How Can New Testament Study Benefit from Ostraca?

by | May 13, 2024 | Biblical Studies | 0 comments

Introduction

Ancient people wrote on a variety of surfaces. We find ancient Greek written on papyri, stone, metal, and potsherds known as ostraca. The texts on these surfaces can serve variously as textual witnesses to the New Testament, linguistic evidence, evidence of reception history, and evidence for Bible background/contextual/religious history.

Students of the Septuagint and New Testament can readily locate books, both old and new, on most of these writing formats.

For papyri, we have sources such as Deissmann, Moulton and Milligan, and New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity. With regards to the Septuagint, Lee provides an excellent introduction in The Greek of the Pentateuch.

For epigraphy, we have Burnett and McLean. With regards to the Septuagint, Aitken offers the brilliant No Stone Unturned.

For coinage, we have the excellent primer Numismatics and Greek Lexicography by Theophilos.

But when it comes to the ostraca, our sources are often both less abundant and less accessible. This is unfortunate, because ostraca, according to Head, comprise 28% of our total number of published documents from antiquity (433). These cheap fragments of pottery were the sticky notes of their day and can offer valuable insights into the language, culture, and religion of the ancient world. Bagnall lists various Greek texts preserved on ostraca that include the following (132):

  • School Exercises
  • Receipts
  • Accounts
  • Orders
  • Lists
  • Letters
  • Notices
  • Jar Inscriptions

Ostraca were an ideal means of recording short texts and they have not been overlooked by scholars.

Work on Ostraca Up to the Present

To my knowledge, there is no primer on studying ostraca—at least one for New Testament students. The closest introduction to the study of ostraca that I’ve found in Using Ostraca in the Ancient World by Caputo and Luogovaya. Bagnall’s Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East includes a chapter on ostraca. Deissmann offers a short introduction and examines a few examples (50–61, 110–111, 121–122, 204–205, 359–361). Moulton and Milligan cite ostraca on occasion. You can also find a short entry on the subject in many Bible dictionaries. Head provides a brief yet informative treatment of ostraca, along with other overlooked sources of evidence, from a text-critical perspective. In his chapter, Head notes that the most recent catalogue of ostraca was updated in 1933 (453).

Wilcken’s Griechische Ostraka (available on archive.org) was written in 1899 in German.

Paul M. Meyer’s Griechische Texte aus Ägypten (available on archive.org), also published in 1916 in German, is divided into two parts, the first covering papyri and the second covering ostraca.

You will also find the occasional article by a New Testament scholar referencing ostraca or relevant chapters in books with a broader historical scope. For instance, see Paulson and Jones, “Resurrecting Amulets and Ostraca within New Testament Textual Criticism (JBL 142.4 (2022): 633–55). For a study on the material aspects of ostraca, see the Open Access chapter by Clementina Caputo “Looking at the Material: One Hundred Years of Studying Ostraca from Egypt” published in Antike Texte und ihre Materialität (De Gruyter, 2019).

Accessing Ostraca Today

If you are interested in studying texts written on ostraca for your own research, here are several sources that I have found helpful:

The database papyri.info is probably the largest and easiest to access. It does not allow you to search only ostraca, but it does include them in search results. You can also search by collection, which you can limit to a collection of ostraca (e.g., O.Mich. 1). The Checklist of Editions of Greek, Latin, Demotic and Coptic Papyri, Ostraca, and Tablets (available here) is useful for finding more information about collection. Note that English translations are available for some texts.

Published collections such as Documents from Berenike (Bagnall, et al.)  are another source, although these can be trickier to locate. The published collections I’ve examined include multiple Greek word indices that are invaluable for reference purposes.

I would be interested to know of any other resources on the study of ostraca as it applies to New Testament study.

Before concluding, I’ve appended a brief example below of how an ostracon can further illuminate our understanding of the New Testament. See below for a text composed in the first century AD that modestly illustrates the usage of two Greek words appearing in Scripture.

A Brief Example

While many ostraca record mundane financial transactions, O.Ber. II 195 is interesting because it references an explicit exchange of an ostracon and because it mentions cats. (Note that O.Ber. II 193, and possibly O.Ber. II 196, also record correspondence between Herennius and Satornilus.)

Here is the published English translation of a portion of the text:

Herennius to Satornilus his dearest, greetings. I certainly received [κομίζω] your ostrakon. Concerning the cats, Ourses is taking care of [ἐπιμελέομαι] them in accordance with what I also wrote to you on another occasion. . . .

I’ve singled out two Greek words that appear in the New Testament. The first appears is the verb κομίζω that, in the form it appears, means “to receive.” The New Testament uses this word in contexts of judgment and blessing.

In 2 Corinthians 5:10, we read that we will “receive what is due for what is done in the body, whether good or evil.” Ephesians and Colossians state that faithful bondservants will receive good from the Lord and those who do wrong will be repaid with wrong (Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:25). The letter of 1 Peter says that Christians should be filled with joy because we have received salvation (1 Pet. 1:8–9).

Herennius received an ostracon from Satornilus in Berenike, Egypt sometime in the first century AD. The piece of broken pottery was delivered, and one person took possession of something given by someone else. Believers can rejoice because they have received blessings and salvation directly from the Lord.

The second word, ἐπιμελέομαι, is a verb that means “to take care of.” Paul uses this word in 1 Timothy 3:5 when he asks how a pastor can take care of (ἐπιμελέομαι) God’s church if he can’t manage his own house. According to our ostracon, Ourses was taking care of some cats. Someone was counting on him to feed these cats and meet their needs. So also, God expects pastors to care for his flock, while also caring for their families. Pray for your pastor(s) that God will give them grace to care for both their families and their churches.

Conclusion

This post has only scratched the surface of the exciting world of ostraca. New Testament scholarship would benefit from the placement of greater attention on ostraca. Many may be unaware that they have ready access to transcriptions of ostraca texts from many collections. I hope that we eventually welcome the arrival of an introduction to the study of ostraca for New Testament study.

 

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.

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Brent Niedergall