Thursday, May 2, 2013

The intriguing Christian ostraka

Ostrakon with a Homily by Athanasius in Coptic from Thebes (ca. 600).
(Wikipedia) - Inscriptions on clay, wood, metal, and other hard materials, like papyri, are valuable especially as the literary sources for Early Christianity. They are found chiefly in Oriental countries (i.e. east of Rome or Southwest Asia), especially Egypt (which though east of Rome is technically North Africa). The greatest number are pieces of clay or scraps of pots inscribed with colors or ink. The oldest Christian ostraca, like the papyri, are Greek and date from the 5th century; next come the Coptic and Arabian ostraca. Some of the texts not yet deciphered include several Nubian ostraca in a language spoken in the old Christian negro-kingdoms in the vicinity of Aloa on the Blue Nile.

In these inscriptions Greek letters are used, with some other signs. As to contents, ostraca are either profane or ecclesiastical. Potsherds were often used for correspondence in place of the less durable papyrus; occasionally the recipient wrote the answer on the back of the potsherd. Ostraca were also used for mercantile purposes, as bills, receipts, etc. C. M. Kaufmann and J. C. Ewald Falls, while excavating the town of Menas in the Libyan desert, discovered ostraca of this class—the oldest Christian potsherds in the Greek language (5th century)—and H. J. Bell and F. G. Kenyon of the British Museum deciphered them.

They refer to the vine-culture of the sanctuaries of Menas and represent, for the most part, short vouchers for money or provisions. The currency is based upon gold solidi issued by Constantine; the date is reckoned by the year of indiction. Of historical interest is the assistance given to invalid workmen, the employment of the lower clergy, the manner of provisioning the workmen, and especially the statements about the harvest periods in the Libyan district. The series of Coptic ostraca which deals with the clergy and the monasteries in the Nile valley is particularly extensive. They refer to all phases of administration and popular life.

The ecclesiastical ostraca, in a narrow sense, contain Biblical citations from the New Testament, prayers, extracts from the synaxaria (lives of the saints), and are partly of a liturgic character. Greek, which was then the language of the Church, is much used, with the Coptic. Among the samples published by W.E. Crum, a fine judge of Coptic dialects, there is a local confession of faith from the 6th century, besides the Preface and Sanctus of the Mass, prayers from the Liturgy of St. Basil and of St. Mark, a part of the didascalia of Schenûte of Athribis, a Greek confession, and an excommunication, also in Greek.

Particularly remarkable are those ostraca which contain liturgical songs. They represent our present song-books for which purpose rolls of papyrus were less suited than the more durable potsherds; in some cases wooden books were used. Among the pieces translated by Crum we find petitions for ordination in which the petitioner promises to learn by heart one of the Gospels, and a reference to an ancient abstinence movement, against which is directed a decree that the consecration-wine should be pure or at least three-fourths pure.

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