Ostraca and Talismans

When C. R. Gregory published his revised list of New Testament manuscripts, itincluded only the four manuscript categories we know now: Papyri, Uncials,Minuscules, Lectionaries. In the updated 1923 list of E. von Dobschütz,however, a new category -- Talismans -- appeared. von Dobschütz's 1933list added still another category, Ostraca.

Ostraca are, of course, potsherds. New Testament ostraca are potsherds ofvessels which had once had New Testament verses written on them.

Talismans are amulets or other decorations containing small passages ofscripture. A typical talisman contained a copy of the Lord's Prayer and wasworn around the neck.

By the time of von Dobschütz's 1933 list, nine talismans and twenty-fiveostraca were cataloged. The talismans were designated by a gothic T(T) with a superscript(i.e.T1...T9)while the ostraca were designated by a gothicO (O)with superscript(O1...O25).

The talismans generally cannot be cited in New Testament editions; howdoes one tell if a copy of the Lord's Prayer is supposed the Matthean or Lukan form?(T3 has,however, been cited for Matthew 6, as it contains thefinal doxology found only in Matthew's version. Interestingly, however, ithas only a partial form of this doxology.)

When Kurt Aland took over the catalog and published the KurzgefassteListe, he abolished the two little-used categories. The most importanttalisman, T1,became 0152. The primary ostraca(O1-O20,a collection of sherds from the same seventh century pot) became 0153. (It containsparts of the four gospels, with no part more than about thirty verses long; three handsare believed to have been involved). However, neither 0152 nor 0153 is cited inany major modern edition (they are not mentioned in NA27,UBS4, the current editions of the harmonies, or in the pocket editionsof Merk and Bover). In effect, the talismans and ostraca have been discarded fortextual criticism.

We might note that, even if these classes of items were restored to the criticaleditions, it might not cover all possible classes of evidence. There are alsomosaics and murals -- and even dirty floors! I don't know of any New Testamenttexts preserved in a floor, but at the palace of Aï Khanum, there is a sectionof the floor which preserves an extensive text in reverse. It is believed that apapyrus text was copied, then dropped on the floor while still rather wet, and thetext off-printed onto the clay floor. If the photo in Peter Green'sAlexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (p. 109)is to be believed, the text proved surprisingly legible.