Saturday, November 5, 2011

Three unexplained letters


March 5

Professor D*** S***

Christ College, Cambridge

As one who did several terms at the college (though so long ago that no one of my vintage remains), I am forwarding to you a document that was found under the following circumstances. On holiday in Venice last year I visited a shop of antiques and oddities where I found a metal case on a shelf with helmets and useless pieces of German weapons. During the war I had some experience with German relay methods and I knew the case to be the kind that was preferred for carrying directives of the German general staff. I am one of those who collects such items (I suppose because neither the horrors of those years nor the glory won have ever entirely left me).

The owner of the shop told me that his wife, who was Greek, had once looked at the book inside and determined that it was the diary of a Greek soldier. My interest was in the case itself, and as there was no additional cost for the book – or rather, since the tradesman regarded both the case and its contents as less valuable than the helmets he kept on the same shelf-- I brought it back to Surrey.

Only last week did I look at the document. I remember so little Greek from public school days that I could not decipher more than a few words. Nevertheless, I realized that if this is a diary of a Greek soldier, he was not a soldier in the second world war (as the shop owner had supposed) nor of any war for at least a thousand years. I therefore leave it to you to decide the fate of the document. If it is of no value, then please return it to me and I will reunite it with the case that must have protected it for nearly fifty years. If it has some intrinsic value, then I hereby give it to the College, which I am afraid will be my sole legacy.

Maj. John Crichton (Ret.)


March 12

Dear Major Crichton:

On behalf of Christ College, 1 thank you for the gift of the manuscript found in the metal case. A superficial analysis indicates that the document is a medieval Byzantine novel with a Roman theme. An approximate dating would place it no earlier than the tenth century. I have, however, assigned an ambitious graduate student with the task of giving us a more accurate statement of its provenance.

Thank you again . . .

D*** S***

Christ College


November 5

Professor D*** T***

Union Theological Seminary

Dear D***:

It can come as no surprise any more that rumors precede facts. Nevertheless, what you have heard is true. The document that P*** E*** is analyzing, and concerning which our first paper will appear in the spring issue of JBL, conforms to the one that was briefly described in Steiner's 1943 letter to Bultmann. Certainly the subject is the same-- an almost Petronian account of the conversion of a gladiator to Christianity during the reign of Nero. The protagonist purports to be one of the murderers of Pedanius Secundus, a crime that led to the execution of four hundred slaves, as Tacitus recounts.

The first paper will deal only with the dating of the manuscript -- 1Oth cent. as I determined on first viewing it -- and with the literary provenance, which is earlier. Ennis, following Steiner, believes that the Christian themes were superimposed on the original novel, and would date the earliest stratum to the late first century. He is given some support for this argument by a fragment in the Rylands collection that speaks about dancing with a white god with a cross-beam on his back, a sort of visionary theme in the manuscript. The papyrus fragment had originally been thought to be from a novel, then was put in the bin of unidentified gnostic texts.

Now it looks again as though it comes from a novel. I am aware that we cannot publish without making the document itself available to all, but I would prefer not sharing it outside of responsible circles until that time. I will show you the plates when you arrive next spring. Lesser scholarship, as Steiner knew, might be too quick to claim authenticity. Since some of the details are credible, and fit with sources that even Byzantine historians did not have available, we do not want any public excitement to prevent an orderly release of information. If there is a substratum of historical truth in the document, the burden of proving where it lies should be heavy, or we will be faced with endless fantasies about the christians in Rome.

Awaiting your stay next March, I am sincerely,


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