Seen in The Nando Times on 12 March 1997

Copyright 1997
Copyright 1997 Reuter Information Service

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Mar 11, 1997 6:55 p.m. EST) - In a rare finding that could shed light on the origins of Christianity, an American professor said Tuesday that he and a colleague have identified fragments of a "lost gospel" that contains conversations between Jesus Christ and his disciples.

Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, said he is confident the text is an authentic early account of the teachings of Christ. If true, this would mark the first time since 1945 that a so-called lost gospel has been identified.

Mirecki said that apart from the New Testament's four Gospels, scholars recognize approximately six other lost gospels that detail Christ's teachings. The gospel of Thomas, discovered in Egypt in 1945, was the last such text to be identified, Mirecki said.

Mirecki happened on this manuscript in 1991 in the vast holdings of Berlin's Egyptian Museum, but it has taken him until now to piece together the document's content. He does not know how the manuscript found its way to the museum.

A specialist in paleography, or ancient modes of writing, Mirecki said he was confident the item was not a fraud or a forgery. "It's definitely an ancient manuscript -- fourth or fifth century," Mirecki told Reuters in an interview.

The newly found gospel was written in the first or second century, he said. "The context here is there were many gospels written in the first two centuries," Mirecki said. "This text is ... identical to similar texts that are called gospels. It fits the literary pattern and the contents."

Mirecki has been editing and translating the manuscript with Charles Hedrick, professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.

Each man studied the manuscript independently while working at the Berlin museum. After a chance encounter at a 1995 convention in Philadelphia they realised they were working on the same project and decided to collaborate. Their book on the new gospel will be published this summer by Brill Publishers in the Netherlands.

Mirecki said the manuscript is written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language that uses Greek letters. It was probably the work of a Christian minority group called Gnostics, or knowers, he said, and recounts a rare "dialogue gospel" of conversations between Jesus and his disciples that supposedly took place after Christ was resurrected.

He said the text and its message indicate Christianity's origins were more diverse than what mediaeval historians have described.

"This is simply evidence of minority groups that existed and that either were brought into the larger church -- the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches -- or died out. Quite often they were persecuted to the point of death," he said.

Only 15 pages remain of the manuscript. Mirecki said it was probably the victim of an orthodox book burning in about the fifth century.

Specifically, the gospel espouses a stronger focus on individual knowledge, urging its readers to reject the confines of institutional religion. "It's a non-orthodox text ... Salvation comes to these people through knowledge rather than faith," Mirecki said.

"They see orthodox Jews and Christians as being duped by the evil creator of the material universe. They had a very different mythology ... one that could not be incorporated into the larger Catholic church and had to be rejected."

For example, one passage unique to the gospel reads, "I have overcome the Cosmos, so don't let the Cosmos overcome you."

"That type of theology is not what developing orthodoxy wanted to hear," Mirecki said. "They wanted to promote salvation in the Church, not in one's personal experience."

Mirecki said he will present a paper on his findings at an academic symposium in November in San Francisco.