Saturday, July 13, 2019

E. M. Thompson and the Precision of Greek Palaeography

Berlin Papyrus 9782 (LDAB 3764),

While reading through Brent Nongbri's excellent book "God's Library," I couldn't help but notice a somewhat negative tone (however unintentional) towards Victorian era palaeographers. In a discussion over the dating of the famed Hawara Homer papyrus (LDAB 1695), Nongbri noted that some of the dates assigned to the papyrus had been determined by "Victorian aesthetics (the 'handsomeness' of a hand or the presence or absence of 'character')" (Nongbri, 65, 66). Frederic Kenyon did re-date the Hawara Homer based upon the "handsomeness" of the script, yet, not all Victorian era palaeographers were so subjective and definitive in their evaluation of scripts. Edward Maunde Thompson, a contemporary of Kenyon, was fully aware of the subjectivity of palaeography and the importance of having many examples by which to date an undated manuscript. In the middle of a discussion over the date of Berlin Papyrus 9782 (LDAB 3764), Thompson wrote,  
“Indeed, the difficulty, in such an instance as the present one, of judging of the age of book-hand papyri is very great; for the number of examples is comparatively limited, and they have to be distributed over so large a space of time, that it is only when certain of them can be grouped within not too wide a period and can therefore individually give support to each other in the sequence assigned to them, that we can be said to be standing on fairly firm ground. Then the eye acquires a familiarity with the character of the writing and its subtle changes, and the palaeographer developes a kind of instinct for the exercise of his judgement and for the conclusions at which he arrives. But when the examples lie far apart in date, then we cannot speak without diffidence and reserve, recognizing that further discoveries may largely modify present opinion.” (Thompson, 133)

Brent Nongbri, God's Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912).

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