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In the Beginnings: The Apotropaic Use of Scriptural Incipits in Late Antique Egypt


This dissertation examines the ritual use of scriptural incipits (i.e., opening lines of biblical books and texts) on apotropaic devices (e.g., amulets) from late antique Egypt. There are three primary objectives of this study. First, I develop a typology of the scriptural incipits. Through analyses of metonymy, scriptural usage in apotropaic contexts more generally, and ancient historiolae (i.e., narratives used for ritual power), I demonstrate that the scriptures were invoked in ritual practice as individual thematic units. Accordingly, I divide the scriptural incipits into two types: incipits of multiunit corpora (e.g., the Gospel incipits) and incipits of single-unit texts (e.g., LXX Ps 90:1). This two-fold distinction not only challenges the dominant assumption in scholarship that scriptural incipits should be treated as a uniform phenomenon, but it also orients the remaining two objectives.

Second, I provide the first extensive survey of potential incipits from late antique Egypt. I divide this survey into two major parts, corresponding to the two types of incipits: incipits of multiunit corpora and incipits of single-unit texts. In addition to providing a preliminary corpus of scriptural incipits to assist with future work, this survey also highlights the diverse forms of scriptural incipits, exposes the difficulty in identifying an incipit, and offers a unique challenge to the assumed relationship between faithfulness to established protocols and ritual efficacy.

Third, I propose the first sustained theory of scriptural incipits. I challenge the assumption that incipits operated uniformly according to the metonymic transfer pars pro toto ("part for whole"). Rather, incipits of multiunit corpora operated solely according to the metonymic transfer pars pro parte/partibus ("part for part/parts"), attaining the power associated with select narratives and sayings from their respective corpora (and possibly beyond). By contrast, incipits of single-unit texts invoked material either pars pro parte/partibus, focusing attention on particular words, phrases, or lines of the unit, or pars pro toto, attaining the power of the whole unit.

A concluding analysis highlights the possible implications of the apotropaic use of scriptural incipits for two other areas of study: incipits as classificatory rubrics in late antique book culture and late antique relics.

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