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The Greatest Hits of Ancient Garbage

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What can a 1,000 years worth of trash tell us about ancient human behavior? Dirk Obink, Director of research and professor of papyrology and classics at Oxford, tells us about the "mother lode" of 2,000 year old paper found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1896 by two Oxford graduate students , B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt. A find so big, it’s beyond the scale of one human lifetime to translate it all. Deciphering fragments that look like cornflakes and sentences that break off right before they tell you want you need to know, Obink and his colleagues find enough secrets to rewrite the past. The “greatest hits of ancient garbage” may just change your mind about Jesus, porn, and what it means to be a hero. It might even convince you to change your tattoo.

Comments [17]


Hey I know you guys have probably tried this: Considering the enormous quantity of paper you need to translate, why, you should translate it using a computer and scanner system. If you could translate some of it, you could translate more in this model. Each fragment could be independently saved and secured from the mass, so that it could be arranged puzzle-style.

Oct. 20 2013 10:58 AM
Barbara Smith from Baraboo, WI

My two hour drive to Milwaukee on that particular Saturday was most enjoyable. Each show/segment was so interesting ~ really engaging. The story about the goat standing on top of a cow and lost letters scattered about in a field, The Greatest Hits of Garbage 666 story, and Attilla the Hun's DNA...such amazing stories, and so well presented. Thank you ! Looking for info on how to order cd copies....

Aug. 03 2013 06:49 PM

The sayings of Jesus reminded me of something I heard, that during the "lost years", when there is no record of what Jesus was up to in the bible, that he was actually studying Buddhism in the far east.

Jun. 10 2013 06:09 PM
Miroslav Kostic from CA

He, he, he Friday evening, I was at Little America, Flagstaff AZ, wrapping up my daily back to back trip LA to Holbrook AZ, in a big rig, an I caught part of 666 story, and almost complete letter story, but on Saturday on the way back to LA I had all three stories. Good Stories!!! (I am adding this to Wait Wait d.t and other shows)

Jun. 09 2013 10:21 PM
candiss cowan from Northern Westchester, NY

The show attributed the scraps to things that Jesus said. My question is, how do you know it was Jesus? Could it not have been someone else?

Jun. 08 2013 05:33 PM
Craig Phillips from Seattle, WA, USA

I realize I'm late to the show here but I finally got around to listening to this episode yesterday and I was wondering if anyone knows if these Oxford researchers are making any use of software to reassemble any of the fragments mentioned?

Seems like it would be *much* faster than trying to figure it out by hand.

Something like this (albeit much less grisly of a topic):

Jan. 02 2013 04:20 PM
yoni from israel

I am quite surprised - Shtein and honor! :)

Aug. 29 2012 09:45 AM

You were both so shocked to find out that the number of the beast in this fragment was 616 instead of 666. Actually, that fact has been known to Bible scholars for years. I remember as a child that my pastor explained that some manuscripts list the number as 616. It wasn't until last night, however, that I learned why. At the time, almost everyone knew that the number referred to Nero, or possibly to Domition, who was referred to as the "new Nero." In the Hebrew, the name Nero was actually "Neron." If you add up the letter values of Neron, it comes to 666. However, in Greek, the name was Nero. The Greek scribes who were copying this this would not have understood 666, so they assumed it was a mistake, so they "corrected" it to 616.

May. 05 2012 12:20 PM

The professor's name is spelled wrong- it is Dirk Obbink (two b's).

Mar. 24 2012 02:12 PM
Aaron Saunders from Denmark

Thanks Jad and Robert. Great show!

@Paul: I found this on the referenced website:

It seems to be the papyrus to which they are referring.

If I understand the various articles I read after clicking around...

Whether the number was 666 or 616 has been a long-running scholarly discussion - this is just a very early and clear example of the text that weights in on the 616 side...

Aug. 17 2011 01:41 PM

Found this segment interesting, however, wanted to challenge radio lab journalists to be more thoughtful with their research. The story begins with Jad proposing that the document in the trash heap presents a different Jesus than the Jesus of the New Testament, with such phrases as "the kingdom of heaven is near". However, this is a saying that is also found in the New Testament, in Matthew 4:17, among other places. It is easy to rely on the particular western-american christian strand of "understanding" that we are all familiar with, rather than do our own research of the actual biblical text- which is much more "eastern", as well.

Thanks to Radio Lab for such interesting and fresh radio journalism!

Aug. 14 2011 11:35 PM

Does anyone know anything more about the "satirical porn" that has Jad's number one? I'm doing a paper about the history of media, which a chapter on porn, and this would be a great historical point.

The online database isn't much help, but very interesting:

There is also no reference to it on the exhaustive wikipedia page:

Jul. 13 2011 01:47 PM
Sam from Calmar, Iowa

After digging around a bit on the Oxford site, I found the original Logia Iesou, translated with commentary by Grenfell and Hunt in 1897 on the Internet Archive.

Very interesting read.

Feb. 24 2011 10:02 AM
Matt from Fresno, CA

I listened to this podcast today and enjoyed it as I do all of them. I must say however, I have a bible called "The Way" that I recieved from my Mother in the late '70's. In Revelations where it references the number of the Beast, it does have an asterisk that says some texts say 616. Just thought you should know.

Please keep up the fantastic work!

Dec. 03 2010 11:02 PM

This is just Amazing..!

Nov. 20 2010 10:49 PM

As a lover of ancient history and someone who is married to another lover of ancient history, I would love to be able to see the original text of the three pieces mentioned. Does anyone have a reference to where I might locate them within the Oxford database?

Sep. 29 2010 12:44 AM

A really edifying segment, thank you.

Sep. 05 2010 03:16 PM

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