New light on the sayings of Jesus: A mysterious scrap of papyrus found in an obscure American journal may transform our knowledge of early Christianity
By ROBIN LANE FOX
18 May 1991
(c) 1991 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved
A THUNDERBOLT may be about to strike early Christian history. We have a new candidate for the title of the earliest surviving text of sayings ascribed to Jesus, including one never before recorded. It was written, perhaps between 100 and 125, in a language which historians had not expected, and its reappearance is a mystery which stretches from Oxford to America.
The newly-identified text was not unearthed in some ancient tomb in Egypt. It is much more mysterious than that. The claim is that it has been sitting in print, unrecognised and untranslated, since 1875. This year, it was brought to light by one Batson D. Sealing, author of several articles for Egyptological publications, who sent a photocopy, apparently from a long-forgotten journal in the US, to an Egyptological journal.
However, Sealing appears to have misunderstood completely the significance of his find. He appended a translation - which has now been proved wrong. The text he uncovered could turn out to be, not as he seems to have thought, a curiosity, but a sensation. Unfortunately, Batson D. Sealing has been unavailable at his forwarding address in Montana, and untraceable so far by letters and phone calls, so there is no easy way of checking its provenance.
The heart of the mystery is a text, apparently recorded on papyrus, which does not match any of the Four Gospels in our Bible. It overlaps with two other uncanonical Gospels, both of which are known from papyrus texts. This new find suggests that they existed earlier and in languages which scholars had never previously suspected.
A big surprise is that the new and apparently very early text, is not in Greek like the Biblical Gospels, nor even in the Aramaic which Jesus spoke. It is in Egyptian and is written in the demotic script which few could read or write in the early Christian period.
The photocopy which Sealing sent with his article is said to have been made from the original papyrus's first and very obscure appearance in print, in the Supplement to the Proceedings of the New Orleans Academy of Sciences. In 1874 to 1875, according to Sealing's photocopy, members of this Academy had been intrigued by a curious document belonging to a private collector who owed it to a distant relative's travels in the Holy Land. They wondered if it was written in Arabic or 'the Hindoo script.' They opted correctly for Egyptian, but nobody in New Orleans could make head nor tail of it. None the less, they copied the writing carefully and printed an exact sketch.
An original copy of this 1875 Supplement has now become the hottest scholarly property. No library in Britain appears to have it and so far inquiries in New Orleans and America's Library of Congress have produced no direct evidence of its survival. The text has therefore been read and identified only from Sealing's copy. The original papyrus may possibly be among the collections of the New Orleans Academy, which have passed to Tulane University in the US. However, it is not vital that the original should be discovered. The 1875 facsimile would suffice, because, as I will explain, at that time it could not have been faked.
Could it, even so, be an elaborate hoax, or an innocent mistake from a hoax begun long ago? If so, it is not an obvious one. Batson D. Sealing said in an article for Egyptologists this year that he believed that many early Egyptian texts have been slumbering in old journals, ignored by scholars. When he discovered just such a text, he tried to translate it - and got it utterly wrong. Sealing thought the text recorded the wisdom of Egypt's pagan goddess, Isis. The translation made little sense and he left it for further study.
It is not surprising that Sealing made such an error, because the demotic script is extremely difficult and only about 25 people in the world work in the field. Indeed, it took a combination of expertise and a lucky inspiration in Oxford High Street to unlock the secret.
In January, Sealing's version and copy of the text reached an Oxford academic journal, which passed it on to Mark Smith, Oxford University's 39-year-old lecturer in Ancient Egyptian and Coptic Studies. Without a sudden clue from Coptic, it is highly unlikely that anyone could have seen the text's true significance.
Smith received the copy in the Ashmolean Museum, gave it a preliminary look and set off on a usual academic exercise, the walk to lunch in his college. As he passed the learned bastion of All Souls he was struck by a sudden flash of recognition. The lettering in Sealing's text did not refer to Isis but to Isses or Issa (Jesus). In another flash, something about its form struck him.
Smith sometimes tests students with a Coptic papyrus of an enigmatic work, known as the Gospel of Thomas. This lists 114 odd sayings introduced with the words 'Jesus said' or 'He said'. Exactly the same phrase introduced the sentences in Sealing's find. In Oxford High Street he had unlocked the riddle of a text which baffled students 100 years ago. It matched bits of the Gospel of Thomas, but, crucially, it appears much older and was written in a different Egyptian script.
The realisation did not interrupt Smith's lunch, at which he remarked to the Chaplain of University College that he believed he had just identified a text purporting to give bits of Jesus's sayings in Egyptian from the Gospel of Thomas.
So Batson D. Sealing's text of the 'wisdom of Isis' turns out to be something very different: 'The secret sayings which the living Jesus speaks and Dhutmose writes.' The text is only a fragment of a bigger whole. Of the ten sayings, it attributes to Jesus, eight are found almost in the same words in a later Egyptian papyrus of the Gospel of Thomas. One saying is a 'first,' unattested anywhere else.
Papyri in the demotic script can usually be dated only by the writing style. We still have only a copy of a drawing of the text purported to have been made in 1874; however, Smith and others are independently convinced that the closest parallel is a well-known papyrus, now in Leiden, Netherlands, which is usually dated to the early 2nd Century. The new text, if genuine, was copied between c100-125.
There are only two other papyri of Christian Gospels at such an early date: a fragment of the Fourth Gospel (now in Manchester) and the bit of the unknown Gospel, now in London. Many scholars have dated the Gospel of Thomas no earlier than c. 140-200 and have assumed it was first written in Aramaic. If the new text can be verified as being considerably earlier, the fact that the language is different will cast an important new light on the Gospel of Thomas.
However, Smith says: 'I should be totally satisfied that the text is genuine only if it could be proven beyond doubt that the facsimile reproduced by Sealing appeared in print as early as 1875.' At that date nobody knew any relevant part of the Gospel of Thomas, so the text could not have been forged.
So we are confronted with a mystery. In the hope that it can be solved, I will discuss the implications of the text as if it is genuine.
First, how did it come to be written in a language which scholars would previously not have expected? Christianity is thought to have passed from the Aramaic spoken in the Holy Land into Greek: then from Greek into non-classical languages in Egypt and elsewhere. Tradition says Christianity arrived in Egypt with St Mark. The new text would suggest very early Christian preaching in the Egyptian language. The demotic script was used chiefly by Egypt's priests in a pagan temple. We may have to imagine a pagan priest, bored with his father's traditional way of doing things, who read and wrote secret sayings of Jesus on long Egyptian evenings.
Then, who was Dhutmose? The name means 'born of Thoth,' the Egyptian god of wisdom. We certainly had not expected that the earliest record of Jesus's words might be circulating under a pagan Egyptian's authority. Could Dhutmose have been the first Egyptian Christian author, or was his name added to give greater authority to the text?
Eight of the new text's sayings of Jesus (panel, top right) appear in the 'Gospel of Didymus Judas Thomas,' found in a 4th century Coptic papyrus. There is no narrative, but 114 sayings are ascribed to Jesus. One theme is that you and I are potentially twins of Jesus; Didymus means 'twin' in Greek. The new find shows a much earlier stage in this Gospel's life and may help us to understand its curious title. During the 2nd Century, other Gospels were credited with named authors, many of them apostles. The name Dhutmose sounds quite like Didymus Thomas in Egyptian. Was this old batch of sayings in Egyptian ascribed to the apostle Thomas?
As for the sayings themselves, for the first time we are told that Jesus said: 'Taste, and you will say the Lord is sweet.' In other Gospels, Jesus says things about eating his body and drinking wine or living water. This new saying is almost a quotation of Psalm 33.8: if it stood in one of our four Gospels, it would be quoted as proof that Jesus knew and used the psalms.
We are also told: 'Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience the taste of death,' and 'Let the one who seeks cease seeking until he finds.' For the first time, an odd saying in our later Gospel of Thomas becomes clear. Seekers for Jesus are not to go on seeking, but must stop seeking: then they will 'find' him, presumably by a revelation.
Did Jesus actually say these things? In the 1950s, the 114 sayings in the later text of the Thomas Gospel started a controversy: a minority still argues that some are 'more authentic' than similar sayings, printed in our Biblical Gospels. Most remember the weirder sayings and curious tone and dismiss them as fiction. The right inference, I think, may be rather different.
Like our four recognised Gospels, the Thomas Gospel has been shaped to convey particular themes. We cannot choose individual sayings and claim these are authentic. All the Gospels contain more of what Jesus was remembered, or was believed, to have meant, rather than what he actually said. The new text is further evidence for that varied, early meaning.
If the text is genuine, I would guess that the fragment came from a larger papyrus containing most of the other sayings in the later papyrus of the Thomas Gospel, and it could have important implications for our understanding of early Christian writing. If it is not authentic, quite another story remains to be told.
The Papyrus Writings
These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus speaks and Dhutmose writes.
1. He said: Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience the taste of death.
2. Jesus said: Let the one who seeks cease seeking until he finds and when he finds he will be disturbed and will marvel and become ruler over the all.
3. Jesus uttered this statement while looking at the rulers of the people: Make enquiry of the scriptures, from whom you think you possess life. They are the ones who bear witness about me.
4. Jesus said: Whoever seeks will find (it). Whoever knocks will be let in.
5. He said: Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him.
6. Jesus said: Love your brother like your soul. Guard him like your eye.
7. He said: I have cast fire upon the all. Behold, I guard it until it . . .
8. He said: The one who knows them (?) will not experience the taste of death . . .
9. Jesus said: Whoever has ears, let him hear (it). Whoever . . .
10. He said: Taste and you will say the lord is sweet.
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