History

Shape-Shifting Jesus Described in Ancient Egyptian Text

Newly deciphered text tells part of the Jesus crucifixion story with apocryphal plot twists.

A newly deciphered Egyptian text, dating back almost 1,200 years, tells part of the crucifixion story of Jesus with apocryphal plot twists, some of which have never been seen before.

Written in the Coptic language, the ancient text tells of Pontius Pilate, the judge who authorized Jesus' crucifixion, having dinner with Jesus before his crucifixion and offering to sacrifice his own son in the place of Jesus. It also explains why Judas used a kiss, specifically, to betray Jesus - because Jesus had the ability to change shape, according to the text - and it puts the day of the arrest of Jesus on Tuesday evening rather than Thursday evening, something that contravenes the Easter timeline.

The discovery of the text doesn't mean these events happened, but rather that some people living at the time appear to have believed in them, said Roelof van den Broek, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who published the translation in the book "Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem on the Life and the Passion of Christ"(Brill, 2013).

PHOTOS: Ancient Tomb Holds Jesus Mystery

Copies of the text are found in two manuscripts, one in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and the other at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Most of the translation comes from the New York text, because the relevant text in the Pennsylvania manuscript is mostly illegible. [Image Gallery: 2 Ancient Curses Deciphered]

Pontius Pilate has dinner with Jesus While apocryphal stories about Pilate are known from ancient times, van den Broek wrote in an email to LiveScience that he has never seen this one before, with Pilate offering to sacrifice his own son in the place of Jesus.

"Without further ado, Pilate prepared a table and he ate with Jesus on the fifth day of the week. And Jesus blessed Pilate and his whole house," reads part of the text in translation. Pilate later tells Jesus, "well then, behold, the night has come, rise and withdraw, and when the morning comes and they accuse me because of you, I shall give them the only son I have so that they can kill him in your place." [Who Was Jesus, the Man?]

In the text, Jesus comforts him, saying, "Oh Pilate, you have been deemed worthy of a great grace because you have shown a good disposition to me." Jesus also showed Pilate that he can escape if he chose to. "Pilate, then, looked at Jesus and, behold, he became incorporeal: He did not see him for a long time ..." the text read.

Pilate and his wife both have visions that night that show an eagle (representing Jesus) being killed.

In the Coptic and Ethiopian churches, Pilate is regarded as a saint, which explains the sympathetic portrayal in the text, van den Broek writes.

The reason for Judas using a kiss In the canonical bible the apostle Judas betrays Jesus in exchange for money by using a kiss to identify him leading to Jesus' arrest. This apocryphal tale explains that the reason Judas used a kiss, specifically, is because Jesus had the ability to change shape.

"Then the Jews said to Judas: How shall we arrest him (Jesus), for he does not have a single shape but his appearance changes. Sometimes he is ruddy, sometimes he is white, sometimes he is red, sometimes he is wheat coloured, sometimes he is pallid like ascetics, sometimes he is a youth, sometimes an old man ..." This leads Judas to suggest using a kiss as a means to identify him. If Judas had given the arresters a description of Jesus he could have changed shape. By kissing Jesus Judas tells the people exactly who he is. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

This understanding of Judas' kiss goes way back. "This explanation of Judas' kiss is first found in Origen (a theologian who lived A.D. 185-254)," van den Broek writes. In his work, Contra Celsum the ancient writerOrigen, stated that "to those who saw him he did not appear alike to all."

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.

NEWS: 'Genesis Death Sandwich' Discovered in Bible

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?"

More From LiveScience:

Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus In Photos: 'Alien' Skulls Reveal Odd, Ancient Tradition In Photos: A Journey Through Early Christian Rome This article originally appeared on LiveScience. Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Part of the text from the manuscript holding the newly deciphered Passion story of Jesus. Found in Egypt in 1910 it was purchased, along with other manuscripts, by J.P. Morgan in 1911 and was later donated to the public.

March 1, 2012

-- This tomb, carved out of rock, could be "directly connected to Jesus' first followers, those who knew him personally, and to Jesus himself," according to researchers. Located beneath a modern condominium complex less than two miles south of the Old City of Jerusalem, this first-century burial, now named "patio tomb," is only 200 feet away from a second tomb, dubbed the "Jesus Family Tomb." Lying beneath a garden area in the same condominium complex, the burial was discovered in 1980. It contained 10 ossuaries, six of them inscribed with names associated with Jesus and his family. Critics dismissed the synchronicity of names as mere coincidence. "The object of our investigation was to determine whether the 'patio tomb,' still intact, might contain names or other evidence that would provide for us further data that might conceivably shed light on the adjacent 'garden tomb' with its intriguing cluster of names," James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wrote in a preliminary report published online in the "The Bible and Interpretation" website. He investigated the "patio tomb" with documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.

Photo: Jacobovici at the entrance of the sealed "patio tomb"

New Find Reignites 'Jesus Tomb' Discovery

In 2010, Tabor and Jacobovici entered the sealed tomb without actually opening it. They had obtained a license from the Israel Antiquities Authority to explore it through a minimally invasive procedure. Using 8-inch, custom-made diamond tooth drills, the team drilled two holes into the basement floor above the burial. A robotic arm was custom made so that it could be introduced into the tomb through the holes. The robotic arm not only had a main camera mounted on its tip, but a snake camera with a light that could extend about 4 feet beyond the main probe "to allow filming of several of the ossuaries that were deep in the recesses of the niches," said Tabor. The camera also had the capability of shooting laser beams to obtain micro-centimeter measurements.

Photo: Robotic arm

The probe was successful and the researchers were able to reach all areas of the tomb. Typical of Jerusalem in the period from 20 B.C. until 70 A.D, the tomb had a single central square chamber with a very shallow "standing pit" area. It contained nine carved burial niches with skeletal remains and several limestone ossuaries, or bone boxes.

Photo: Map of the tomb

Lost Tomb of Jesus: Explore the Evidence

PHOTOS: The Shroud of Turin Through History

One ossuary was finely carved with a decoration which the researchers believe is "a clear image of a fish, complete with tail, fins, and scales." According to Tabor, it has "a stick-like human figure with an over-sized head coming out of its mouth." He interpreted the drawing as a representation of the biblical story of Jonah and the "big fish." In the earliest gospel materials, the "sign of Jonah," as mentioned by Jesus, has been interpreted as a symbol of his resurrection. "As Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights, but emerged alive, Jesus would likewise emerge from the tomb/death," wrote Tabor. Jonah images only appear in the third and fourth centuries A.D., but never earlier, given the prohibition within Judaism of making images of people or animals. In this view, the fish would represent the oldest Christian art ever discovered, predating the earliest Christian symbol in the catacombs of Rome by at least 200 years. It would also represent the first archeological evidence related to faith in Jesus' resurrection from the dead -- "presumably by his contemporary 1st-century followers," said Tabor.

Image: CGI enhanced image of Jonah and the Big Fish

Another finely decorated ossuary contained an intriguing four-word Greek inscription. There are several ways to read the inscription, but according to Tabor, almost all of them have to do with resurrection, some linking directly to Jesus. The most likely readings are: "The Divine Jehovah raises up from (the dead)" or "The Divine Jehovah raises up to the Holy Place" or "God, Jehovah, Raise up! Raise up!" or "Lord, Jesus, Rise up! Rise up!" "We are dealing here with a family or clan that is bold enough to write out the holy name of God in a tomb, with a declaration about 'raising up' or resurrection -- something totally unparalleled in any of the 900 tombs from the period known in Jerusalem," wrote Tabor.

Photo: The unique four-line Greek inscription

'Jesus-Era' Burial Cloth Casts Doubt on Turin Shroud

According to Tabor, the family buried in the tomb was undoubtedly Jewish. Apart from the Greek epitaph and fish image, "the style of the tomb, the ornamentation of the ossuaries, and everything else about it is nothing out of the ordinary," he said. Yet, taken together, the fish image and the inscription represents the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus' resurrection, the first witness to a saying of Jesus that predates the New Testament gospels, and the oldest Christian art ever discovered. "We are convinced that the best explanation for these unusual epigraphic features is its proximity to the Jesus family tomb," wrote Talbot. "What we apparently have is a family connected to the Jesus movement who reaches beyond the standard burial norms of the Jewish culture of the period to express itself individually in these unique ways," he said.

Photo: Complete Findings from the Patio Tomb

Explore Evidence for the Lost Tomb of Jesus