Saturday, December 6, 2014

Another Request for Academic Interest in Marcion

There was a lot of media interest when Michael B. Toth, president of R.B. Toth Associates, went to St Catherine's monastery in 2012 to uncover the 'texts that lay beneath the existing texts' in their library.  But there was a palimpsest at the British Museum which has proved to be critical to our knowledge of the first Christian sect to canonize a set of writings - the Marcionites - that was imperfectly analyzed back at the beginning of the 20th century which requires our urgent attention.

British Museum (Add. 14623) is now apparently housed at the British Library.  I think that this text arguably more important than any of these other projects for the understanding of the development of Christianity.  Whereas Sinai might reveal an important text - the British Library actually houses a text which is critical for our understanding.

The linked article at the British Library makes clear what is obvious to anyone who read the original attempt to transcribe this text - it was incomplete.  We read:
Mitchell's patience and perseverance led, Dr. Barnett, then Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the Museum, in 1908 to apply a “re-agent” to the illegible part of the palimpsest. This had the effect of revealing the underwriting so clearly that it became possible to transcribe almost the entire contents. Mitchell was also able to reconstruct the original order of the leaves and quires. I’m not sure what this “re-agent” would have been, but judging from the present illegibilty of the palimpsest, I think this manuscript would be a good candidate for some form of investigative photography!
Working over a century ago on a surviving fragment of the fourth century Church Father Ephrem the Syrian Against Marcion, C W Mitchell was informed that he was informed by a colleague that the remainder of Ephraim's Refutation was extant in this palimpsest in the museum.  He did a bit of research and discovered the following account of its discovery:
As stated above, the volume is palimpsest throughout, and the miserable monk Aaron deserves the execration of every theologian and Syriac scholar for having destroyed a manuscript of the sixth century written in three columns containing works of Ephraim . . 
The original discoverer noted the importance of this text but also his fear that the information would never be recovered.  Mitchell sought out the manuscript and noted in his own voice that:

on examining this palimpsest of eighty-eight leaves, I found that the older writing on a few pages could be read with ease, on a good number of others with much difficulty; while in each of these legible pieces there were more or less irrecoverable passages, and worst of all, only one side of the leaves could be read, except in two or three cases, though there was evidence that the writing was lurking in obscurity below. I decided to edit as many of the pages as were fairly legible, and to publish them along with the translation which I have mentioned above. After I had worked at the palimpsest for a considerable time, my gleanings amounted to over thirty of its pages. But the illegibility of one side of the vellum, coupled with the confusion arising from the disturbance of the original order of the leaves and quires in the hands of the monk Aaron, made it impossible to arrange the deciphered pages so that they could be read consecutively. As they had been transcribed with tolerable completeness, most of them containing about a hundred manuscript lines, and as each page was a section from a genuine work of Ephraim against Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan, the Text and Translation Society undertook the expense of publishing them as isolated Fragments. 

He goes on to note just as he was about to publish the individual fragments that could be read a certain professor Barnett, Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the British Museum "began to apply a re-agent to the illegible portions of the palimpsest, and so wonderfully did its virtue revive the energies of the ancient ink, so distinctly did the underwriting show itself, here readily, there reluctantly, that it now became possible to transcribe almost the entire contents."

Nevertheless as it turns out these primitive efforts did not achieve the original hope of recovering the entire contents of the manuscript.  Mitchell writes:

Instead of a text and translation of a collection of fragments, torn from their context, and suffering greatly from illegible gaps, this volume and that which is to follow it are now able to present to "the theologian and Syriac scholar" the text and translation of Ephraim's "Contra Haereses" approximately complete.

Yet he goes on to note that many gaps still exist in our knowledge of the text owing to the primitive nature of the original effort to merely apply a primitive chemical solution to the work:
The lacunae which still remain will not, I think, be found to affect seriously the elucidation of many passages of importance. Even with the help of the re-agent, the work of transcribing the palimpsest has been necessarily slow. Not to speak of the arduousness of the decipherer's task, which anyone who has had experience of such work will appreciate, there have been in the present case unusual difficulties owing to the fact that no other copy of the underwriting is extant. Such difficulties are inevitable when the decipherer's aim is not collation, but the recovery of a lost document. In a field of this kind pioneer work cannot go on rapidly ; for it constantly happens that advance is only possible by verifying and re-verifying one's conjectures as to probable words and letters in passages which at first sight seem all but obliterated. The time, moreover, which I have been able to devote to the work has been limited by my other duties, and has often been rendered still more scanty by the weather. Accurate deciphering is only possible under a good sunlight, and London has never claimed an abundance of this among her varied endowments. When bright days have been absent, in the interests of completeness and accuracy I have been obliged to postpone both transcribing and proof-correcting. For, however much the editor of such a work as the present may hope, for the sake of mistakes which he may have allowed to creep in, that he may not be transcribing e's act, yet he must feel that, as the writing soon fades back to that underworld from which it has recently emerged only after a thousand unbroken years of obscurity, there is laid upon him a special responsibility to attain finality in transcription. At the same time, he is aware that there comes a temptation to linger too frequently and painfully over sparse after-gleanings. Perhaps I have sometimes erred in this respect, but at any rate I feel that this edition presents a maximum of text recoverable from the palimpsest, and I have no hope that the lacunae can be filled by a more prolonged study of it. I have tried to make a literal translation, and for the sake of clearness have introduced marginal summaries. The difficulty of the Syriac of the published fragment of the second Discourse was formerly noted by Nöldeke (ZDMG for 1889, p. 543), and the remainder of the work is written in the same style. In the next volume containing Parts III. and IV.—the latter of which is now being printed—there will appear the text and translation of an unedited work of Ephraim, called "Of Domnus." It consists of Discourses against Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan, and a Hymn on Virginity. The Discourses against Bardaisan are remarkable as showing the influence of the Platonists and the Stoics around Edessa. In the third volume, Part V., I shall endeavour to collect, arrange, and interpret the evidence derived from the first two volumes for the teaching of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan. In that connection notes will be found on special points, e.g., the references to the Hymn of the Soul, Vol. i, pp. lxxxix., cv.-cvii.; BÂN the Builder, p. xxx.; BOLOS, p. lxxii.; HULE, p. xcix. f.; Mani's Painting, p. xcii.; the Gospel quotations, e.g. pp. xc., c. Part V. will also contain indices for the whole work. Throughout the first volume Ephraim directs his main attack against the teaching of Manichaeism—'perhaps the most formidable rival that the Church has encountered in the whole course of her history.' If that system ultimately failed on the favourable soil of Syria, its defeat must have been in some measure hastened by the weapons forged by Ephraim, and stored up in these Discourses to Hypatius, to be used by others in proving that Manichaeism could not justify itself intellectually to the Syrian mind. I could wish to make my recognition of Professor Bevan's help as ample as possible. In editing the text, in conjectural emendations, and, above all, in the translation, I have had his constant and generous assistance. Throughout the work I have received from him encouragement and help of the most practical kind. For its final form, of course I alone am responsible. I desire to express my thanks to Dr. Barnett, who has taken the greatest pains to restore the Manuscript to legibility, and who by his courtesy and kindness has greatly facilitated my progress with this work. I am also deeply grateful to Dr. Burkitt, who has given me advice and many suggestions ; and to my colleagues the Rev. F. Conway and Mr. C. E. Wade for help on certain points. To the Text and Translation Society, who undertook the publication of the work, and to the Managers of the Hort Fund for two grants in connection with it, I beg here to offer my sincere thanks. 
Surely, as the text also includes a great deal of information on the Manichaean tradition there must be a scholar somewhere who could take an active interest in raising funds to decipher the entire manuscript.  If the reader looks at the large gaps of information that appear in our text on Marcion here, here and here they will surely realize that there at least a half dozen sections of text are missing from just this one section.  There are countless more relating to Mani and other individuals referenced by the fourth century Syrian Church Father.

Why the hell hasn't anyone done a proper job getting this amazing text properly 'decoded'?  What is wrong with scholarship today that nothing has been done - in spite of the development of new technology - since the primitive efforts of C W Mitchell?  Are we just too interest in hearing ourselves pontificate?  Isn't it more important to hear what Ephrem has to say?

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