Monday, April 18, 2005

Lost And Found

I've had dreams where I discover some new piece of art--it could be lost Shaw or a missing film by the Marx Brothers (from their Paramount period). But sometimes these things happen in real life.

For instance, a new chapter to the Alice books, a new work from Mark Twain, a new song from the Beatles (recorded in the 60s)--all these things became available in the last decade. While these can be exciting discoveries, they generally aren't as good as what we already have. There's often a reason something's survived.

Still, there's some stuff that's been lost or destroyed and can stand up to what made it through, and its recovery should be a cause of celebration. For years it was assumed many silent Buster Keaton shorts and even some features were gone forever. They've since almost all been found, restored, and shown to appreciative audiences around the world.

But what's been lost in the last few centuries is nothing next to what we've lost from the ancient world. Sure, some of the greatest work has come down to us, but there's so much missing that much research into that world--a world that helped form us--isn't much better than guesswork.

For instance, when it comes to Greek tragedy we have only 33 extant plays (and some fragments), including only one complete trilogy (the plays were presented as trilogies) and only one Satyr play (an amusing, shorter play that accompanied the tragedies). Imagine if the only Shakespeare to survive were Othello, As You Like It and Henry V. As important as we'd find these works, how we'd hunger for what's missing.

Now there's an article about new scientific techniques that will allow us to read heretofore unreadable ancient texts. I'm trying to control my excitement. Can this possibly be true? (On a much smaller scale, I was recently burned when I heard someone had recovered the actual silent version of Harold Lloyd's feature, Welcome Danger, when apparently it's just a silent version cobbled from his talkie.) Next to a time machine, nothing could open up the ancient world more. New Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and who knows what else?

If it's true, I can hardly wait. If not, curse you, online edition of The Independent. One note: the article claims some of the documents to be discovered include "a series of Christian gospels which have been lost for up to 2,000 years." My guess is there aren't any 2000-year-old Christian gospels.

PS Here's a more complete article about the potential discoveries.


Blogger Skip James said...

My guess is there aren't any 2000-year-old Christian gospels.

I can't let this aside go. The Christian Gospels have more manuscript support than any other ancient text by a large margin. There are many scraps of text that have very good correspondence with each other. These manuscripts withstand objective scientific scrutiny better than any other text of a similar age. If held to this straightforward standard, the gospels are as dated and are accurate. If you choose a different standard than that of other texts give your reasons.

6:08 PM, April 18, 2005  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I'm sure Skip gets my joke--that the gospels were written some time after 5 AD, thus there are no 2000 year-old gospels, as the article claimed.

As to Skip's general point, this argument about the accuracy of the Gospels is not very meaningful. There's the credibility of the original source, which is far and away the most important thing about the content, then, way way way behind, are possible corruptions of the text.

9:57 PM, April 18, 2005  
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