Burning Papyri

Variant Readings

Schow ChartaAs I compiled stories of discoveries of early Christian manuscripts for my book, God’s Library, one of the recurring tropes I encountered was the claim (usually by European and American scholars and collectors) that native Egyptians burned manuscripts. Such stories circulated about the Beatty Biblical Papyri, the Bodmer Papyri, the Nag Hammadi Codices, Codex Sinaiticus, and the Tura Papyri (for further details and references, see the entry for “burning of manuscripts” in the index of God’s Library).

The idea that “the natives burned” manuscripts is a trope that goes back to the very beginning of European encounters with Egyptian papyri. The earliest such report known to me is Nicolao Schow, Charta papyracea graece scripta musei Borgiani Velitris (Rome: A. Fulgonium, 1788), iii–iv: “diripiebant Turcae, earumque fumo (nam odorem fumi aromaticum esse dicunt) sese oblectabant” (the Turks tear them up; they are delighted by the smoke, for they…

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