Monday, April 18, 2005


Using advanced imaging techniques, a pile of Greek documents that have thwarted scholars for a century are now revealing their secrets. But does that include 'lost gospels'?
For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure - a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation. If only it was legible.

Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.

In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament. [italics added, nac]

The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye - decayed, worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence. Some are even predicting a "second Renaissance".

This sort of discovery just gets my blood pumping--the possible recovery of ancient lost documents is right up my alley. Lost histories, plays and poems by the ancients' finest (and probably a few hacks) is wonderful.

But what about this claim that ancient lost gospels dating to the time of the earliest NT writings will be uncovered? Well, we'll see, but I think it says more about the biases of the scholars--and probably a little bit of deliberate PR hype--than anything else. 'Lost' gospels are quite the hip thing these days. The church hid them all you know because they wanted to fool you. I know that because I've read scholarship like The Da Vinci Code. But the fact is, the 'lost' gospels invariably are late gospels, many not even deserving of the 'gospel' moniker.

The proof will be in the pudding, but while there may be some writings related to early Christianity (I really hope there are), I feel extraordinarily confident that no startling discoveries of 'lost', 'hidden' or 'secret' gospels will come to light that in any way question the validity of the witness we have in the four we already have.

[Thanks to Susanna at cotb for the link.]

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