to have originated this "traveling museum." Originally his partners were the antiquities dealers Bruce Ferrini and Lee Biondi. Noah is said to have created the exhibit around the core of Ferrini's private collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments (along with those of collector Craig Lampe), but Noah fell out with his partners after creditors forced the exhibit company to declare bankruptcy and Noah filed suit against Ferrini. The exhibit split into two competing exhibits, one headed by Biondi, the other headed by Noah.

I don't know who the legal owner of the Marzeah papyrus is (Lampe?), and the fact that it is part of a barnstorming traveling circus of ancient Bibles does not count against its authenticity. But its unknown provenance, uncertain history, unavailability for technical protocols, and association with the big-money antiquities trade, especially in the wake of the recent forgery indictments, should make scholars demand a closer examination and more exacting tests before putting any further confidence in the document.

A final note: The nickname "Elohim Papyrus" is peculiarly misconceived. The crucial word is actually אלהן, perhaps "Elohin" or even "Elahin," but definitely not "Elohim"! Not only that, it is far from certain that the reference is to a single god. The full phrase is כה אמרו אלהן, with a plural verb, possibly to be translated "thus said the gods." It is true, though, that in the Hebrew Bible "elohim" meaning "God," singular, can be construed with a plural verb (e.g., Ps. 58:12).

Will those who are charging $15 a ticket for this exhibit convey these uncertainties to their customers?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: P. Bordreuil and D. Pardee, "Le papyrus du Marzeah," Semitica 38 (1990): 49-68; F. Cross, "A Papyrus Recording a Divine Legal Decision and the Root rhq in Biblical and Near Eastern Legal Usage," pp. 311-320 in M.V. Fox, V.A. Hurowitz, A. Hurvitz, M.L. Klein, B.J. Schwartz and N. Shupak (eds.) Text, Temples, and Traditions. A Tribute to Menahem Haran, Eisenbrauns, 1996; P. Bordreuil, D. Pardee, "Nouvel examen du papyrus du Marzeah," Semitica 50 (2001): 224-225. A high-res picture of the Marzeah papyrus is available here.


Peter M. Head said...

Interesting post. Re the photo: the nice straight edges seem a little suspicious to me. If it is a forgery it would be on genuine ancient papyrus cut from something else (as Simonides did with forged NT docs in the 19th C). What appears on the photo seems compatible with that, although clearly one would need to check the original for evidence of cutting.
Secondly, this could be the photo, but the writing seems a little consistent. Most papyri survive in the ground or in a cave and bear marks of damage, and this usually includes the actual writing, but this looks pretty clear.

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