Sunday, May 14, 2017

Julius Africanus and A Short Lived Book

George Houston, in his work “Inside Roman Libraries,” surveyed book collections in antiquity, analyzed their contents, the date of composition, and the rough date of the discarding of the collection, or, in the case of the library at Herculaneum, the last known period of use. From these data Houston wrote;
"The identification of such collections, and of the manuscripts within them, provides new evidence on an old question: how long did a papyrus roll last? The evidence from our collections indicates that a usable lifetime of about 100 to 125 years was common and can reasonably be considered the norm; a small but significant number of manuscripts were still usable some 300 years after they were first created; and on rare occasions a manuscript might last, it seems, for half a millennium." (p. 257)
These dates are not entirely novel, however, for E. G. Turner stated many decades earlier that,
"In the second case, that of a literary roll which has afterwards been used for a document such as a dated or datable letter, there is a probability, which may differ from example to example, that a longish life should be assigned to the literary text, perhaps 50, perhaps even 100 years." (Turner, GMAW2, 19)
Of course, all of these dates are approximate and are based on papyri that have been randomly preserved from antiquity. In some instances though, ancient books had a much shorter useful life and the papyrus was repurposed for another document. This is the case for P.Oxy III.412, a well known fragment of a bookroll containing a work of Julius Africanus, a Christian writer who lived ca. 160-240 CE. This is an encyclopedic piece entitled "Kestoi" and was likely written some time in the 220's CE, though very little is known about the details of his life.

P. Oxy III.412 (Thompson, plt. 14 pg. 134)
This copy of Julius Africanus's "Kestoi" was not valued for too long however, because the bookroll was reused on the reverse for a cursive document dated to 275-276 CE. If one assumes that this copy is not in close proximity to the author (mainly due to some evidence of textual corruption) and if one allows for at least a generation of use for the roll before it was repurposed, then the book was probably copied in the 240's or 250's CE.
This level of precision in dating a literary book is rare and because of this, P.Oxy III.412 is valuable to palaeographers for dating the type of script that was used to copy this roll; the "Alexandrian Stylistic Class" (Orsini, pg. 62).  A search in the Leuven Database of Ancient Books reveals several New Testament manuscripts that are assigned to this stylistic class. Thankfully, some ancient books such as P.Oxy III.412 had a short useful life so that modern palaeographers have a more securely dated example by which to compare and date New Testament manuscripts.

Grenfell B., P., and Author S. Hunt, eds. Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Part 3: Nos 401-653. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1903: pages 36-41.

Houston, George W. Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014.

Orsini, Pasquale. "I Papiri Bodmer: scritture e libri." Adamantius 21 (2015): 60-78.

Thompson, Edward Maunde. An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1912.

Turner, E. G. Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World. 2nd edition. Edited by P. J. Parsons. London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1987.

Here is an interesting blog post by James Snapp that discusses P Oxy 412


  1. I just finished a post that highlighted this very manuscript -- I was about 3/4ths done when I searched for Kestoi and there was this post! I added an embedded link to bring readers here. Synchronicity!

    1. That was kind of you James. I will update this post and do the same for your article!

  2. Hi Timothy,

    Does anyone know what date range a palaeograph would give for that script if they did not know anything about the external dating connection?

    Steven Avery
    Asheville, NC

    1. There are several examples of similarly securely dated papyri with this script. It would most likely have been assigned a third century date.