The Medinet Madi discovery of Manichean texts

From: ANTIQUITY XXXIV, 1960. W. H. C. FREND, The Archaeologist and Church History.

Some of the discoveries belong almost to the realm of science fiction. Take, for instance, the discovery of the Manichaean documents from Medinet Madi. 

In 1930 the German historian and papyrologist, Professor Carl Schmidt was on a visit to Cairo. The trip was a normal one, entailing a round of calls on local dealers from whom he hoped to buy papyri for the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. Schmidt was a busy man and had brought with him the proofs of a new edition of Epiphanios’ great dossier of early heresies (the Panarion) which a friend was engaged in editing. 

The night before a visit to a life-long acquaintance he happened to be working over his author’s account of the Manichaeans. Apart from some texts found in Central Asia the literary remains of these heretics, who for ten years had numbered St Augustine among their adherents, had utterly perished. Nothing was known about their writings except from the descriptions of their enemies. But Epiphanios had mentioned a work he called the Kephalaiu or Principles as one of the chief Manichaean books. Schmidt had just reached this place in the text and meant to carry on the next evening. 

After the usual black coffee the dealer brought out for inspection what looked like a wad of thick, dry felt and put it on the counter. It seemed pretty hopeless, when Schmidt noticed that at any rate the Coptic lettering on the first sheet was remarkably well set out. He looked at the papyrus more closely, and then in the top right hand corner his eye lit on the word Kephalaion and a little lower down the page the words 'And then the Illuminator said'. He had found an original Manichaean manuscript, the first ever discovered within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. 

Eventually, seven complete works were recovered, which a native had originally found in a waterlogged chest in the rubble of a Roman house in a village in the Fayum, and brought with him into Cairo. Here were not only some translations of the works of Mani himself, but more interesting, the hymns and psalms sung by his humble followers in Egypt. For the first time the impact of this sad dualistic religion of resignation and fatalism on the ordinary people of the Roman Empire was revealed. 

(Schmidt’s description of the event is given in his paper, Neue Originalquellen des Manichaismus aus Aegypten, Stuttgart, 1933.)

This article by James Robinson appeared in a Soviet publication:

"[p.950] The seven Manichaean papyrus codices of the Fourth or Fifth Century found in illicit excavation in 1929 in the desert in the ruins of Terenouthis near Medinet Madi at the southern end of the Fayyum were acquired in about equal halves by A. Chester Beatty for his library then in London, now in Dublin, and by Carl Schmidt for the Papyrussammlung of the stattliche Museen of Berlin. 

The status of the seven codices follows:

I. Chester Beatty Library Codex A, the Psalms. The first part of this codex was acquired by Beatty from the Cairo dealer Maurice Nahman in 1931, the second in 1930. The second part was conserved in Berlin by Hugo Ibscher and published by Charles R. C. Allberry in 1938. As each leaf of the first part was conserved by Ibscher, it was transcribed and translated by H.J. Polotsky in Berlin, with copies sent both to Beatty and to W.E. Crum for use in his Coptic Dictionary. Since the edition was never completed, it was not published, but a few lines of Psalm 119 by Polotsky ware published by Soren Giversen in 1986/1988. The first part of the codex was put on loan at the Royal Library of Copenhagen in 1984 for Giversen to publish, in facsimile and critical editions. He has published both parts in facsimile edition in 1988,

II. Chester Beatty Library Codex B, the Synaxeis. This codex was acquired by Beatty from a Fayyumic dealer in 1930 (except for 31 rtsidual leaves that Schmidt acquired in 1931 — P 15995), and turned over to Ibscher to conserve. By 1939 only 13 leaves of Beatty's part had been conserved and returned to London. They were moved with the library to Dublin in 1953, and to Copenhagen in 1984. A facsimile edition was published by Giversen in 1986. The rest of Beatty's part of the codex was kept in Ibscher's home in Kleinmachnow for conservation, from 1934 on, but was put after Ibscher's death in 1943 by his son Rolf Ibscher in safe keeping in a reinforced concrete bunker at the Zoo Train station of Berlin. After the bombing of that bunker in 1944 Rolf Ibscher had his assistant P. Seidel remove it so that Ibscher could take it to the home of his father-in-law, Wolf Henry Doering, in Schondorf on the Ammersee in Bavaria. From time to time Rolf Ibscher worked at conserving the leaves there, The West German authorities took control of the codex and engaged Garsten Colpe to edit it in 1956-57, for which purpose it was taken to Göttingen. Only some half of this material had been conserved by Rolf Ibscher before his death in 1967. Upon the creation of the Egyptian Museum in West Berlin in 1967, the material was deposited there, in 1985 the Curator of the Papyrus Collection in that museum, Dr. William Brashear, asked me to investigate this material. There are 125 extant unpublished leaves plus the unconserved remainder of the book block. I reported to the Fachkommission Byzantinistik of the Historiker-Gesellschaft of the German Democratic Republic in Halle in 1986, Both museums authorized me to organize an edition of all the Manichaean material in Berlin. The transcription of the scarcely legible conserved leaves was begun in 1985, with Gesine Robinson Working on the 31 leaves on the Museen-Insel of East Berlin, and others, especially Wolf-Peter Funk and Paul Mirecki, on those in West Berlin. The Photographing is currently taking place in Berlin in preparation for a facsimile edition of all the Manichaean material in Berlin, Vienna and Warsaw, to be published by the Akademie-Verlag of Berlin.

III. Chester Beatty Library Codex C, volume Two of the Kephalaia. This was acquired by Beatty from the Fayyumic dealer prior to Schmidt's talking to that dealer in the Spring of 1931, It was conserved by Rolf Ibscher after World War II, and published in facsimile edition by Giversen in 1986. Exclusive publication rights for a critical edition of the [p.951] Dublin-Copenhagen material are held by a committee consisting of Givern President; Rodolphe Kasser; and Martin Krause. Kasser has been entrusted with organizing the publication of the critical edition of this codex.

IV. Chester Beatty Library Codex D, the Homilies. The bulk of this codex was acquired from Nahman with an option to buy by Beatty in 1930, but he released it to Carl Schmidt for Berlin in 1932 (P 15999). It was not considered conservable, but was put on display as a show piece of how impossible this task was. The unconserved book block is thought to have been among the materials stored in the bunker at the Zoo train station, taken from there to the Soviet Command Post at the castle Friedrichsfelde in 1945-1946, and from there to Leningrad in 1946, though it was not found when the material was returned to Berlin in 1958. A smaller part of the codex was acquired by Beatty in 1931, conserved by Ibscher, edited by Polotsky, and published in 1934. A facsimile edition of the codex has been published by Giversen in 1987.

V. Berlin Papyrus Collection, P 15996, Volume One of the Kephalaia. This codex was acquired by Schmidt from Nahman in 1930. Most of the leaves were conserved in Ibscher and edited by Polotsky and Alexander Böhlig and published in fascicles, a first volume through p. 244, line 20 by 1940. Böhlig published through p. 291 in 1966, and p. 292 in 1985. Remains of 3 unpublished leaves had been acquired by Prof. Grohmann of Prague for the Austrian National Library, where they are still extant. There are 5 unpublished Berlin leaves in Warsaw, where they were brought after having been lost in transit between Berlin and Leningrad in 1946. Together with leaves in Berlin there are 85 to 93 extant unpublished leaves (170 to 186 pages). Wolf-Peter Funk is preparing a critical edition. Transcriptions and translations by Polotsky located at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, at the Griffith Institute of the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford, and at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin have been put by Polotsky at Funk's disposal for the critical edition.

VI. Berlin Papyrus Collection, P 15997, the Acts. This codex, with its covers (which were photographed and published), was sold by a provincial dealer to Nahman, who sold it to Schmidt in 1931. One leaf that Ibscher conserved was returned to London, moved with the library to Dublin, and was included in the material put on deposit on Copenhagen. Giversen published it in facsimile in 1987. There are 7 or 8 unpublished leaves still in Berlin. Part of one unpublished leaf may be at the Institute for Papyrology of Warsaw University. The unconserved book block and wooden covers did not return from Leningrad to Berlin in 1958. None of the leaves of this codex have been published.

VII. Berlin Papyrus Collection, P 15998, the Letters. This codex was also sold by the provincial dealer to Nahman, who sold it to Schmidt in 1931. There are 6 unpublished leaves that were returned from Leningrad to Berlin in 1958 and 3 unpublished leaves in the National Museum in Warsaw. There are also 15 leaves among those that lay half-conserved in the Ibscher home throughout the war that may belong to this codex. The book block did not return from Leningrad to Berlin in 1958. None of the leaves of this codex have been published."


James ROBINSON: The Manichaean Codices of Medinat Madi (Terenouthis). XVIIIth International Congress of Byzantine Studies. Moscow (1991), pp. 950-1. 

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