Near what is today the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, some 1,400 years or so ago, somebody buried a whole bunch of documents in a jar.
It’s now been revealed that fragments of one of those manuscripts are somewhat different to the others in this hidden library. For one thing, they’re written in Greek rather than Coptic. But a strange sequence of dots also hints at a more didactic purpose.
The Nag Hammadi library consists of 52 texts spread through 13 leather-bound vellum codices that were discovered back in 1945 by local farmers looking for fertiliser.
Traced back to anywhere between the 2nd and 6th century CE, they are of a heretical tradition described as Gnosticism – an early, rather mystical form of Christianity.
Like so many Gnostic records, most of the documents are written in Coptic, a traditional language written and spoken in Egypt for many centuries.
At the start of 2017, religious studies researchers at The University of Texas at Austin discovered one was different to most of the others – it was a copy of an existing piece scribed in Greek.
“To say that we were excited once we realised what we’d found is an understatement,” said Geoffrey Smith, a scholar of Biblical Greek and Christian origins, in December 2017.
“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 manuscript is famous for describing a conversation between Jesus and James, who he refers to as frequently ‘my brother’. Before we get too excited about proof of siblings, he does make it clear that James is “not my brother materially“.
Nonetheless, the document is technically heretical, not being included in the Christian canon as a bonafide gospel by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who led discussions in the 4th century on what scriptures to include in the New Testament.
“The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus’s 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’s death,” says Smith.
Being written in Greek isn’t the only thing that makes it stand out.
“The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots,” said Brent Landau, a lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Texas.
“Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts.”
In other words, this version of the text was a teaching tool, probably modelling Greek for students. Most example texts are small sections of known texts – having a complete translation of the First Apocalypse of James could reflect the teacher’s love of the account.
The Nag Hammadi library holds immense importance for the understanding of Gnostic culture.
No doubt this more unusual sample will add colourful detail to our impression of the development of Christianity in the first few centuries.
The discovery was announced at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston in November 2017.
A version of this article was first published in December 2017.