Papyrus Reveals New Clues to Ancient World

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Obbink says the research should add to the body of known work of standard classical authors such as Homer and Sophocles, as well as that of lesser known writers "who didn't survive either through accident of time or because they weren't as popular."

Sophocles wrote 120 plays, but only seven survived, among them Oedipus Rex and Antigone. "We have samples of all the rest in these papyrus fragments," Obbink said. "We're filling in the gaps incrementally. You're never going to get each and every word of 120 plays, but you will get a slice of what was available during the centuries when these rubbish mounds built up."

The fragments may also shed new light on texts that have survived only by being repeatedly copied over thousands of years. "These older [papyrus] texts can be more accurate, or preserve completely new readings," Obbink said.

Similarly, Biblical scholars can expect valuable new material to emerge as some gospels that weren't included in the New Testament didn't survive. "The texts that are in the Bible were selected out of a much larger body of work that once circulated," Obbink said. "We have samples of that material here."

Roman Period

He says the Oxyrhynchus collection holds a lot of information about the rise of Christianity during the Roman period. (Egypt became part of the Roman Empire after Cleopatra's fleet was defeated at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.).

"[Christianity] starts out as a small social phenomenon, then just takes over everything," Obbink said. "You can see other cultural sea changes taking place—changes in taxes, changes in rule. It's all reflected in the papyrus."

Oxyrhynchus, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of modern-day Cairo, rose to prominence under Egypt's Greek and Roman rulers. The town's papyrus-rich garbage heaps were excavated in the late 1890s by two Oxford University fellows, B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt. Researchers have been painstakingly piecing together the Oxyrhynchus papyri fragments ever since.

So far 65 volumes of transcripts and translations have been published by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which owns the collection.

The latest volume includes details of fragments showing third- and fourth-century versions of the Book of Revelations. Intriguingly, the number assigned to "the Beast" of Revelations isn't the usual 666, but 616.

About 10 percent of the Oxyrhynchus hoard is literary. The rest consists of documents, including wills, bills, horoscopes, tax assessments, and private letters.

"It contains a complete slice of life," Obbink added. "There's everything from Sophocles and Homer to sex manuals and steamy novels. But it's in pieces, and it all has to be put back together."

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