The fragment from the ‘Gospel of James,’ also known as the ‘Apocalypse of James’ was discovered in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Collection, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, in Oxford’s Sackler Library. Dr Dirk Obbink, a classicist at Oxford, began working on the text with Professor Geoffrey Smith of the University of Texas at Austin in 2015 and the pair initially thought it was a ‘lost Gospel’ in Greek. But then Professor Smith identified the text as the Greek original of the Gospel of James, which is known from its Coptic translation in the Nag Hammadi Library – a collection of 13 Coptic Gnostic books discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt.
Professor Smith said in 2017: “To say that we were excited once we realised what we’d found is an understatement.
“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 ancient narrative describes the secret teachings of Jesus to his brother James, in which Jesus reveals information about the heavenly realm and future events, including James’ inevitable death.
The first portion of the text, which is believed to be 1,500 years old, describes James’ understandable concern about being crucified.
But the latter portion describes secret “passwords” given to James so that he can ascend to the highest heaven after dying, without being blocked by evil “powers” of the demiurge.
Professor Smith added: “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.
“These are secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus’ death.”
The professors think the manuscript probably belonged to a teacher and was used to help students learn and write, due to its neat, uniformed handwriting with words separated into syllables.
Dr Obbink explained his excitement with the find.
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He added: “The new Gospel of James fragment shows how the early reading public interacted with different versions of the gospel.
“In the city centre of Oxyrhynchus [in Egypt], Greek-speaking elites read the Gospel of James in the original Greek, alongside our earliest surviving copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
“But in the rural countryside, at Nag Hammadi, it was the heretical Gospel of James that hermit monks chose to translate into Coptic for native Egyptian-speakers.”
James the Just, was the “brother” of Jesus, according to the New Testament, and died as a martyr in 62AD, but many biblical followers do not accept him as a biological relation to the Messiah, instead of placing the “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned in the text from a former relationship between Jesus’ father, Joseph, and another woman.
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Confusion may have arisen over the years due to poor translation as well, as “brother” and “sister” mean a variety of things in the original language in which they were written.
But the fact that they are referenced at all in the Bible suggests that these individuals had a particularly close relationship to Jesus – regardless of whether they were actual siblings.
It’s also known that James was influential during his lifetime, despite if he was a brother, a half-sibling, a cousin or merely a close associate of Christ.
According to the text discovered, James was the head of the early Jerusalem Church and the most senior apostle.