A biblical text with ‘new’ facts about Jesus was found—and Christians ignore it

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It isn’t every day that a biblical text is found, but it does happen. In 2004, two passages were found from a lost text of early Christianity, a dialogue attributed to the ‘Luke’ of the New Testament.

I was reading about it in a 2021 paper in the Harvard Theological Review. After two millennia, it seems, there’s new information about Jesus? If you didn’t notice that in the news, you didn’t miss it.

Christianity hasn’t wanted to talk about what it says about Jesus.

A “lost” work is mentioned in early Christian writings—unknown for over a millennia.

Sometimes it was called The Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus and sometimes The Dispute of Jason and Papiscus About Christ. Several descriptions survive. Two men were said to be talking, a Jew and a Christian, discussing, at times testily, the meaning of the Old Testament.

The Christian, Jason, was probably the Jason of Thessalonica who is seen in Acts 17. He had a different way of reading the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. He didn’t see it as non-fiction.

He said it was a “messianic prophesy.” He saw the stories of the Bible as being ‘allegorical’ of Christ.

But Jason seemed to have a different Bible.

Ancient Christian sources quote him quoting Bible verses in unexpected versions. He seems to have quoted Genesis 1:1 this way:

“In the beginning God created for himself a son.”

It seemed mystifying. Surely Genesis 1:1 said:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

But there was a problem. The same “weird” version of Genesis 1:1 was cited by many early Christians. Was it possible early Christianity was working off a quite different version of the scriptures?

A ‘church father’ seemed to know who wrote “Jason and Papiscus.”

Sometime around 170 A.D., Clement of Alexandria said it was written by Luke. If anyone would know, it’d be him. Clement knew people who’d known the apostles.

Near the end of the fifth century, however, a monk named John of Scythopolis noted the belief it was by Luke—then he added that he supposed Jason and Papiscus was written by Ariston of Pella. This was a second century Christian writer usually thought to have no importance.

How had John of Scythopolis known this fact, centuries later? He doesn’t say. One might have to recall that, by then, the “allegorical” reading of the Bible was toxic. In the logic of the time, to assign such views to Luke would’ve made a biblical writer the author of ‘heresy’.

Into the 19th century, many “lost” Christian texts were being found.

In 1844, a single copy of a once-well-known text called the Epistle of Barnabas was found, and it had a few surprises. The same “different” Bible verses quoted from Jason and Papiscus were there, and even more lines from a Genesis that didn’t appear to exist.

In an “alternate” Creation story, the works of God become, very unexpectedly, an interaction between Father and ‘Son’.

When God says, in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make humans according to our image and likeness” — the words are said to the Son.

When God says “Be fruitful and multiply,” the words are again said to the Son.

That’s not how it goes in the usual version in Genesis 1:28. There, God seems to be speaking to the newly-created humans.

Another line was quoted, as said by God:

“Behold, I make the first things as the last”

This line was also found in another early Christian text that was recovered a few years later, called Didascalia Apostolorum. Except the line was quoted in a longer version. As it went:

“Behold, I make the first things as the last, and the last as the first.”

This line was said after God created the humans. The story then would be that the Son was the first creation. Humans were the last. The Father is saying: they are alike.

But many “church fathers” actually say the Creation story was an allegory.

Clement of Rome, the 1st century Christian, clearly says that Genesis 1:27, where we read that “male and female” are created, didn’t actually mean that a man and woman had just been created.

Clement explained:

“The male is Christ and the female is the Church.”

St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt (2011)

In 2004, a fragment of “Jason and Papiscus” was found in Egypt.

In the archives of St. Catherine’s monastery, an homily of Sophronius of Jerusalem had been unnoticed for a millennia. This saint lived from c.560 to 638 A.D. On Sunday, January 1, 635 he’d risen to speak about an unusual subject: why Christians meet on Sunday.

It’s a difficult issue. Jews worship on the Sabbath, which is Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This is commanded in the Ten Commandments. So why did Christians prefer Sunday, the first day of the week?

The New Testament does not address the matter. So Sophronius reaches for another text he regards as authoritative. He quoted from Jason and Papiscus, as Jason speaks about the beginning of the world.

The reason Christians meet on Sunday, he explains, goes back to Creation.

It’s there, he says, when God says: “Behold! I am making the last things just as the first!”

The same line found in the Epistle of Barnabas and Didascalia Apostolorum is heard again. Jason says this is a from the ‘scripture’. He goes on to say that the first ‘word’ of God at Creation, “Let there be light,” was not the appearance of ‘light’ in physical terms.

He says that was Christ. He was the light, and, Jason adds, “the son of God through whom all things came to be.”

Jesus was born as a cosmic spirit? And then as a man.

And each event happened, Jason explains, on Sunday. Then Jesus was crucified and resurrected—also on Sunday, the day of births and rebirths.

That’s the cosmic meaning of Sunday. The idea in in the Bible seems to be that history happens in vast stretches of time that are called ‘days’. Each day is marked by a different divine action.

On Sunday, everything is beginning again.

Jason offers a glimpse of Jesus’ return to the earth to “raise up the righteous” in the Resurrection. After that comes the Kingdom, which he calls “the eternal light in the eternal.”

The discovery was reported in scholarly literature as a minor find of a work by Ariston of Pella.

The Lukan attribution was just dismissed without much analysis on the point. But Harry Tolley was thinking about it all.

He had the unusual status of being the only expert on Ariston of Pella who has ever lived, having written his 2009 Ph.D. thesis on the subject.

He didn’t think that Jason and Papiscus was by Ariston. In 2021, he published the paper in the Harvard Theological Review that laid out the surviving evidence of the work, leaving open the question of its author—though I had the feeling Tolley thought it might really be by Luke.

That turned out to be true.

In support of the idea, he makes a range of points. Clement of Alexandria and Sophronius of Jerusalem both said the work is by Luke. That’s persuasive, he suggests. “Sophronius is regarded as a much more reliable source than even Clement of Alexandria.”

I asked: Does think the newly-discovered text suggests the style of Luke?

He replies: “I do, but it would be difficult to prove Luke had a style.”

Luke wasn’t one to write in a personal voice.

The voices of Christians flow through him, but he never speaks in his own. Luke researched the life of Jesus for his gospel. He followed the apostles and wrote Acts. There’s been a regular idea that Luke edited the book of Hebrews, perhaps from a speech by the apostle Paul.

Was Jason and Papiscus his next ‘Act’? It doesn’t seem too odd to think he was listening to early Christians and Jews talking, and wrote it up as a dialogue. Tolley said he was prepared to analyze the vocabulary of the fragment of Jason and Papiscus as ‘Lukan’. He points out that the fragment has words found, in the New Testament, only in Luke’s writing.

There wasn’t much interest in that subject. Scholars avoid the evidence of Luke’s authorship, he suggests, “just to avoid controversy.”

What would other scholars say?

I queried several who had mentioned Jason and Papiscus in recent publications. Uta Heil is the author of the recent book The Apocryphal Sunday: History and Texts from Late Antiquity, which includes her own translation of the discovered text of Jason and Papiscus.

She replies to me:

“The dialog is certainly later, more likely to be from the time of Justin’s dialog or later, so it cannot be by the author of Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps there was another Luke who is not otherwise known? But that all remains speculative.”

I asked if she could say how she knows that Jason and Papiscus is “certainly” a second-century work.

“Well, all researcher agree about this,” she replied, citing discussion of the text published before the discovery of the fragment was even made.

To the scholarly mind, it seems, the fragment was never found at all.

How about a second opinion?

Matthew J. Thomas discusses Jason and Papiscus in a 2018 book, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception.

He offers his assessment of the situation:

“With Jason and Papiscus, the trouble is the lack of solid evidence (not to mention the lack of the text itself!). From an a priori standpoint, I don’t think it’s impossible that Luke could have written it. However, if this were the case one would expect to find significantly wider attestation to Luke’s authorship within early reception (think figures like Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, etc).”

Is Clement and Sophronius—two venerated saints—enough, or is more attestation needed? What I know for sure is that this isn’t why Christianity would accept or reject the text. The real reason is something else.

Christianity likes the Bible that tells a true story of God’s favorite people…leading up to them.

I grew up with that idea pounded into my head. We’re God’s favorites. Everyone else is going to Hell.

Now I sit reading the fragmentary remains of Christian history, as seems to teach a quite different story. Could it all have been an ‘allegory’ of Christ?

Around 700 C.E., a monk named Anastasius of Sinai had studied the subject of early Christian views of the Creation story. He cites texts no longer in existence and concludes that most early Christian teachers of importance—Papias, Clement, Pantaenus, Ammonius, a lineage tracing back to the apostle John—had taught the ‘allegorical’ view.

They had, he writes, “understood the whole six-day creation as referring to Christ and the Church.”

But if the ‘Church’ is created in Genesis, then isn’t “the church” just another word for humanity?

That’s not an idea the religion wants to explore.

So Jason and Papiscus was ‘lost’. And when a fragment was found, there was another effort to lose it. 🔶

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