4 February 2011

Sappho of Lesbos and the Mater Misericordiae

A reprint from May 1 2010One of the most distinguished classical scholars of the twentieth century was Edgar Lobel. He worked among the innumerable scraps of Papyrus brought back to Oxford in 1890s from the rubbish dumps of ancient Egypt ... where such 'paper' is preserved by the dry soil. Here in Oxford we still have great tea-chests of them, which are gradually being worked through; not unnaturally, earlier workers tended to start with the bigger and cleaner fragments, so that we are now down to the smaller and dirtier bits. Much of the material was ephemeral ... shopping lists, tax returns; even these, of course, are of immense interest twenty or more centuries later. But what has excited classicists most is the rediscovery of famous Greek authors whose works had failed to survive the fall of Constantinople. So, for example, we now have extensive fragments of the great lyric poets of ancient Lesbos, Alcaeus and Sappho. Liturgists would be most interested in Sappho because she originated (or enhanced the profile of) the metre called the Sapphic, which is employed in a number of Office Hymns (especially those written in the Carolingian renaissence). The metre concerned is the one you may recognise as having stanzas composed of three metrically identical lines followed by a short one. (In the old Breviary, Iste Confessor was the one most frequently used). And Edgar Lobel was not only a skilled papyrologist, but a master of the rather strange and difficult Lesbian dialect. He was, quite simply, the foundation stone of Lesbian studies and a very great ornament of this University.

However, this post is not really about Lobel's work on Sappho. I just thought I'd like you to have a rounded picture of his greatness. Let us now, Zedwise, 'drill into' a most interesting Papyrus for us: an early Christian fragment with the earliest known prayer to our Lady. It is the brief formula we know as the Sub tuum praesidium, and is common to the Coptic, Byzantine, and Roman liturgies (pretty ecumenical, then, you might say). Edgar Lobel looked at it and gave his view (you go by 'palaeography', handwriting styles) that it was Third Century.

But when it was published, the Editor disregarded this judgement and dated it a hundred years later. Why? Was he an even greater papyrologist and palaeographer than Lobel? Not a bit of it. He just could not believe that such devotion to our Lady could have existed so early in the history of the Christian Church.

I am always preaching at you and the point of my sermon today is that a fair number of non-Catholic 'scholars', especially 'liberals', simply cannot be trusted to keep their own bias out of things. They are terrified that evidence might come to light subverting their liberal and semi-agnostic dogmas. So they are not above falsifying history. When I was an undergraduate in the School of Litterae Humaniores (Classics), I was surprised by the way that Ancient Historians with no theological axe to grind were so very much more respectful of New Testament evidence than were the old gents in dog-collars who lectured upon the New Testament.

Now back to that Marian Papyrus. You will be interested to read ...But no, I have already rambled too long. I'll try to tie it up tomorrow.


Joshua said...

Much the same may be thought to apply on a larger scale to the question of the dating of the New Testament.

As a classicist, Fr H., what do you make of claims that St Paul couldn't have written the Pastoral Epistles on grounds of their difference in style and so forth from the rest of his corpus?

Christian said...

What a very interesting little titbit. Thank you.

Coincidentally I was thinking about this exact point yesterday evening. I was having a look at John Robinson's "Redating the New Testament". It contained some very interesting arguments pointing to an earlier dating of the New Testament (does anyone know if his arguments are still considered valid?). I was so pleased to read such things by a liberal as so many other work on early Christianity are hoplessly biased and unprofessional. I was deeply shocked when I read "Lost Christianities" at the lack of historical rigor. No secular scholar would be allowed to get away with such total rubbish.

William Tighe said...

Christian (and Joshua),

You would do well to search out and read (especially now that it has been republished) *The Church in Rome in the First Century* by George Edmundson (1913), the book from which Robinson (as he told me when we had a chat in his Dean's digs in Trinity College in 1982) got some of his ideas about NT "redating" and the boldness to put into print others of his own. (He was particularly struck by, and ultimately converted to, Edmundson's dating of the Epistle of Clement to the early months of AD 70, rather than ca. 96 -- if only Dom Gregory Dix hadn't bought so thoroughly into so many transient "higher critical" notions, and especially this one, how much more interesting his essays on the Papacy and the Apostolic Ministry would have been.)

Edmundson (1848-1930) really was an amazing polymath, and he writes with all of the gravitas and brilliance of Westcott and Lightfoot -- but, as Robinson observes in a long encomiac footnote devoted to Edmundson in his *Redating*, his book (which was the published version of his Bampton Lectures for 1913) suffered the strange fate of falling immediately into complete scholarly oblivion, receiving only two brief review notices, one in a German publication, the other in TLS -- and both of them rather dismissive.

I gave a copy of the Edmundson book to a young Protestant NT scholar and professor here in the States (a man on the way to the Catholic Church) who was bowled over by many of Edmundson's conclusions (tho' of course not all of them), and especially his arguments regarding the Epistle of Clement.

As I also gave a copy to the esteemed and scholarly host of this blog (whom I am honored to regard as a friend), perhaps he might chime in to second my recommendation of Edmundson's book.

Walter said...

Hit the nail on the head ! Many classicists are perfectly content with 'early' dates when properly researched -- only to be rejected outright by those whose agenda is 'not above falsifying history'. (a memorable phrase !)
I once had a short discussion with an NT seminary professor about Robinson's 'Redating...' He was not convinced, sadly. But those were the 70's. Not a word was granted to any 'early' datings in any classroom session. I had to grind my teeth in silence, or face ridicule if I ever spoke up.
The same would go for dating devotion to our Lady !
Yes ! Read Edmundson's book, now online at the www.archive.org site. Type 'Church in Rome Edmundson -- in your search line, or perhaps...

Christian said...

Thank you Mr (Dr?) Tighe, I shall certainly look into that, though I might keep those views to myself during my lectures!

JamesIII said...

The subject is really two subjects; the dating of a physical manuscript and the nearly impossible task of dating the content. It should be remembered that copying an epistle or gospel was a laborious task, undertaken in order to share the content with other congregations. The extant copies may be far later than the original and may also contain interpolations and pious “marginal notes”. I suspect that the content may be far older than the date of the copy would indicate.

benedictambrose said...

Fascinating stuff, gentlemen. So much so that I toddled off to the TLS archive and quarried the review of "Honest" John Robinson's redating book.

The review, by Anthony Hanson, seems fair and takes explicit delight in Robinson's scattering of complacent NT-scholar pigeons.

But what struck me most forcefully (like a halibut to the side of the head) was the extent to which the reviewer was completely resistant to any evidence that would count in favour of our Lord's claim to be who he Is.

Exhibit A: he (Hanson) refuses to accept that Luke was written before the AD 70 sack of Jerusalem on the grounds that he finds "it hard to believe that Luke xxi 20 does not betray a knowledge of the sack of Jerusalem" when OLJC therein states "But when you see Jerusalem encircled circled by armies then you may be sure that her destruction is near." It's clearly too unreasonable for Hanson to allow the speculation even to flit through his head that perhaps that Gospel's author was quoting a prophetic utterance of God. Even if that is not an admissible suggestion, why instantly dismiss that such a prediction could have been made and recorded before the event in question?

Exhibit B: Hanson almost scoffs at Robinson's implication that John's Gospel might paint a picture of Jesus that might be true to to history (and indeed might be, as it claims to be, an eye-witness account). Why? Because: "a figure who claims 'before Abraham was I am' seems to me to be very far indeed from historical actuality." Just like that, as Prof. Thomas Cooper used to opine. There's scholarship for you.

All of which is why we should listen attentively to Benedict XVI's words to the effect that Catholic NT scholarship can only yield wisdom and insight if it works with the premiss that the Gospels are a divine source with a divine Subject.

[Sorry for the excessive length - should get my own blog, eh?]