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The first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing describing Jesus' secret teachings to his brother James has been discovered in archives at Oxford University in the UK, scientists say.
To date, only a small number of texts from the Nag Hammadi library - a collection of 13 Coptic Gnostic books discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt - have been found in Greek, their original language of composition.
Earlier this year, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin in the US added to the list with their discovery of several fifth- or sixth-century Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James, which was thought to have been preserved only in its Coptic translations until now.
"To say that we were excited once we realised what we had found is an understatement," said Geoffrey Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies.
"We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us," said Smith.
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 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 - secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus' death," Smith said.
Such apocryphal writings, Smith said, would have fallen outside the canonical boundaries set by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his "Easter letter of 367" that defined the 27-book New Testament: "No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them."
With its neat, uniform handwriting and words separated into syllables, the original manuscript was probably a teacher's model used to help students learn to read and write, Smith said.
"The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots. Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts," said Brent Landau, a lecturer in the UT Austin Department of Religious Studies.
The teacher who produced this manuscript must have "had a particular affinity for the text," Landau said.
It does not appear to be a brief excerpt from the text, as was common in school exercises, but rather a complete copy of this forbidden ancient writing, researchers said.