The Berlin Gospel - 'Gospel of the Savior': A
(Some notes by an interested amateur on P. Berolinensis 22220)
[Were you looking for the Gospel of Judas page?]
A couple of American scholars found some fragments of a Coptic manuscript in a museum in Berlin some years ago. The story hit the news media early in 1997, and some vague and rather tendentious reports made. The story was reported as a 'new gospel'. Since then, the work has been edited, and the threatened media campaign has not materialised.
This page was first produced a couple of years ago as a service to those interested in new discoveries of manuscripts who might well be put off by the tone of the reportage. As such it is perhaps more forthright than I would now write, but I leave it here because I think it still has a contribution to make to its intended audience. I may rewrite it as and when I have read more of the literature.
A disclaimer: I am not a professional, I read little Greek and no Coptic or Syriac, and my own background is that of a Christian amateur interested in the transmission of texts from antiquity, and particularly of the Latin texts. My interest in New Testament Apocrypha has not been developed as I would like, for lack of time, and I'm afraid I find Gnosticism boring. However I am conscious of a large population on the Internet who are even less learned than myself, and for whom some notes might well prove useful.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: THE PRESS ANNOUNCEMENTS UPDATES REVIEW OF THE PUBLISHED BOOK AFTERWORD
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: THE PRESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
A couple of American scholars found some fragments of a Coptic manuscript in a museum in Berlin some years ago. The story hit the news media early in 1997, and some vague and rather tendentious reports made. Here is what I have:
How much faith can we place in these reports? Well, a certain amount. The facts of the story appear to be this:
In 1991, Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, located a Coptic manuscript in the Egyptian museum in Berlin. At some subsequent period the manuscript was also noticed by Charles Hedrick, a religious studies professor at Southwest Missouri State University in the United States, and after a chance meeting at a professional convention in 1995 in Philadelphia the two decided to collaborate. A book was projected for summer 1997 from Brill Publishers in the Netherlands, and Mirecki said he will present a paper on his findings at an academic symposium in November (1997) in San Francisco.
The manuscript is on parchment ('calfskin'), and consists of 15 pages, evidently from a codex, which have suffered fire damage at some point in their history. William Brashear, the museum director, said the museum had acquired the manuscript in 1967, probably from a private antiquities dealer. The MS is apparently 'crumpled', and some of the pieces are the size of postage stamps. The pages are conserved between glass.
The paleography suggests the MS was written in the fourth or fifth century (but see below). Apparently Mirecki has also claimed a first or second century date for composition.
Mirecki and Hedrick have produced an English translation, and a theory of how the fragments go together.
The MS contains a number of sayings placed by the author in the mouth of Jesus - rather like the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. According to Mirecki:
'It's a non-orthodox text ... Salvation comes to these people through knowledge rather than faith... They see orthodox Jews and Christians as being duped by the evil creator of the material universe.... For example, one passage unique to the gospel reads, "I have overcome the Cosmos, so don't let the Cosmos overcome you."'
So what can we say about all this?
The document would appear to be an example of the texts produced by groups classified under the name of 'Gnostics' (from gnosis, knowledge) by the early church. Eusebius after listing the books of the new testament mentions a number of forgeries by the heretics in the names of various apostles1. Irenaeus 2 is familiar with the process, and documents the church's response - to demand some kind of evidence that it was known to the apostles, or any of the churches founded by them, and some evidence that the text squares with the known teaching of those apostles. The Gnostic response was to acknowledge that the books did not meet this test, but to claim that the works had been delivered by the apostle in question secretly to trusted associates. These works invariably say that salvation is available only through secret knowledge. The exact teachings of the various groups varied wildly. Tertullian suggested that the real origin of most of these teachings was from contemporary philosophical speculation, which would appear to be correct.3
These documents all appear to date from the second century, the heyday of Gnosticism.4 There is no literary evidence of Gnostic gospel-production any earlier than this (and the archaeology is unconvincing), and the references in Eusebius and Irenaeus all suggest a second century date. However if we see in the references to Gnosticism a tendancy to import elements from contemporary thought into Christianity, the process may have begun quite early, as Paul refers to people apostasising in his letters, which usually means the watering-down of Christian beliefs by the admixture of external ideas. Eusebius again tells us that John had to deal with a heretic called Cerinthus, often regarded as the first Gnostic5, so a late first century date would not be entirely impossible for such a document. However it might be questioned whether the church was sufficiently far from the apostles in the first century for a forged document to have any chance of convincing church members. We really do not know, we have no evidence, and as such speculation is worthless.
A couple of caveats need to be made against some of the statements attributed to Mirecki, for the benefit of the lay reader:
For most of the last 150 years, there has been a persistent tendency among New Testament scholars attempt to date the New Testament as late as possible, and all heretical works as early as possible6. This has occasionally had risible results - the standard dating of John to 160+AD was accidentally demolished by the discovery of a fragment dating to around 125AD7. But the trend is still in force, as may be seen from the articles cited above, and so the dates given by Mirecki (if he really said this: see my quote from Hedrick) should be treated with caution. Dating of manuscripts is a subjective business, even without an axe to grind. Dating the (non-existent) original of a n-times removed copy might be described best as speculation, without any other evidence.
Another unfortunate trend is to attempt to undermine any ancient statement which would tend to support the statements of the early church, and accept fairly uncritically every statement which contradicts it, or rubbishes the church. The articles given demonstrate the same tendency still at work, and if genuine the statements made are rather curious. For instance, we can have no actual idea how the MS came to be fire damaged, since the provenance of the fragments is stated as unknown, but the article does not hesitate to give one anyway. Any student of paleography would know that accidental fires are the primary cause for this sort of damage, in the pre-lightbulb era, and we have far more copious documentation of destruction of libraries by accidental fires than by official action8. This is the sort of statement that (if genuine) leads the layman to question the objectivity of some of this scholarship9.
The articles from the press are excerpted above. Other sources:
1. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, Book III, ch 25 refers to the 'forgeries of heretics' and lists some of their 'gospels'. Available in Penguin Classics, translated by G.R.Williamson, and indispensable to anyone interested in the early church. It was written mostly around 314AD, and incorporates vast extracts of long vanished documents from the earliest times. Eusebius had access to the library of Caesarea accumulated by Origen and Pamphilus, containing many fabulously rare documents.
2. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses. I don't have the reference for this, but you can find it in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Email me when you get it, if you would. I remember reading it, but didn't keep the ref. Probably written around 180AD(ish).
3. Adversus Valentinianos. See the Tertullian Project for more.
4. Gnosticism can be seen as a pre-Christian movement, whose essential themes (without reference to Christ) were kicking around (Quasten, Patrology, I, p254ff) at the time of the apostles. But the term as used by Christians refers to second century movements. Basilides was active from the time of Hadrian on (120AD+), and after him Valentinus and so forth. Of course it may merely mean that the first century Gnostics were so obscure, or disorganised, that no reference to them has survived. There is no evidence, you see...
Gnosticism has become fashionable in our day, so there is plenty about it on the 'net, considering how little we know about it. Now as then, syncretism was popular in a comfortable society looking for a god in its own image. Tertullian makes the comparison between the heaven of the Gnostics and an appartment building in Rome, the Insula Felicles and suggests that the one may owe more to the other than anything else (Adv. Valent. 6).
It's interesting to see how Gnosticism fell out of favour at more or less the same time as law and order in Roman society began to collapse in the third century. Perhaps it had nothing to offer those facing hardship as society changed.
5. Eusebius, III, 28 tells the story of how the apostle went to the baths, and exited hurriedly when Cerinthus came in, on the basis that Cerinthus was so much the enemy of truth that the roof might fall in. Quasten classifies him as a Gnostic.
6. It is not easy for an interested layman to reach any other conclusion after comparison is made between the way in which New Testament documents are handled, and, say, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas has been handled in recent years. A century ago, Alexander Souter, in his book The Text and Canon of the New Testament remarked that "One might say that there has been rather an attempt to level up outside writings ... to a canonical level...". (p204, 1912).
7. It is curious how little effect this episode seems to have had on the manner in which New Testament studies are carried on. Surely a clear demonstration of a methodological problem in this manner should have provoked some serious self-criticism? Curiously, some modern books slur over the episode, and play down how much the late date of John was unquestioned, but look at H.I. Bell, Recent Discoveries in Biblical Papyri, 1936 for a view immediately after the event - although Bell was involved in the publication of P52, and an excellent scholar.
8. Of course any balanced writer is aware that the destruction of written matter deemed inimical to the well-being or safety of the state has been a feature of all governments, including modern democracies, from the remotest antiquity. An age that is enacting laws against 'racist' material can hardly object to other societies banning material they find objectionable! No doubt it is possible that the MS did meet an official book-burner. In the desperate days at the end of antiquity the pagan Roman government saw no reason not to order the destruction of subversive material - Diocletian ordered the destruction of Christian books and Egyptian books of alchemy (vide Forbes, below) - and this practice was continued under Christian emperors with reference to currently active subversive movements, as testified by Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 3.66 and Codex Theodosianus, 220.127.116.11. (Refs not checked). But the suppression of books really belongs to the era of the printed book, because the suppression of a press is a feasible activity, rather than to the autograph era, when any reader could be a copyist. In the absence of evidence, I'm afraid I cannot support the willingness to use the word 'probably' and thereby to encourage a negative stereotype of Christians.
An overview of book-burning across the field of antiquity is given by C.A.Forbes, Book for the Burning, Transactions of the American Philological Association 67 (1936), pp. 114-125, who is hardly more sympathetic to Christian claims but far more balanced.
9. I gather that the "sterility of New Testament studies" has become something of a commonplace, as is the case with any subject where the data base is static, but the academic 'machine' demands the production of new ideas for PhD theses, articles, etc. See W.H.C. Frend, The Archaeology of Early Christianity, 1996, for a limited discussion. (Again I don't have the page number - I was in a hotel when I read it! If you have it, please email me. Eventually I'll reread it myself, so if you can wait...). See also the introduction to the Penguin edition of Herodotus by A.R. Burn, quoting A.W. Gomme, for the same problem afflicting the classics.
Update: A book Gospel of the Savior: A New Ancient Gospel, by Charles W Hendrick and Paul Mirecki. Publication date April 1999, Publisher Polebridge Press ISBN 0944344682 has apparently now appeared, and can be found on Amazon although it may be cheaper elsewhere. Thanks to Raymond J. Fisher for the notice. I'll try to get hold of this and update this page in due course.
From their list given above, it seems that Polebridge Press were inter alia primarily the publishers of material from something known as the Jesus Seminar which toured the US a few years ago, and about which there seem to be a large number of pages on the 'net.
Update: Both Paul Mirecki and Charles W. Hedrick now have personal web pages:
Dr. Mirecki's includes a useful bibliography of his papers and links to other organisations that he supports or in which he is interested, some of which sadly seem to be campaigning anti-Christian groups. The following paper would appear to be the formal academic announcement of the discovery: (22) 07/96 "A Preliminary Report on Coptic Codex P. Berol. 22220" co-authored by myself and C. W. Hedrick (who read the joint paper at the Sixth Conference of the International Association for Coptic Studies, Münster, Germany. There are no publication details for this paper, however. Dr Mirecki describes himself as follows: Professor Mirecki is an active member of several international scholarly societies, has convened nine international academic conferences, and regularly searches European and American museum collections for unstudied ancient manuscripts which he prepares for publication. It is encouraging to see someone doing this long overdue work. His bibliography includes references to other Coptic MSS and Manichean discoveries.
Dr. Hedrick's is more general. However it refers to his book as follows: "The Gospel of the Savior is the first publication of a new gospel manuscript in Coptic whose composition dates before the latter half of the second century C.E." This is much more careful than the media reports on which this page is based, and tends to suggest that the media reports have been somewhat sensationalised. The same report is listed as "A Preliminary Report on Coptic Codex P. Berol. Inv. 22220" in Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses(to appear).
I really must make the time to read this book and some of Dr Mirecki's papers also look interesting.
Update: I have now read Gospel of the Savior. Here's a quick review:
GOSPEL OF THE SAVIOR - A REVIEW
To my surprise this is not a popularisation but the editio princeps of the text, and a piece of sound textual scholarship. Speculation is kept to a minimum, Christian-baiting is omitted, and the emphasis is on providing the data to the scholarly community. The introduction, transcription and translation are by Prof. Hedrick; the commentary by Dr. Mirecki, but both take responsibility for each other's contribution, and the 'join' is not really visible. Full monochrome photographs are provided, and a critical apparatus. There is a distinct tendency to avoid making judgements on points of detail. The editors are clearly aware that any such discussion would render their book obsolete within a year or two as the issues are thrashed out. There is an excellent section on the codicology. It is difficult not to be impressed at the skill with which the jigsaw puzzle has been put together. Interestingly some of the fragments bear Coptic page numbers - 99, 100, etc - which indicates the text comes from a larger volume. The translation is literalist, which is very welcome, and the text and translation laid out opposite each other in the diplomatic manner. The commentary attempts to elucidate the meaning of the fragments, and likewise avoids large and loose conclusions.
Issues of dating are addressed very tentatively. The book is parchment, in quires, written in a polished Sahidic Coptic, and displays some skill in codex making. Analysis of letter forms suggests a date between the 4th-7th centuries - perhaps most likely somewhere in the middle. The book has suffered damage by fire, but no comment is made about this. The text seems to make use of both Matthew and John, with an occasional echo of Luke, and reflects the Coptic text of these works. There is a reference to 'Aeons', the 'Pleroma', and other general Gnostic indicators, e.g. 'Do not let matter rule over you' (p.98 line 44 of the codex/p.31). The editors feel that the 'latest date for its original composition is probably in the late second century' (p.2), although they fail to make quite clear why. However a second century date for the work seems quite reasonable, in view of the definite but unfocused nature of the Gnosticism in the surviving fragments, which I suspect is the basis for their statement. There is a general smattering of Greek words throughout the codex. A very careful paragraph (pp.12-13) discusses evidence for one Coptic word being a too literal mistranslation of a Greek idiom and so 'implies that the Gospel of the Savior is based on an earlier Greek original subsequently translated into Coptic'. The scholarly refusal here to say too more than the evidence demands, combined with the solid scholarship underlying it, makes very pleasant reading.
There are full references to other ancient texts, probable or otherwise. Curiously there are two references in the fragments which could relate to the long ending of Mark, (e.g. 'sitting at the right hand of the father upon your (sg.) throne', 17H 4-6, p71 = Mark 14:6, Mark 16:19 and many other refs). One of the statements of the 'saviour' is also found in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas - 'he that is near me is near to the fire; he that is far from me is far from life' (107.43-48, CGoT 82). It is pleasing to see an awareness that some of the elements used may have no connection with any organised group but may simply be part of the general pagan religious climate of antiquity (p.24). The pseudo-Christian title given to this document by the editors is unfortunate, in that it acts as a barrier to understanding, as M.R.James long ago pointed out in the preface to his edition of the 'New Testament Apocrypha'. To call this work a gospel forces the editors to define a 'gospel' to mean nothing more specific than a work containing sayings or perhaps narrative about someone who may be called Jesus or is in some way based on the historical figure (p.1). This ties the work too closely to some sort of pseudo-Christian context. Few would doubt that in antiquity the extra-canonical works formed a broad spectrum, shading from orthodox works like the Acts of Paul right the way down to basically pagan texts which added some nominal 'Jesus' into the syncretist stew. It would seem that the word 'gospel' has really outlived its usefulness if it prevents us from recognising and working with this continuum. Doubtless the difficulty of finding another word has something to do with the continued popularity of the word 'gospel'. To call the codex the 'Gospel of the Savior' also seems unwise, in view of the inferences that those ignorant of the subject will infallibly draw from it. It would have been better to give it a neutral name like the Berlin Gospel.
The work consists of dialogue between a central figure and his hearers, and an ascension by them all in 'to the [fourth] heaven'(p.113 line 16 of the codex - p.45 in the edition), scattering the discomfited 'watchers' and cherubim. The central figure is referred to only as the 'saviour' and the words 'for us apostles' (113.3/p.45) and mention of Andrew and John suggest that the unknown 'author' is supposed to be an apostle, although I do not recall that this point is made anywhere. The manner in which the saviour does his saving is unclear, due to the fragmentary nature of the text. But he does do a lot of direct talking to the cross - 'A little longer, O Cross, and all the pleroma is perfected'(5F.30-32/p.55) etc, which may yet inspire some satire, perhaps about a previously unrecognised 'ecological Jesus', who talked a lot to trees!
The book reflects the standard presumption of New Testament 'scholarship' that documents not much different to a piece of 6th century Coptic toilet paper with an anecdote about Jesus are the only trustworthy evidence available, while the provenanced gospels are to be regarded with suspicion. It was curious to see that nowhere is the suggestion made that the author of the text edited it to his own pleasure, while the same suggestion is allowed to linger in the references to the canonical gospels. It would be unfair to blame the editors for sharing this absurd prejudice, as doubtless they could not carry on their work unless they at least paid lip-service to it. But the tone is not aggressive in this area, and the thinking reader can quickly skim over such nonsense. The focus of the book is the data, and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude. Recommended.
Little more has been heard of this discovery since the initial reporting. Papyrology seems to have a real problem. On the one hand it is an obscure subject - so much so, that workers in the field seem to be few, and I've seen suggestions in the literature that the funding is so limited that there is a career for only a handful of papyrologists. Furthermore, quite specialised training is required - not everyone can read Coptic! On the other hand there are masses of fragments available, even without the desperately needed further excavations.
What is needed is an upsurge in public interest. It's worth remembering that interest in cuneiform was given a massive boost by the discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, because of its biblical parallels - indeed a national newspaper promptly funded new excavations. For biblical papyri, the natural audience is the Christians, who are always interested in the origins of their bible, unless insulted, and always include a significant number of educated and interested people.
But the Christians are not interested in the work of professional papyrologists, it seems. No doubt the reason for this is that papers, whenever they touch on matters of interest to Christians, invariably make a point of asserting that their religion is untrue. Consider the spin that Dr. Mirecki put on his discoveries, in the reporting above. I am quite certain that sales of the 'Gospel of the Savior' book suffered markedly in consequence. Despite my interest in the subject, I didn't buy one either - I obtained a library copy. And any Christian who is interested in biblical papyri and makes a media splash, as C.P.Thiede discovered, will be shunned and abused, rather than welcomed as a possible source of new blood in the profession. What a great recipe to destroy an academic discipline!
The great loser from this is papyrology itself, which remains a cinderella discipline, with little public support or backing, unable even to process existing material and watching helplessly as development in the Middle East destroys irreplaceable documents. Isn't it time this was addressed? Is the culture of keeping Christians out worth the cost?
ADDITIONAL NOTE (04/09/2003)
I believe that Dr. Hedrick has published further technical articles on this papyrus.
ADDITIONAL NOTE (14/11/2003)
Further discussion, suggesting that the pages might be ordered differently, and Dr. Hedrick's response:
Stephen EMMEL, The recently published Gospel of the Savior ("Unbekanntes Berliner Evangelium"): righting the order of pages and events.(Critical Essay), Harvard Theological Review 95 (2002), p.45 ff.
Charles W. HEDRICK, Caveats to a "righted order" of the Gospel of the Savior.(response to Stephen Emmel, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 95, p. 45, 2002 ), Harvard Theological Review (2003)
ADDITIONAL NOTE (15/02/2004)
I've been told that Bart Ehrman's new book 'Lost Scriptures' contains an English translation of the 'Gospel of the Saviour'. For most people this is probably the easiest way to read it for themselves.
These pages updated 12th December 2000.
Dr. Hedrick's URL revised 26th January 2002.
This page has been accessed by people since 11th December 1999.
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