The first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing describing Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James has been discovered at Oxford University by biblical scholars at The University of Texas at Austin.
The fragment from the “Gospel of James” was discovered in the Oxyrynchus Papyri Collection, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, in Oxford's Sackler Library.
Dr Dirk Obbink, a classicist at Oxford, began working on the text with Professor Geoffrey Smith of the University of Texas at Austin in 2015. Initially they thought it was a ‘lost Gospel’ in Greek.
But then Professor Smith identified the text as the Greek original of the Gospel of James, which is known from its Coptic translation in the Nag Hammadi Library – a collection of collection of 13 Coptic Gnostic books discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt.
To date, only a small number of these books have been found in Greek – their original language of composition.
“To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement,” said Professor Smith. “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 narrative describes the secret teachings of Jesus to his brother James, in which Jesus reveals information about the heavenly realm and future events, including James’ inevitable death.
“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.
With its neat, uniform handwriting and words separated into syllables, the original manuscript was probably a teacher’s model used to help students learn to read and write, Smith and Landau said.
Dr Obbink is excited about what the discovery tells us about how people engaged with these books.
“The new Gospel of James fragment shows how the early reading public interacted with different versions of the gospel: in the city centre of Oxyrhynchus [in Egypt], Greek-speaking elites read the Gospel of James in the original Greek, along-side our earliest surviving copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” he said.
“But in the rural countryside, at Nag Hammadi, it was the heretical Gospel of James that hermit monks chose to translate into Coptic for native Egyptian-speakers."
A longer report can be found on the University of Texas at Austin's website.