My Readers’ Mailbag is stuffed, and I need to clear out a few questions to make room for others that come in. So I may be answering more than normal over the next couple of weeks. Here is one that I find intriguing:
If you could choose any currently-fragmentary or otherwise lacunose document from antiquity and magically receive a reconstructed version to read, what would it be?
Wow. There are lots to choose from. I would probably come up with different answers on different days of the week, but the first thing that springs to mind is the Gospel of Peter, one of the most interesting of the ancient non-canonical Gospels. We have only a fragment of the book, which begins smack dab in the middle of an episode and ends, literally, in the middle of a sentence. To show why that’s so tantalizing, let me first say a bit about what the Gospel is (at least that part of it we still have!).
The Gospel comes from one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries of Christian texts in the nineteenth century. In the winter season of 1886-87 a French archaeological team headed by M. Grébant was digging in Akhmîm in Upper Egypt, in a portion of a cemetery that contained graves ranging from the eighth to the twelfth centuries CE. They uncovered the grave of a person they took to be a Christian monk, who had been buried with a book. Among other things, the book contained a fragmentary copy of a Gospel written in the name of Peter.
It is a parchment manuscript (P. Cair. 10759) of sixty-six pages, averaging 13 x 16 cm, containing a small anthology of four texts in Greek, all of them fragmentary (the manuscript itself is not fragmentary; the works copied into it are incomplete): the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Book of Enoch, and the Martrydom of St. Julian. The first page is adorned with a cross; the second page starts, at the top, frustratingly, in the middle of a sentence (or at least an episode): “…but none of the Jews washed his hands, nor did Herod or any of his judges. Since they did not wish to wash, Pilate stood up.”
Whoa! That’s where it *starts*. Obviously …
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