Shape-Shifting Jesus Described in Ancient Egyptian Text

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A researcher has deciphered a 1,200-year-old Coptic text that tells part of the Passion (the Easter story) with apocryphal plot twists, some of which have never been seen before. Here, a cross decoration from the text.
Image courtesy The Pierpont Morgan Library

St. Cyril impersonation

The text is written in the name of St. Cyril of Jerusalem who lived during the fourth century. In the story Cyril tells the Easter story as part of a homily (a type of sermon).  A number of texts in ancient times claim to be homilies by St. Cyril and they were probably not given by the saint in real life, van den Broek explained in his book.

Near the beginning of the text, Cyril, or the person writing in his name, claims that a book has been found in Jerusalem showing the writings of the apostles on the life and crucifixion of Jesus. "Listen to me, oh my honored children, and let me tell you something of what we found written in the house of Mary ..." reads part of the text.

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Again, it's unlikely that such a book was found in real life. Van den Broek said that a claim like this would have been used by the writer "to enhance the credibility of the peculiar views and uncanonical facts he is about to present by ascribing them to an apostolic source," adding that examples of this plot device can be found "frequently" in Coptic literature.

Arrest on Tuesday

Van den Broek says that he is surprised that the writer of the text moved the date of Jesus' Last Supper, with the apostles, and arrest to Tuesday. In fact, in this text, Jesus' actual Last Supper appears to be with Pontius Pilate. In between his arrest and supper with Pilate, he is brought before Caiaphas and Herod.

In the canonical texts, the last supper and arrest of Jesus happens on Thursday evening and present-day Christians mark this event with Maundy Thursday services. It "remains remarkable that Pseudo-Cyril relates the story of Jesus' arrest on Tuesday evening as if the canonical story about his arrest on Thursday evening (which was commemorated each year in the services of Holy Week) did not exist!" writes van den Broek in the email.

A gift to a monastery ... and then to New York

About 1,200 years ago the New York text was in the library of the Monastery of St. Michael in the Egyptian desert near present-day al-Hamuli in the western part of the Faiyum. The text says, in translation, that it was a gift from "archpriest Father Paul," who, "has provided for this book by his own labors."

The monastery appears to have ceased operations around the early 10th century, and the text was rediscovered in the spring of 1910. In December 1911, it was purchased, along with other texts, by American financier J.P. Morgan. His collections would later be given to the public and are part of the present-day Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. The manuscript is currently displayed as part of the museum's exhibition "Treasures from the Vault" running through May 5.

Who believed it?

Van den Broek writes in the email that "in Egypt, the Bible had already become canonized in the fourth/fifth century, but apocryphal stories and books remained popular among the Egyptian Christians, especially among monks."

Whereas the people of the monastery would have believed the newly translated text, "in particular the more simple monks," he's not convinced that the writer of the text believed everything he was writing down, van den Broek said.

"I find it difficult to believe that he really did, but some details, for instance the meal with Jesus, he may have believed to have really happened," van den Broek writes.  "The people of that time, even if they were well-educated, did not have a critical historical attitude. Miracles were quite possible, and why should an old story not be true?"

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