At the University of Oxford, two biblical scholars are hard at work investigating ancient fragments of scripture. And one particular find stands out during the course of the academics’ efforts: a piece of text that at first they believe to be a “lost Gospel” of the New Testament. But while this isn’t quite the case, the duo have still uncovered something special. Astonishingly, they have found an ancient copy of the heretical First Apocalypse of James – an account of Jesus’ lessons to his brother.
The document is of a considerable vintage, too, as it’s believed to be 1,500 years old or more. But that’s not the only reason why it’s noteworthy. You see, the fragment also appears to be in Greek – the language in which the story of the First Apocalypse was originally composed.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Dr. Dirk Obbink and Professor Geoffrey Smith were the ones who stumbled upon this incredible item, and what they discovered is of great importance. You see, not only does this rare manuscript bear text in the Greek language, but it also appears to feature teachings that Jesus is said to have once given to his brother. And the theological implications of the find could therefore prove to be very significant indeed.
But first, let’s consider the notion that Jesus actually had a sibling – something that may not be known by everyone. You see, the New Testament does in fact refer to “brothers” of Jesus: Simon, Judas, Joseph and James. The scripture also alludes to “sisters” – though these women are never actually referred to by name.
However, a number of Christian denominations – including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church – believe that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a virgin both before and after Christ’s birth. According to these branches of the faith, then, the Son of God couldn’t have had any biological brothers or sisters.
And the men and women mentioned in the New Testament may not actually have been full siblings of Jesus. They could potentially have been children from a former relationship between Jesus’ father, Joseph, and another woman, for instance. Alternatively, these so-called brothers and sisters may instead have been merely nephews and nieces of Joseph or Mary.
Such confusion may simply have arisen as a result of poor translation throughout the centuries. You see, the words in the New Testament that have come to be interpreted as “brother” and “sister” actually mean a variety of things in the original language in which they were written. In the end, then, there could well have been some misinterpretation down the line.
But the fact that brothers and sisters are referenced at all in the Bible suggests that these individuals had a particularly close relationship to Jesus – regardless of whether they were actual siblings. Some experts have posited, then, that these people were once important figures of early Christianity.
For instance, a figure known as James the Just is named in the New Testament as being a “brother” of Jesus. It’s also known that James was influential during his lifetime – and that’s the case whether he was a brother, a half-sibling, a cousin or merely a close associate of Christ.
In particular, James is said to have been at the helm of the Jerusalem Church. And, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Book of Acts, the holy city was apparently the site of the first-ever religious monument to be dedicated to the Christian faith – making James somewhat of a pioneer.
James’ importance is only thought to have increased, too, when his namesake, the Apostle St. James was killed – apparently at the behest of King Herod Agrippa I of Judea. St. Peter also left Jerusalem in around this period, leaving James to further consolidate his power.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church explains James’ significance further, revealing that he was “from an early date, with Peter, a leader of the Church at Jerusalem. And from the time when [he] left Jerusalem after Herod Agrippa’s attempt to kill him, James appears as the principal authority who presided at the Council of Jerusalem.”
Mentions of James also crop up within the Gospels of Luke, Mark and Matthew as well as the Acts of the Apostles. He is also alluded to in the Pauline epistles and appears within works by the ancient historians Jerome and Eusebius.
And, naturally, the erstwhile leader of the Jerusalem Church plays a critical role in the First Apocalypse of James – a section of the New Testament apocrypha. The apocrypha are a collection of texts that are said to have been composed during Christianity’s beginnings and which frequently speak of Jesus and his apostles.
In fact, certain parts of the New Testament apocrypha were once touted as being true Christian scripture. From about the fifth century onward, however, only a limited range of texts became largely accepted within the religion. As such, then, many of Christianity’s major denominations don’t regard the apocrypha as official writings.
Indeed, at one time, the New Testament apocrypha were believed to be heretical. In essence, they were deemed to contain religious ideas and points of view that exist in contradiction to the agreed consensus. And a person who stood by such nonconformist beliefs could – for several centuries, at least – have been labeled as a heretic.
Interestingly, though, there’s a simple reason why the New Testament apocryphal texts are said to be heretical. You see, a man named Athanasius the Great – who served as the 20th bishop of Alexandria during the fourth century A.D. – didn’t consider them to be official doctrine.
Notably, Athanasius is believed to have chosen the 27 books of the New Testament that are still used today. And in 367 A.D. the religious man clearly laid out his opinion on his picks, writing, “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”
Before Athanasius’ ruling, there had been much debate regarding what should be deemed an official part of the New Testament and what would be omitted. And if different decisions had ultimately been made, then some of the apocrypha may well have been included in the Bible.
So, how were the New Testament books chosen? Well, broadly speaking, the earliest texts about Jesus made the cut. Other documents, by contrast, were deemed as being apocryphal and often prevented from reaching the masses. And owing to the fact that these manuscripts were often less well-preserved than their more legitimate counterparts, they typically only exist today as incomplete documents.
But there may still be a lot that we can glean from the apocrypha. For example, the four official gospels included within the New Testament tend to ignore the younger years of Jesus’ life. However, details of this period can be found in other texts that weren’t officially accepted by Christian officials.
The First Apocalypse of James is just one such example, with its narrative focusing around conversations that were supposedly held between the book’s namesake and Jesus. And as we’ll soon discover, the document not only speaks about the afterlife, but it also mentions visions of the future.
Interestingly, though, the First Apocalypse of James was actually uncovered relatively recently. Alongside 52 other documents, a man named Mohammad Ali al-Samman found the text in December 1945. This copy of the First Apocalypse – which had been worded in Coptic – was discovered in a community in Egypt called Nag Hammadi. Another Coptic version of the script was later found, too.
Then, in 2017, the First Apocalypse hit the headlines once more. This time, though, the fragment found was in Greek – the language in which the piece of apocrypha had originally been written. And the important artifact had actually been unearthed within a collection of other texts known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri were originally discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries. Only around 10 percent of these manuscripts are literary documents, though, with many of the others relating to taxes, trading or censuses. And while most of the texts were composed in Greek, some were written in other languages such as Latin and Arabic.
What’s more, experts have been trying to put some order to the Oxyrhynchus Papyri for over 120 years now. But while more than 5,000 of these fragments have since been analyzed, this number reportedly represents up to only 2 percent of the total works that need to be translated and sorted through. Many of the pieces of text are apparently tiny, too – coming in at no more than an inch or two each.
In 2015, though, the scraps that feature the First Apocalypse of James in Greek were discovered at the University of Oxford’s Sackler Library. And this was all down to Obbink and Smith – the biblical scholars who had been sifting through the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
This document was originally created, it’s said, in the fifth or sixth century A.D. And based on the manner in which the fragment was written, experts believe that it may have once been used for the purposes of teaching someone how to understand and compose the written word.
Brent Landau is among those who suggest that this particular copy may have been an educational document. In 2017 the University of Texas at Austin lecturer told the college’s website, “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.”
Landau went on to characterize the scribe of this Greek version of the First Apocalypse of James, saying that they would likely have “had a particular affinity for the text.” And the academic reached this conclusion from the length of the writings. You see, while most teachers would only have utilized a brief passage of the work, this document presented it in full.
And while reflecting on the discovery that he had helped to make, Smith said to the University of Oxford’s website, “To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement. We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James [had] survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us.”
So, what exactly does the First Apocalypse of James reveal? Well, in general, it speaks of some of the lessons that Jesus supposedly bestowed upon James. There are mentions of heaven along with some prophecies in the text – even a reference to James’ own demise.
The account primarily takes the form of a discussion between Jesus and James, although the bottom of the script also features a section that vaguely alludes to James’ fate. And though this part of the document is a little fragmented, it’s believed to suggest that James will be crucified.
In fact, the initial section of the text speaks about James’ understandable worries of crucifixion. Ultimately, though, it’s said that he will receive “passwords” that will apparently allow the religious leader to overcome evil adversaries and get into heaven.
The document also tells us a little bit about James himself. According to the text, he was the leader of the Christian church in its initial stages. His relationship to Jesus is made explicit, too, when Christ is quoted as saying, “You are not my brother materially.”
Smith has elaborated on the importance of this narrative, explaining to the University of Oxford’s website, “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.”
Obbink, who had worked with Smith on the text, was also thrilled by the discovery of this Greek version of the First Apocalypse of James. And according to the academic, the document gives us an intriguing window into how readers engaged with scripture in the past.
Obbink told the University of Oxford that the writings “[show] how the early reading public interacted with different versions of the gospel. In the city center of Oxyrhynchus [in Egypt], Greek-speaking elites read the Gospel of James in the original Greek – alongside our earliest surviving copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
According to Obbink, though, things were different for people who lived outside of the urban centers. He added, “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.” So, people of the period apparently soaked up information in varying ways.
The discovery of this Greek-language section of the First Apocalypse of James was first announced in November 2017 at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston. And there may be further revelations to come, too. Ultimately, you see, Landau and Smith intend to publish their initial discoveries on the subject in the Egypt Exploration Society’s Graeco-Roman Memoirs series.