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Christian Ostraka

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Inscriptions on clay, wood, metal, and other hard materials. Like papyri, they are valuable especially as the literary sources for early Christianity. They are found chiefly in Oriental countries, especially Egypt. The greatest number are pieces of clay or scraps of pots inscribed with colors or ink. The oldest Christian ostraka, like the papyri, are Greek and date from the fifth century. Next come the Coptic and Arabian ostraka. Some of the texts not yet deciphered include several Nubian ostraka in a language spoken in the old Christian negro-kingdoms in the vicinity of Aloa on the Blue Nile. In these inscriptions Greek letters are used, with some other signs. As to contents, ostraka are either profane or ecclesiastical. Potsherds were often used for correspondence in place of the less durable papyrus; occasionally the recipient wrote the answer on the back of the potsherd. Ostraka were also used for mercantile purposes, as bills, receipts, etc. C. M. Kaufmann and J. C. Ewald Falls, while excavating the town of Menas in the Libyan desert, discovered ostraka of this class—the oldest Christian potsherds in the Greek language (fifth century)—and H. J. Bell and F. G. Kenyon of the British Museum deciphered them. They refer to the vine-culture of the sanctuaries of Menas and represent, for the most part, short vouchers for money or provisions. The currency is based upon gold solidi issued by Constantine; the date is reckoned by the year of indiction. Of historical interest is the assistance given to invalid workmen, the employment of the lower clergy, the manner of provisioning the workmen, and especially the statements about the harvest periods in the Libyan district. The series of Coptic ostraka which deals with the clergy and the monasteries in the Nile valley is particularly extensive. We find references to all phases of administration and popular life.

The ecclesiastical ostraka, in a narrow sense, contain Biblical citations from the New Testament, prayers, extracts from the synaxaria (lives of the saints), and are partly of a liturgical character. Greek, which was then the language of the Chureh, is much used, with the Coptic. Among the samples published by W.E. Crum, the best judge of Coptic dialects, there is a local confession of faith from the sixth century, besides the Preface and Sanctus of the Mass, prayers from the Liturgy of St. Basil and of St. Mark, a part of the didascalia of Schenûte of Athribis, a Greek confession, and an excommunication, also in Greek. Particularly remarkable are those ostraka which contain liturgical songs. They represent our present song-books for which purpose rolls of papyrus were less suited than the more durable potsherds; in some cases wooden books were used. Among the pieces translated by Crum we find petitions for ordination in which the petitioner promises to learn by heart one of the Gospels, and a reference to an ancient abstinence movement, against which is directed a decree that the consecration-wine should be pure or at least three-fourths pure.


A complete collection of Greek, Coptic, and Arabic ostraka from the beginnings of the Christian epoch does not exist. Tho most important may be found in WILKEN, Griechische Ostraka aus Aegypten und Nubien (2 vols., Leipzig, 1899); CRUM, Coptic Ostraka from the Collections of the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Cairo Museum and others (London, 1902).

About this page

APA citation. Kaufmann, C.M. (1911). Christian Ostraka. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Kaufmann, Carl Maria. "Christian Ostraka." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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