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History Colloquium: Mark Williams, Light from Third-Century Egypt


Light from Third Century Egypt: Theon Writes Home

When we hear the word "classics," we often think of the towering works of literature, architecture and the plastic arts that for centuries defined a Western canon of excellence. But we often forget that, for every Sophocles, there were thousands of people who were illiterate and perhaps unable even to comprehend Sophocles' plays when they saw them in the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. And for every Socrates, there were thousands likewise who could not begin to understand a logical argument, much less make one for themselves. These people were largely forgotten for centuries, and denigrated when they were thought of -- if they were thought of at all. Nowadays, however, these ordinary people have a presence in the world of classical studies and ancient history, not least because some of their voices have almost miraculously come back from oblivion, thanks to the thousands of documentary (non-literary) papyri that have been discovered in Egypt and elsewhere. Many of these papyri are private letters that throw light on the trials and tribulations of ordinary families who otherwise have left no mark on history. This is part of the story of one such family.

About seven years ago, I received an invitation from the Green Scholars Initiative to work with Calvin students on an item in the Green papyrus collection; the Green family (in particular Steve Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby) is concerned that the skills necessary to do high-level textual research on the New Testament and other ancient documents are lacking nowadays, and so for a number of years the family made available papyri from their massive collection (now housed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington) for undergraduate students to work on, under the guidance of a local faculty member. Two students, Justin Smidstra and Alex Westenbroek, joined me to decipher a papyrus letter from the third century AD that was excavated at the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Our work resulted in a new edition of this letter that is awaiting publication in a series of papyrological studies published by Brill. This talk will be an interim report on this work. I will also comment on the recent controversies that have engulfed the Green collection and the Museum of the Bible.

Mark Williams is emeritus professor of Classics at Calvin University. 

This talk is part of history colloquia series. These lectures are open to the Calvin community - students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends - and all are warmly welcome to attend. 

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March 2022
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