The word ostracon ("potsherd," Hebrew cheres) occurs in Job 2:8 (Septuagint), kai elaben ostrakon, "and he took him a potsherd." Earthen vessels were in uersal use in antiquity (they are twice mentioned in the New Testament: skeue ostrakina (2 Corinthians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:20)), and the broken fragments of them, which could be picked up almost anywhere, were made to serve various purposes. Upon the smoothest of these pieces of unglazed pottery the poorest might write in ink his memoranda, receipts, letters or texts.

1. Hebrew Ostraca:

A fortunate discovery at Samaria (1910), made among the ruins of Ahab's palace, has brought to light 75 Hebrew ostraca inscribed with ink, in the Phoenician character, with accounts and memoranda relating to private matters and dating probably from the time of Ahab. Their historical contribution, aside from the mention of many names of persons and places, is slender, but for ancient Hebrew writing and to a less extent for Hebrew words and forms they are of value, while the fact that in them we possess documents actually penned in Israel in the 9th century BC gives them extraordinary interest. The nature of ostraca tends to their preservation under conditions which would quickly destroy parchment, skin or papyrus, and this discovery in Palestine encourages the hope of further and more significant finds.

2. Greek Ostraca:

Greek ostraca in large quantities have been found in Egypt, preserving documents of many kinds, chiefly tax receipts. The texts of some 2,000 of these have been published, principally by Wilcken (Griechische Ostraka, 2 volumes, 1899), and serve to illustrate in unexpected ways the everyday Greek speech of the common people of Egypt through the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods. Like the papyri, they help to throw light on New Testament syntax and lexicography, as well as on ancient life in general.

3. New Testament Ostraca:

It is said that Cleanthes the Stoic, being too poor to buy papyrus, used to write on ostraca, but no remains of classical literature have been found on the ostraca thus far discovered. In some instances, however, Christian literary texts are preserved upon ostraca. Some years ago Bouriant bought in Upper Egypt 20 ostraca, probably of the 7th century, inscribed with the Greek text of parts of the Gospels. The ostraca are of different sizes, and preserve among others one long continuous passage (Luke 22:40-71), which runs over 10 of the pieces. The ostraca contain from 2 to 9 verses each, and cover Matthew 27:31,32; Mark 5:40,41 (9:3); 9:17,18,22; 15:21; Luke 12:13-16; 22:40-71; John 1:1-9; 1:14-17; 18:19-25; 19:15-17. The texts are in 3 different hands, and attest the interest of the poor in the gospel in the century of the Arab conquest. Another late ostracon has a rough drawing labeled "St. Peter the evangelist," perhaps in allusion to the Gospel of Peter.

4. Coptic Ostraca:

Coptic ostraca, too, are numerous, especially from the Byzantine period, and of even more interest for Christian history than the Greek. A Sa`idic ostracon preserves the pericope on the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), which is otherwise unattested in the Sa`idic New Testament. A Christian hymn to Mary, akin to the canticles of Luke, and some Christian letters have been found. The work of W.E. Crum on the Coptic ostraca is of especial importance. See, further, Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 1910; Lyon, Harvard Theol. Review, January, 1911.

Edgar J. Goodspeed

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'OSTRACA'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.