There I was, working through Kurt Treu’s 1986 Archiv für Papyrusforschung article “Varia Christiana II.” In it he presents six different ostensibly Christian papryi. The first one I’m interested in is his first listed, P.Berol. 21124, “1. Hymnus auf die Höllenfahrt Christi (?),” (“Hymn to Christ’s Descent to Hades (?)” if my hacktastic German is anywhere near correct), a fourth century papyrus reportedly from the Fayum area. It’s early, it’s short, it might have something to do with the Acts of Pilate and Descent of Christ to Hades … it hits a lot of buttons for me.
So I look at Treu’s transcription and bang it out, and begin checking it against an image of the papyrus (available here; click on thumbnails). I work through the recto, all is well. then comes the verso. The ink is fairly faded on the verso (or, it appears to be faded in the image of the verso). I can see several nu and eta glyphs, but something seems wrong. I’m confused about the words ]οδον ηλιον την γην in verso line 4 (last line Treu transcribes). And I can’t make any sense out of the bottom of Treu’s transcription or his note that there are “traces of a line” at the bottom. Nothing lines up. Then I note that for some reason letters like φ extend above the baseline but not below. And then I notice the α look … different. And it dawns on me: The image is upside down. Copy the image, load it into MSPaint, and flip it. All of a sudden things make sense, apart from the faded ink.
The image is oriented correctly on the web site (they simply flipped it across the papyrus’ vertical axis) but the author flipped the papyrus across the horizontal axis.
So now I’ve really started to go down the rabbit hole. Back to thinking about ]οδον ηλιον την γην, and I do some searches for where ηλιον and γην are in proximity with each other, and I find some lists of heavenly elements/phenomenon in Philo (cf. Spec. Leg. I 399; II. 5; Deus 107) and Josephus (Against Apion 2.192), so now I’m wondering if ]οδον should maybe oughta be something like ουρ]ανον. The ink is so faded that I can’t really see any of the characters Treu must’ve seen in 1986.
And then I start looking at the letters even more. Why is the ink so dark on the recto and so light on the verso? Why are the letters on the recto oriented more vertically and the letters on the verso seemingly slanted right? Why don’t certain letter combinations look more alike (e.g. ΩΝ) when verso is compared to recto?
So then I actually start to decode Treu’s article — I say “decode” on purpose because I can’t read German, and horrible though I’m sure it is, I’m indebted to Google Translate. Anyway, Treu notes all this stuff, and I’m reminded that it was my starting assumption that both sides were written by the same person. Treu doesn’t seem so convinced, from what I can tell. The content may be related, but it probably does not originate with the same scribe.
Then I decode the very first paragraph and run into this sentence:
Beidseitig beschriftet von verschiedenen Händen, Texte zueinander kopfstehend.
Which appears to render in English as something like:
Both sides written by different hands, texts oriented oppositely.
At this point, I’m feeling better that at least I independently recognized some of the same stuff Treu did (after getting the verso image correctly oriented), but a little foolish because I couldn’t just read it in the German.
What I’m not sure about is how to read and understand the papyrus given the different hands. Is the material related? (Treu thinks so) And again, how faded was the recto in 1986, and how secure is Treu’s reading of verso line 4?