The earliest copy of a biblical text describing secret writings from Jesus to his brother James has been discovered at Oxford University.
The Greek text, known as the First Apocalypse of James, was recently found by biblical scholars at the University of Texas at Austin. The researchers, Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau, say the fragments date back to the fifth or sixth century and show purported teachings from Jesus to his brother that didn’t make it into the modern Bible.
“To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement,” said Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies. “We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us.”
This is just another example of an ancient Christian text that was left out of the Bible when certain authorities said that it didn’t fit with the rest of the narrative. Another famous is instance of this is the “forgotten gospel” of Thomas, a sayings text that contains 114 sayings attributed to Jesus.
This one is a little different, though, because James is a contested character in Christianity. He is mentioned as the brother of Jesus, even in the canonical texts, but there is some debate over whether or not he was actually his brother (as opposed to a close friend or cousin).
This discovery confirms that the teachings from Jesus to his brother are older than previously expected, meaning it was probably common knowledge that Jesus had at least one sibling, according to the original story. In the text, Jesus reveals information about the future, about heaven, and about James’ impending 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.
Such apocryphal writings, Smith said, would have fallen outside the canonical boundaries set by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his “Easter letter of 367” that defined the 27-book New Testament: “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”
The text was apparently a “teacher’s model” with separated syllables, which is unique for ancient manuscripts. Landau says the teacher must have had a “particular affinity” for the forbidden ancient writing, since it was produced in full despite being deemed “heretical.”
The biggest thing believers can learn from this discovery is not that Jesus had a brother – that is a pretty inconsequential part of the story. Instead, Christians should understand that the Bible was put together in a partly arbitrary manner, with people in councils deciding which books are legitimate and which are not. Fortunately, people like this teacher preserved some of these writings, and we can now see even more pieces of the Christian puzzle.
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