Theology and Philosophy

Ancient Documents Redefine our Knowledge of the Past

ACU Theologian, Dr Michael P. Theophilos, has triumphed at the Australian Five Minute Research Pitch (5RP) finals at the University of Victoria on 6 November.

Dr Theophilos took first place in the Social Sciences and Humanities Group and also overcame determined competition from the scientists to claim overall prize for his research presentation entitled, Oxyrhynchus: Recovering Lost Manuscripts from the Ancient World

The bulk of Dr Theophilos’ research focuses on the corpus of Greek papyri, ostraca and tablets that are able to illuminate the historical, social and linguistic context of the New Testament and the broader ancient Mediterranean world.

“My research entails  translation and recovery of documents which have essentially been buried in the ancient rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) for 2000 years. What is absolutely fascinating within this area of study is that, in addition to the discovery  of great literary texts, one also has thousands upon thousands of documents of everyday life – receipts, tax returns, petitions, sales documents, leases, wills, shopping lists, and private letters.  In sum, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of ancient “Post-it” notes. These kinds of documents continue to redefine our understanding of human history giving us a broader definition of how the ancient Mediterranean world was operating economically, politically and socially within the early centuries of the first millennium CE. ”

As a Theologian, Dr Theophilos is also interested in how these documents inform our understanding of early textual traditions of the Bible. This is particularly important as no original Biblical documents have survived from antiquity (as far as we know). When one is not dealing with original documents but rather copies of copies, there is a particular question that arises as to how one might establish the earliest text, and indeed how one navigates the textual variations.  

Perhaps the cornerstone of Dr Theophilos' success in the 5RP finals is the fact that his research is relevant to both the scientific and humanities communities.  “Many of the papyri are oxidized to the point of being charcoal black, and effectively look like burnt pieces of toast. However, through the implementation of multispectral imaging, the manuscripts can be processed to enhance the contrast ratio between papyrus and ink, in some cases recovering entire sections of text. Multispectral imaging enables us to produce a very readable document – without these scientific advances these ancient Greek texts would be completely lost to us.”

Outcomes of Dr Theophilos’ research include:

  1. The recovery of lost texts, both of the Bible and other classical literature;
  2. the re-writing of history, not from the perspective of the state sponsored historians, but from the documents of everyday life; and
  3. a view of the actual process of textual / information transmission - in all its complexity and fragility.

Dr Theophilos’ research directly expands our primary sources from the ancient world, and there is plenty more to do. The current curator of the manuscripts in Oxford estimates another 500,000 fragments await publication. At this rate researchers are still 300 years from completing the project! 

Dr Theophilos would welcome talented prospective research students with an interest in ancient languages and the Bible to contact him if they are interested in pursuing research in this area. "ὁ μὲν θερισμὸς πολύς, οἱ δὲ ἐργάται ὀλίγοι·" (trans. “The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few” [Mt 9:37])