German home of 'lost Gospel' may hold other finds

Copyright 1997 by Reuters /Thu, 13 Mar 1997 10:02:05 PST

BERLIN, Germany (Reuter) - A Berlin museum which has yielded up what may be a ``lost Gospel'' of the teachings of Jesus Christ said Thursday it could be holding other theological treasures without knowing it.

``We have literally millions of fragments that we are just sitting on,'' said William Brashear, director of what is reputed to be the world's largest collection of papyrus documents, housed at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. ``We have an open-door policy for researchers and we invite anyone to look at documents they think might interest them ... We are often blind to what we have until a researcher comes along and tells us.'' The known Gospels, forming the first four books of the New Testament,
are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas who happened upon the manuscript at the museum, said this week he was confident the text was an authentic early account of conversations between Christ and his disciples. If Mirecki is right, the rare finding could shed light on the origins of Christianity. The document has been translated by Mirecki and Charles Hedrick, a religious studies professor at Southwest Missouri State University in the United States. ``If Mirecki and Hedrick can convince their colleagues that this is actually a piece of a gospel, then that is indeed a remarkable discovery,'' Brashear said. He said the museum had acquired the manuscript in 1967, probably from a private antiquities dealer, and that Mirecki was the first expert who took an active interest in the text when he arrived in 1991. ``With their documents, everyone looked at these crumpled fragments and said 'no, thank you' until Mirecki and Hedrick came along,'' Brashear said.

The manuscript is written in Coptic, an Afro-Asiatic language descended from ancient Egyptian written in the Greek alphabet, and probably belonged to one of the so-called Gnostic groups of the first or second century. ``Gnostic is a blanket expression for literally dozens and dozens of groups who broke with orthodox Christianity by believing that they were privy to secret knowledge that was essential to salvation,'' he said.

Only 15 pages of the document remain, with some pieces the size of postage stamps. Mirecki said the text was probably the victim of a book burning in about the fifth century because the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches found the manuscript heretical.

Brashear said the pieces needed to be photographed by museum specialists and could appear on display at one of the Berlin antiquity museums within a few months.