Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Oldest-Known (To Me) Examples Of This and That Sort Of Writing

A story about the oldest-known, recently-discovered Jewish prayer book (9th century) got me thinking about the oldest manuscripts and inscriptions of various types. Manuscripts, writing made with a pen or similar instrument on something like papyrus or parchment or paper, interest me much more than inscriptions, except that inscriptions are much more durable, and provide us with our oldest evidence of writing. The oldest known complete scrolls of the Torah are several centuries newer than this prayer book. It used to be customary to bury such scrolls when they became worn. Very few have survived from before the 15th century.

As far as any Hebrew writing is concerned, the oldest-known example -- please keep in mind that "oldest known" always means "oldest known to me." I'm not being particularly modest here, just particularly careful to be clear and accurate. Keep in mind when anyone talks about the oldest-known this or that that it always means "oldest known to them." Also keep in mind that all of us are estimating about these dates and that bias sometimes is involved in dating. More about that below -- is the Tel Zayit abecedary, a rock upon which the Hebrew alphabet was scratched in the 10th century BC. Tel Zayit, the rock's location, was over 30 miles away from Jerusalem in the 10th century BC, way out in the sticks in those days. This suggests that literacy in Hebrew may have been rather widespread by the 10th century BC.

The oldest hard copy of whole Hebrew words was found on a tiny silver scroll dating from the 7th century BC, upon which was inscribed the Priestly Benediction: "May the LORD bless you and keep you[...]" etc. Then there are the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are as old as the 2nd century BC, and some of them alleged by some to be much older, but I suspect unscientific bias in those earlier datings, but I don't really know.

Examples of Greek from the 8th century BC and of Latin from the 7th century have been found. The earliest Greek texts which are still widely read today are those of Hesiod and Homer. Hesiod was writing around 700 BC -- well, it's not certain that he actually wrote. Many of the earliest renowned ancient Greek authors are known to us not by anything they wrote, but by things which others wrote about what they said. Hesiod may well have personally written down much of the writing associated with him. (On the other hand, some of the writing associated with him was clearly added to the corpus of his works centuries after he lived.)

Of course, in the case of Homer, on the other hand, the question of whether or not he actually even existed is quite controversial. Hesiod helps us out here by inserting many references to his life and his surroundings into his writings. Homer doesn't say anything about himself. Whether Homer existed, or whether the songs of the Iliad and the Odyssey were attributed to a blind singer who never was, is extremely controversial. It's generally agreed that if Homer did exist and did come up with those famous tales, he sand them rather than wrote them. When they were first written down is extremely controversial. Probably in the 6th century BC or earlier. There are many linguistic characteristics in the Iliad and the Odyssey which come from long before the 6th century, but the preservation of these archaic details can be explained by singers carefully copying earlier singers as well as by the poems having been written down before the 6th century.

The earliest hard copies we have of any texts by Homer date to the 3rd century BC, and the earliest copies of Hesiod from the 1st century BC, and there are quite a few copies of both authors from those times up until the 6th century AD, but these are fragments, mostly rather tiny fragments of a few words each, found by archaeologists in the Middle East since the 19th century. One welcome exception to the generally fragmentary nature of these old manuscripts is the Bankes Papyrus, made in the 2nd century AD and containing most of the 24th and final book of the Iliad (18 pages in Richmond Lattimore's translation).

Although the oldest traces of any writing in Latin are almost as old as those in Greek, it's later before we encounter any Latin literature which is actually interesting for its own sake as literature, as opposed to very sketchy specimens interesting only to historians and paeleographers. There's a collection of laws from the 5th century, the Twelce Tables, meh. Yes, extremely interesting for the sake of the history of early Rome, and extremely revered by ancient Romans, but as actual reading material, meh. A Roman literature worthy of the name doesn't get underway until the 3rd century BC with Livius Andronicus, who, like the other two great early Roman writers, Plautus and Terence, was actually a Greek writing in his adopted 2nd language of Latin.

Less interesting to me personally than Graeco-Roman literature and much more interesting to the public at large are the questions of when the earliest parts of the New Testament were written, and how old the oldest copies we have are. As with Homer and Hesiod, so with the Bible (and with a lot of other ancient literature) : our oldest copies are recently-discovered papyrus scraps. Experts seem to agree that the scrap known as p52, containing a part of the Gospel of John, dates from the 2nd century AD and is the oldest New Testament papyrus whose date is well-established.

However, is there a 1st-century fragment of Luke set to knock p52 off its position as king of the hill age-wise? Daniel Wallace, who found it, thinks so. Mark Roberts, who wrote this article about it, thinks that Wallace is correct with this 1st-century date. But here we come to considerations of bias: Roberts, whose article mentions a recent debate between Wallace and Bart Ehrman, refers to Ehrman as an "extreme skeptic." That already makes me somewhat skeptical about Roberts' objectivity. As regular readers of this blog know, I've had my disagreements with Ehrman, but I would never call him an extremist. Wallace, whom Roberts praises and refers to as an eminently reliable scholar, has written books with titles like Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An Investigation into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today and Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Before I've cracked either one of those books, their titles have already made me suspicious of Wallace's judgment and his agenda. And Roberts has authored tomes with titles like Jesus Revealed: Know Him Better to Love Him Better and No Holds Barred: Wrestling with God in Prayer, which brings us up to about 6 or 7 strikes against this claim of a 1st-century manuscript of Luke. But I have to keep an open mind here. Just because Wallace and Roberts are clearly crazy in some areas, and more than just a little eager to establish a paper trail right back to Jeebus Hisself, doesn't necessarily mean that they don't know squat about ancient manuscripts.

But still.

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