Last week, a number of news outlets proclaimed the discovery of a new extra-Biblical text detailing the relationship between Jesus and his brother James. At a conference of Biblical scholars held in Boston in mid-November, University of Texas-Austin scholars Brent Landau and Geoffrey Smith described how they had unearthed the first Greek copy of the unorthodox text the First Apocalypse of James, “an ancient Christian narrative in which Jesus reveals to his brother James information about the heavenly realm and about future events.” And who doesn’t want to know the secrets Jesus passed on to his family members?
Sadly, what was significant about this discovery got lost in reporting. Whatever you might have heard, Landau and Smith did not discover (or claim to discover) a previously unknown text. Instead, they discovered the first Greek manuscript of a text previously known only from copies in Coptic that are presumed to have been translated from the Greek original. Having a copy of the text in the original language makes it easier for scholars to piece together the text’s history. Landau told The Daily Beast that the “probable” date of the fragments is the fifth or sixth century, which makes them “roughly contemporaneous” with the Coptic texts we already have.
The Greek of the First Apocalypse of James was discovered in the Oxyrhynchus collection, a famous group of papyrus fragments found by Grenfell and Hunt in an ancient trash heap in Egypt in the late nineteenth century. The collection is now housed at the University of Oxford. These particular fragments had been stored with a cluster of other Christian texts in the office of Oxford professor Dirk Obbink.
It was only when Obbink invited Smith to try to identify some of them that the fragments were discovered. The other two Coptic copies of the text were found as part of collections famous for their heretical leanings: one is part of the famous ‘Gnostic’ Nag Hammadi Collection and the other is in the Codex Tchacos, the book that also contained the notorious Gospel of Judas.
For much of the sixty years since the First Apocalypse of James was discovered among the Nag Hammadi texts it has been attributed to an ancient group of Christians known to their opponents as the ‘Gnostics.’ According to Christian tradition, Gnostics believed that the material world was created by an inferior and malicious deity, that gnosis (‘knowledge’) would help enlighten Christians to escape this world and return to the real transcendent deity, that suffering and martyrdom should be avoided, and that the body was useless and irrelevant.
Recent scholarship has questioned the accuracy of this caricature and suggested instead that the Gnostics were philosophically inclined Christians who were in many ways identical to their more orthodox counterparts (others have questioned if Gnostics existed at all as an identifiable group and argue that the term is just a polemical invention).
As scholars have begun to re-examine the content of Gnosticism, our impression of the First Apocalypse of James has changed. According to the stereotype, Gnostics are supposed to want to avoid martyrdom. But as Harvard-educated scholar Mikael Haxby showed in his important doctoral thesis, the First Apocalypse of James found in the Codex Tchacos not only discusses martyrdom, it sees it as something to be embraced should the situation arise.
Interestingly the new Greek version, which follows the Codex Tchacos text quite closely, seems to present some more orthodox readings. At one point where the Codex Tchacos reads “holy seed,” the Greek version has “holy spirit.”
Landau told The Daily Beast, “Talk of a holy or divine seed… was common in the second and third centuries among Christians like the author of the First Apocalypse of James who wanted to find ways to emphasize the continuity between God and humanity. But the change to ‘Holy Spirit’ in the Greek fragments suggests that a later scribe wanted to bring the text into conformity with the emerging Trinitarian theology of the day.”
What the text shows, therefore, is that the dividing line between orthodox books and heretical books was not so sharply drawn: whoever edited the Greek copy of this work wanted to make it more acceptable to orthodox Christians. One imagines that the scribe would not have bothered if orthodox Christians outright rejected the First Apocalypse of James. Changes like this give us a glimpse into the interactions between the supposedly separate “orthodox” and “Gnostic” Christians. Smith added, “We find similar theologically motivated changes in other so-called Gnostic texts.” All of which is evidence, he said, “that Christian writings were not static, but living texts subject to change.”
Arguably the most interesting thing about the Greek fragments is that the syllables of the words are divided up by mid-dots. This is a rare feature of ancient manuscripts in general, but was much more common in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts to help students learn to read. In their paper, Landau and Smith persuasively argue that the Greek manuscript “was a teacher’s model, prepared by a teacher to assist more advanced students in learning to copy and read literary texts.”
Even for a teacher’s manual, it is still unusual: ordinarily these manuals include snippets of prominent texts like Homer’s Iliad. A manual that included an entire and more obscure text like the First Apocalypse of James is unexpected. Landau and Smith suggest that perhaps the teacher had a particular affinity for this document, but perhaps we can infer something more about early Christian life in Egypt.
It seems that late antique Christians were learning to read using “heretical” but theologically cleaned-up texts. The importance of education in the shaping of character and identity was as important in the ancient world as it is today, so it is fascinating that in learning to read Egyptian Christians were being initiated into the world of letters by these marginal texts. Arguably, Landau and Smith have discovered a new piece of evidence about how Christians were made.