Petaus, the Village Scribe, and Ancient Illiteracy

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post bemoaning the death of written communication. This morning, after remembering a papyrus that I read about a few years back, I decided that perhaps written communication has been dying for quite some time. The following image depicts the “Petaus Papyrus,” an Egyptian fragment that dates to the second century CE.

*image source is Jonathan L. Reed, The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 7.

The handwriting on the papyrus is that of Petaus, scribe of Hormu, a village in Egypt. The text reads, ΠΕΤΑΥΣ ΚΩΜΟΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΕΥΣ ΕΠΙΔΕΔΩΚΑ, or “I Petaus, village scribe, have entered.” This line is repeated over and over, and after the fifth line, he begins to misspell it. According to J. Reed, he “eventually tires of the exercise” (7). In short, Petaus, the village scribe, was illiterate. This papyrus is one of the ways in which he practiced his signature.

On one level, this papyrus serves to remind those of us who study ancient literature that “literacy” in the ancient world is certainly to be understood differently than it is today. That is, in the second century, one could be a village scribe without really knowing how to write! On another level, perhaps this papyrus will encourage me to be more forgiving when I come across minor typos today. We’ll see.

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