Potential Paternity Problem

Jennifer Cromwell

Where in the ancient world could you turn when you had a serious family scandal to talk about? Well, in western Thebes in the early 7th century, one option was to write to local church figures. A papyrus preserves a letter from a man, seeking advice about another man’s paternity problem. The beginning of the letter is lost, but the juicy details survive:

“After they were united, they fought and bickered constantly. [Then] she left him, up until now. Yet, look, she gave birth this month and he came to me, saying ‘The little girl that she gave birth to is not mine! She conceived her, deceiving me, for it has been six months since I united with her.’ Here, then, I have sent him to you. Please, listen as he recounts his business. What you shall command, write it to us!”

P.Pisentius 17

A tempestuous relationship and questioned paternity – the things talk shows are made of. As the infant girl here seems to have survived, it is unlikely that she was born so premature. So, if the man’s claim is correct, that they were only together for six months, then it surely wasn’t his daughter.

Unfortunately, the letter’s address, with the name of the sender and the recipient, is lost, as are the names of the couple concerned (if they were mentioned by name, that is). But, this letter is believed to be one of many that were written to bishop Pisentius.

Pisentius was bishop of Coptos (Coptic Keft, modern Qift) in the early 7th century. He fled south to western Thebes during the Persian invasion and conquest of Egypt in the 620s (a short-lived conquest of a decade during the Byzantine-Sassanian War, before emperor Heraclius regained the country in 629). Local villagers – both men and women – sought his council on a range of affairs.

In this instance, we have only the man’s side of the story. If the bishop wrote down his response, as requested, that letter is lost (or maybe remains to be discovered!). And how the woman’s story may have differed will never be known.

Technical Details
Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: Early 7th century CE (after 620).
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Louvre Museum / Musée du Louvre, Paris (inventory number unknown)
Designation: P.Pisentius 17 (for this sigla, see the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: A new edition of this text and others associated with bishop Pisentius is nearing completion by Prof. Jacques van der Vliet (Leiden University). Until this is published, T. G. Wilfong, Women of Jeme (2002, University of Michigan Press) discusses some of the letters written to Pisentius and his role in the Theban communities.

There is no published image of the papyrus (yet), so instead here is an aerial view of western Thebes, the setting of our story, by Steve Cameron.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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