Off for a walk through the papyrus groves on the Nile Delta. (You will find it in a spot marked on the tourist maps of Oxford as The Botanical Garden. The Nile is a tributary of the Cherwell, joining it just opposite St Hilda's College. Not many people know that.) I enjoy the walk. It reminds me of everything that papyrus has meant for human culture ... right down to what we used to call the 'New Sappho' (i.e. the latest papyrus fragment of a mainly lost Lesbian poetess to come out of the Egyptian sands) ... "used to call" because Dirk Obbink has since published an even newer Sappho. The old New Sappho was probably about what she wants the Girls to do at her funeral, but we may never know, because the left hand side of the page is missing. It so often is. Papyri are fun for classicists, because they are new evidence and they explode hypotheses, reminding us that a hypothesis is only a hypothesis and a scholar is only a scholar.
A couple of examples: dear old Sappho; was she a schoolmistress or just a randy old dike? (You can't, of course, be both.) Von Wilamowitz Moellendorf backed his hunch that she was a respectable schoolmistress and indignantly, chivalrously, defended her reputation against sacrilegious attack. Then D L Page did a wonderful demolition job on the Graf; pointing out that there is no evidence whatsoever for the anachronistic idea that Sappho ran a school and that the obvious assumption is that was a .... um ... Lesbian. Then a decade or three ago, a fragment of a Hellenistic biography was published which asserted that she was ... a schoolmistress. Hellenistic, biographies do not, of course, have to be correct. But at least the Wilamowitz theory could hardly any longer be dismissed as unthinkably anachronistic. Facial egg for Page; rehabilitation for the Graf von W-M.
And there is the question of the rather masochistic topos whereby Roman Elegists addressed their puella as Domina and assumed a role of servitium towards her. Who began that game? R O A M Lyne, of Balliol College in this University, proved conclusively and beyond all doubt that it was Propertius. But while Lyne's book was actually being printed, the Egyptians, ingeniously subversive fellows, built an enormous dam at Aswan. And some rescue archaeology had to be done at a Roman fortlet on the site. And a papyrus fragment - only six lines - came to light, showing that the elegist Gallus, who wrote just before Propertius and whose work had been lost more or less since (on the wise advice of Augustus) he committed suicide, addressed his Lycoris as Domina. Oops-a-daisy for Dr Lyne! Bliss! There is a Providence that shapes the ends of academic certainties!
Papyri might throw light on the New Testament. A few years ago, some fragments from Qumran rendered it distinctly probable that S Mark's Gospel and S Paul's 'Pastoral Epistles' were written before 70 A.D. That, of course, explodes the entire fashionable sceptical structure of liberal Protestant Anglo-Saxon 'New Testament Studies' created in the twentieth century. But NT 'scholars' are not like us Classicists; they can't bear having their cherished beliefs, which they have gullibly accepted all their lives, and made the basis of all their laborious hypothesising, subverted. So they just refused to believe it!
How dreadful it must be to be so mired and imprisoned in the dead dogmas of the Dark Ages!
Thanks be to God for his mercy and grace in making me a Classicist and a Catholic, encouraged to follow evidence and to think for myself.
Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo!