The first original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing, which describes Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James, has been discovered in Oxford.
The discovery, made by Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau of the University of Texas at Austin, is particularly significant because it was previously thought that only Coptic translations of the apocryphal Gospel still existed.
“To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement,” Dr Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies at UTA, 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 ancient manuscript, written in the fifth or sixth century, describes secret revelations made by Jesus to his brother James about the heavenly realm and future events. These include Jesus telling James that they are both predestined to die violently, though he stresses that death is nothing to be feared.
“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.
Such apocryphal writings fell outside the canonical boundaries set by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his “Easter letter of 367” that defined the 27-book New Testament. This led to the destruction of many ancient apocryphal texts, including copies of the First Apocalypse of James.
“This new discovery is significant in part because it demonstrates that Christians were still reading and studying extra-canonical writings long after Christian leaders deemed them heretical,” Smith said.
Smith and Landau discovered the fragments among the unpublished Oxyrhynchus papyri housed in the Sackler Library at Oxford University, which is owned and overseen by the Egypt Exploration Society.
The collection comprises thousands of papyrus texts from ancient Oxyrhynchus and other sites in Egypt and is the largest collection of papyri in the world.
The First Apocalypse of James fragments were unearthed in 1904/5 from the city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.
The team who excavated this site from 1896-1907, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, unearthed upwards of 200,000 papyrus fragments and sent them back to Oxford to await publication. To date, only about 5300 have been published.
Edward Scrivens, Ashmoleon Junior Teaching Fellow, told Cherwell: “This discovery reminds us of the importance of the collections we have here in Oxford. Our libraries and museums contain so much material that we don’t even necessarily know everything that’s in them.
“It’s moments like this that remind those of us who study the past that it can be just as important to ‘excavate’ in the archive as the trench, and to responsibly use and care for what we find there.”