After years of lying in a dusty archive, two biblical scholars have discovered a rare Greek copy of a heretical Christian text describing Jesus’ secret teachings to his "brother" James. The discovered text is one of the only copies of this early Christian story that is written in Greek, the original language of composition.
Over 1,400 years ago, a collection of Coptic Gnostic texts were buried in Upper Egypt. They remained lost for centuries until archeologists unearthed 13 of the books containing the 52 texts in 1945, now known as the Nag Hammadi library. Scholars have studied these documents for years, however two researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have somehow stumbled across a text that evaded their attention. Within the archives at Oxford University in the UK, they found one of the only known copies of the First Apocalypse of James that's not written in its later Coptic translation.
“To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement,” Geoffrey Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies, said in a statement. “We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us.”
“The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus’ life and ministry by allowing us access to conversations that purportedly took place between Jesus and his brother, James – secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus’ death,” Smith said.
The two researchers believe this original manuscript was perhaps used by a teacher to train students how to read and write, as the handwriting is unusually neat and the words are separated into syllables.
“The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots. Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts,” added Brent Landau, the other half of the duo.
This text would have been considered heretical from the 4th century CE onwards. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, set strict guidelines of what can and cannot be included in the New Testament, saying: "No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them."
As such, this text would not have been viewed kindly at the time. Nevertheless, the researchers note that the original scribe appeared to have "had a particular affinity for the text."