The Lying Chisels of Scribes
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The Lying Chisels of Scribes

“‘How can you say, “We are wise,
    for we have the law of the Lord,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
    has handled it falsely?

Jeremiah 8:8 New International Version

The ancient world was a long time ago, but even in antiquity it was often hard to know what happened in the ancient world. With no trusted neutral institutions to establish facts, and no way of making many identical copies of a text or a speech, the curious had no reliable way to decide between competing claims by different interested parties. Already in antiquity, clever people turned to old writing painted on wood or carved on stone. But dishonest people realized that they could destroy or alter awkward inscriptions and forge new ones. Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians show us how this worked.

In the third year of Cambyses king of Babylon king of Lands, the governing board of the Eanna temple at Uruk received instructions:

(1) Nabû-mukīn-apli, the šatammu (chief temple administrator) of Eanna, son of Nadīnu, seed Dabibi, spoke (2) to [thirteen different people], Babylonians and Urukeans, the college, as follows: (16) “A messenger of the king and the governor of Babylon have spoken as follows: (17) ‘show us the stelai, the cuneiform texts of the kings of old, which are set up in Eanna.’ (19) Show the stelai, the cuneiform texts of old, which you know, to the messenger of the king! (21) Show whatever you remember and know to the messenger of the king.”

Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire (2021) p. 122

Scholarly Babylonians often discovered old texts which told them that they could not do something which they had been commanded to do. And they chose which texts on the sacred ground of temples or buried under the earth to share with outsiders. Cambyses and the governor of Babylon wanted all the inscriptions which the Eanna had, and wanted someone who they trusted to read them himself. They did not trust the college to give them a summary or excerpts. They also did not want the college to suddenly discover more texts at a later date. Evidently, Cambyses and the governor believed that the college of Eanna might use its access to old texts to control what information reached the king.

In the fourth century BCE, the Greek historian Theopompus published a book of Attic inscriptions. Several medieval writers tell us that he was indignant that a certain inscription used a form of the Greek alphabet which was later than the date at which it claimed to have been written. Theopompus believed that this inscription was a forgery, although the ancients did often have to replace inscriptions which were damaged by fires, floods, or humans. Many early public texts in Athens were painted or carved onto wood, like early Christian grave markers in rural BC. Wood rots and paint flakes away, so documents on wood needed to be recopied every so often. Other Athenians tell us that public texts at Athens were often hidden in obscure places, so only an expert could find the original of every document. The back wall of a temple might be hidden by a newer, larger temple built next door, or an old wooden tablet might be moved out of the way to make room for something more important, or an old gravestone might be built into a new wall.

A documentary by Mary Beard introduced me to the sarcophagus of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus. Barbatus was a magistrate around 300 BCE, and his sarcophagus is carved with a short text describing his achievements as magistrate.

(2 lines erased)

Cornelius Lucius Scipio Barbatus, sprug from Gaius his father
A man strong and wise,
Whose appearance was most in keeping with his virtue,
Who was consul, censor, and aedile among you.
He captured Taurasia Cisauna in Samnium.
He subdued all of Lucania and led off hostages.

tr. adapted from Wikipedia

The Scipiones became very important, and built an elaborate underground tomb whose location was lost after Rome became Christian. Barbatus’ inscription has two lines erased above it. In 1987, philologist Rudolf Wachter explained why the otherwise intact sarcophagus might have this damage. If Barbatus began by boasting that before him the Scipiones were not a very important family, then later generations with genealogical interests might have found this embarrassing. Other families could not boast that they had subjugated Lucania and sacked Carthage like the Scipiones, but they could discover distant ancestors who had done amazing things before the Romans left archives or carved sarcophagi. And in those circumstances, one day the head of the family might well have ordered the awkward part of Barbatus’ inscription removed so that he could invent his own distinguished ancestors without being contradicted. The Romans did not start to write their own history until around 200 BCE, when Q. Fabius Pictor wrote in Greek about the war with Hannibal.

Many people in the ancient world recognized that carvings on stone or paintings on wood were a way to get direct access to what people had written in the past, without the distortions of copyists and retellings and selective memory. And many dishonest people in the ancient world tried to foil them by passing off their own writing as ancient or destroying ancient writings which said inconvenient things. As several people have noticed, it is much easier to gain money or power by bunking than debunking.

Further Reading: In Scribal Culture and the Hebrew Bible (2007), Karel van der Toorn argues that many of the texts which became part of the Hebrew Bible once existed as one or two official copies which could be quietly edited between the times they were shared in public (perhaps when a new copy was made to replace a worn-out original). Bart Ehrman has much more to say about how scribes edited the texts which were later compiled into the Bible. After Thermopylae (Oxford University Press, 2013) by Paul Cartledge tallks about one of the Greek inscriptions whose oldest surviving copy is much latter than it claims to have been written.

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(scheduled 17 August 2022)

1 thought on “The Lying Chisels of Scribes

  1. russell1200 says:

    Beyond direct changes, you also have a selection bias. Christians generally were more interested in keeping alive writings that somehow worked within their belief structure. We have found some of them, but many of the early opponents of what became the Catholic Orthodoxy are only known through Christian criticisms of them.

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