March 7, 1997

Researchers say Coptic fragments reveal lost gospel

Fragments of a fourth-century Egyptian manuscript contain a lost gospel dating from the first or second century, according to Paul Mirecki, KU associate professor of religious studies.

Mirecki discovered the manuscript in the vast holdings of Berlin's Egyptian Museums in 1991. The book contains a rare "dialogue gospel" with conversations between Jesus and his disciples, shedding light on the origins of early Judaisms and Christianities.

The lost gospel, whose original title has not survived, has similarities to the Gospel of John and the most famous lost gospel, the gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in Egypt in 1945.

The newly discovered gospel is written in Coptic, the ancient Egyptian language using Greek letters. Mirecki said the gospel was probably the product of a Christian minority group called Gnostics, or "knowers."

Mirecki said the discussion between Jesus and his disciples probably takes place after the resurrection, since the text is in the same literary genre as other post-resurrection dialogues, though the condition of the manuscript makes the time element difficult to determine.

"This lost gospel presents us with more primary evidence that the origins of early Christianity were far more diverse than medieval church historians would tell us," Mirecki said. "Early orthodox histories denigrated and then banished from political memory the existence of these peaceful people and their sacred texts, of which this gospel is one."

Mirecki is editing the manuscript with Charles Hedrick, professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield. Both men independently studied the manuscript while working on similar projects in Berlin.

A chance encounter at a professional convention in 1995 in Philadelphia made both men realize that they were working on the same project. They decided to collaborate, and their book will be published this summer by Brill Publishers in the Netherlands.

The calfskin manuscript is damaged, and only 15 pages remain. Mirecki said it was probably the victim of an orthodox book burning in about the fifth century.

"Our first concern was to translate it into English, construct a theory for reconnecting the fragments and, after cleaning, conserve each fragment between glass plates in preparation for photography," Mirecki said.

"But the real challenge is the philological task, including analyzing the language, the literary form and the content and placing the text into its social and political context."

Like the gospel of Thomas, this lost gospel has early teachings about Jesus that were independent of the biblical Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

For example, one of the passages from the lost gospel reads, "Whoever is near me is near the fire; whoever is far from me is far from life."

The same saying is found in the gospel of Thomas in a slightly different form: "Whoever is near me is near the fire; whoever is far from me is far from the kingdom."

Sayings attributed to Jesus and other figures often use metaphors of fire, nearness and life in various combinations with other images, Mirecki said. "The question is not if these are the actual words of Jesus," Mirecki said. "That's a question that can never be answered, as even the biblical Gospels contain the teachings of diverse early communities rather than the direct teachings of Jesus. All such texts have gone through the interpretive filter of early Christian editors and scribes."

He added: "The point is not to discover some sort of `real Jesus' but to reconstruct the nature of early Christianity as a set of diverse social movements in late antiquity."

Hedrick said his and Mirecki's book will spark strong scholarly interest. "The material in the lost gospel is new, and scholars will discuss it for decades. Our hope is that this unique voice finally will be restored to the human story." Mirecki joined the KU faculty in 1989, completing his doctorate at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., in 1986.

Mirecki's research has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the KU General Research Fund and the Hall Center for the Humanities. He is on sabbatical leave for spring 1997 to work on several other ancient-manuscript projects in museums in London and Oxford in England; Berlin; and Ann Arbor, Mich.


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