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Tributes and Biography: 
Dr. William M. Brashear III

The papyrological community is mourning one of its most outstanding members.  After a long illness, Dr. William Brashear passed away on February 2nd, 2000, in Spencer, N. Y.  He had been Chief Papyrologist at the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, Berlin, for thirty years.

His personal charisma, his vitality and intellectual curiosity that helped him grasp command of no less than 26 languages, ancient and modern, his broad smile and roaring laugh will be remembered and painfully missed not only by his beloved family, but also by the host of his friends throughout the world.

He was born in Ithaca, New York, and graduated from Newfield High School.  He was a graduate of Oberlin College, where he played the French horn, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

On several occasions Dr. Brashear was invited as a visiting professor in Classics by the Chinese government.  His friends will re-member the long passionate descriptions of China he was dispatching during his long stays there, as well as his enthusiasm and diligence in studying various Chinese dialects.  He was a member of the American Society of Papyrologists and the Association International de Papyrologues.

His major publications were:

  • Ptolemiiische Urkunde (BGU XIV), Berlin 1980
  • "The Coptic Three Wise Men", Chronique d'Egypte 58, 1983
  • Magica Varia, Bruxelles 1991
  • "Zwei Zauberformulare", APF 38, 1992
  • A Mithraic Catechism from Egypt (P. Berl. 21196), Wien 1992. -    The discovery of P. Berl. 21196, containing a fragment of catechism in the Mithraic cult and its interpretation by Dr. Brashear shed new light into the Mithraic cult and triggered a fruitful, albeit polemic, conversation on the subject.
  • Vereine im griechisch-romischen Agypten, Konstanz 1993
  • The Archive of Athenodorus (BGU XVI), Berlin 1995
  • His last major publication, Wednesday's Child is Full of Woe, Wien 1998, is a scholarly treatise on a Greek papyrus fragment.  This monograph not only illustrates the obvious delight Dr. Brashear took in deciphering the enigmas of ancient civilizations, but also demonstrates his passion for the written word. It is a masterly achievement of scholarship and eloquence.  Dr Brashear had the satisfaction to see this work published, during the last months of his terminal disease.
  • He has participated in major editions, such as e.g. K. Kuhlmann, Das Ammoneion, Mainz 1988, and published a string of articles in papyrological journals such as ZPE, BASP, APF, the Getty Museum Journal, the Journal of Ancient Civilizations, etc. All this, and especially his two BGU volumes and his Magica, add up to a significant contribution to papyrological research of the highest standard.

Farewell Bill. I hope you'll find in your celestial abode the warmth you were seeking for in your whole life.


Tyche:  Beitrage zur Alten Geschichte - Papyrologie und Epigraphik

Papyrologists of the last quarter of the 20th century will forever connect West Berlin with the name of Bill Brashear.  They knew that through him they had an institution, a personality, who with very little means created a tremendous work.   Who would have under such difficult conditions where famous names and performances dotted the Berlin collections 'connected circumstances where none from the service provided computer  but only Bill's machine knew?!   Which inevitable reparations had to be carried out but by Bill himself?  As e-mail communication long belonged to daily routine, Bill talked about the Papyrus collection and his "black hole" vision at the Papyrologist congress in Florence in 1998.  The circumstances are to be described as difficult during all his years in Berlin.  Not only the very strict separation between east and west was a bitter life experience but also the fall of the wall kept the two institutions separate in "Museumsinsel" and Charlottenburg. Inventories and libraries stayed separate.  Often he jumped onto his bicycle to ride to Bodestrasse to check an original or a book.  His all-open personality suffered from this isolation also in the open West Berlin.  One felt his pleasure when visiting him.  The next moment one became his co-worker, had access to everything and was often his unconditional colleague.  Like anyone who stands alone in his field, but sees his goal to bring things ahead, he knew that keeping papyrus under lock would not only prevent new knowledge but also hurt Science as a community work.  He acted accordingly and opened Charlottenburg 24 hours a day to whom ever wanted to study papyrus.  He never hid the fact that he knew the contrary quite well and suffered from it, because it diametrically opposed his own person.  His high talent and his unusual level as a scientist showed in all his works.  BGU XIV and BGU XVI identify him as an excellent connoisseur of documented papyrus.  With these 2 volumes, he gave Berlin a significant start signal for a great research field in the Berlin papyrology:  The preparation of the mummy cardboard box (?).  At the same time he also acknowledged his setback with regards to a second work relative to the conservation and systematic review of the tin boxes - what section of moving scientific history do they tell - which will not see an end for a long time.

But not only documents were his field but also literature.  Proof for it are not only the numerous essays but also both "small monographies" - A Mithraic Catechism From Egypt (Vienna 1992, 70p., Tyche Suppl. 1) and his last publication Wednesday's Child is Full of Woe, or: The Seven Deadly Sins and some More too!  Another Apotelesmatikon: P. Mev. Inv. 71. 58 (Vienna 1998, 117p., Nilus 1).  Both booklets show Bill Brashear as excellent connoisseur of antic religion and magic.  It's not likely that anyone else collected as much literature in these fields (and left many readers desperate in view of the literary citations in his works).  His contribution in the ANRW (The Greek Magical Papyri: an Introduction and Survey.  Annotated Bibliography (1928-1994). ANRW I: Principat, 18.5, Berlin, New York 1995, 3382-3684) is the clearest proof of it.

A merciless illness, which he suspected he contracted during his second stay in China, took him suddenly away from us at the age of 53.  Probably only few knew his hopeless suffering.  And even in this part of his life, he did not want to give himself vanquished.   Many colleagues will remember his moody presentation at the already cited congress in Florence in 1998 relative to the poor situation in Berlin.  But hardly anyone noticed at that time his already dramatic condition.  Only few could suspect that he was also talking about his own constitution.

Brashear's performance for the papyrus collection in Berlin, the papyrology and for the antic science as a whole stays alone as a monument and as an obligation for all who will follow after him.

Herman Harrauer


Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Noted papyrologist spent career in Berlin: William Brashear '68       1947 - 2000

One of the world's leading scholars of ancient papyrus fragments, William Brashear found his passion at Oberlin.

While in high school, he wanted nothing more than to become a professional French horn player.  His guidance counselor cautioned him not to be too hasty in his career choices and suggested that Mr. Brashear might do well in a vocation that made use of his aptitude for learning languages.  The counselor's statement proved prophetic, and Mr. Brashear soon began a career as one of the foremost papyrologists in the world, aided by his knowledge of over two dozen languages.

Born in Ithaca, New York, it was a love of music that drew Mr. Brashear to Oberlin, but once there, he discovered a passion in the classics.  He went on to earn MA and PhD degrees at the University of Michigan, and did graduate work at the Free University of Berlin.  In 1971, he began working at the newly opened Agyptisches (Egyptian) Museum in Berlin and later became chief papyrologist at that institution.  On several occasions, he was invited by the Chinese government to serve as a visiting professor of classics.

A gifted and dedicated scholar, Mr. Brashear spent nearly 30 years caring for and studying the museum's collection of ancient papyrus fragments.  He published numerous articles and books on the subject, including a ground-breaking identification of a fragment that indicated the presence of the cult of Mithras (a savior/ god worshipped throughout the Roman world) in Egypt, a presence that had never before been proven.  His most recent work, Wednesday's Child is Full of Woe (noted in OAM's Spring 2000 issue), is a philological and iconographical study of the development of the Seven Deadly Sins from ancient Babylonia to present-day modern art, based upon a new interpretation of an ancient Greek papyrus text.

Mr. Brashear's work brought him a brief brush with fame.  In 1997 two American scholars identified several fragments in the collection that Mr. Brashear cared for as belonging to a previously unknown Christian Gospel.  A bemused Mr. Brashear found himself besieged by the German media, and his picture was featured on television and on the front page of several newspapers.  Mr. Brashear dealt with the media barrage with his characteristic good humor, despite having to, in his word, "wear a tie to work for the first time in 25 years."

Mr. Brashear died in Berlin on February 2, 2000, at the age of 53.  He is survived by his mother, brother, and sister, and by a body of work that rivals that of any in his field.

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