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The Discovery of Lost Documents

PLEASE NOTE: I am incommunicado for a few days on a gulet in the Aegean Sea on the west coast of Turkey.  I have asked Steven, our blog support, to add some posts for me in my absence; I prepared these in advance knowing I would be out of reach.  Here is one of them.  I’m afraid I will not be able to respond to comments on the next few posts until I return to some form of civilization that supports Internet and all things electronic.  So sorry!


I’ve been discussing lost books from early Christianity that I very much wish would be discovered.   Like everyone else interested in this field, I would of course love to have *all* the now-lost books to be turned up.  Unfortunately, we probably don’t even know what the majority of the lost books even were, and have no concrete reason for thinking that they ever existed.  Here is a related question that a member of the blog asked a couple of weeks ago:

QUESTION: What do you think are the odds that a really startling discovery like Q or an early Paul letter is still out there and likely to be discovered?

RESPONSE: This is a really great question, and like many really great questions, there is no really great answer.   It is, of course, impossible to come up with any actual “odds.”   The best we can say is “unlikely indeed”! But let me put some flesh on the bare bones of that answer.

The first thing to say is that there are indeed instances in which a modern discovery has been made of a book that we had reason to suspect at one time existed.   But that very rarely happens. In virtually every case that it *has* happened, it is not a document that has been hypothesized by scholars (e.g., Q, the source thought by many scholars for the sayings found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark; or, say, Paul’s letter to the Christian church of Laodicea).   It is a document that is actually named in an ancient source.

And so, for example, the fourth-century church father Eusebius tells an intriguing story about the Gospel of Peter, used by a church in Asia Minor, in the small village of Rhossus, around the year 200, before it was condemned by the local bishop of Antioch, Serapion, who thought it contained heretical views.   The Gospel completely disappeared from the scene for fifteen centuries, until a fragmentary copy of it was discovered in a tomb in Akhmim, Egypt in 1886.

So too, around 180 CE the heresy-hunter Irenaeus mentions a Gospel of Judas as used by a particularly nefarious group of Gnostic Christians; and lo and behold, in the 1970s it was discovered.   Today you can read it yourself online!

On the other hand, it rarely happens that a hypothesized document ever shows up. In fact, I’m wracking my brain and can’t think of it ever happening. Maybe someone else on the blog can?

Most of the discoveries of documents are of two sorts: they are either of documents that we already have manuscripts for, in whole or in part, or of documents that we never suspected as existing.

The majority of Christian manuscript discoveries in modern times (say, over the past 200 years) have been of books of the Bible, especially the New Testament.   These discoveries continue to be made, even now.   We cherish each and every one of these, of course, as they help us understand better what the oldest form of the text of the New Testament probably was, and illuminate how that text came to be changed over time as scribes copied it.   So all this is terrific. But it’s almost never front-page news.   Finding a new fragment of John 6, for example, is great, but not really earthshattering.

Sometimes, though, a completely unexpected document shows up.   As an example that is not widley known, there is the book known as the Letter to Diognetus.   This book is usually included among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.   We don’t know who the author was, only that it is a kind of “apology” (i.e., a reasoned defense of the Christian faith) sent to someone named (in the document) Diognetus.   The book was discovered by pure serendipity. In 1436, a young cleric in Constantinople was in a fish-monger’s shop (really!), and he saw that some of the packing paper there had writing on it. It turns out it was 260-page manuscript that was at least a century old at the time.

He retrieved it and found that it contained a number of writings – twenty-two altogether.  Included was this Epistle to Diognetus.   No one had any suspicion that such a book ever even existed.   It is never mentioned, let alone cited, by any of the church Fathers.

Just as this book was serendipitously uncovered, so too it was serendipitously destroyed – but fortunately only after the text had been published.  From the young cleric the manuscript passed into the hands of the Dominicans.  In the early sixteenth century it was acquired by the German humanist, Johannes Ruechlin (d. 1522) and sometime after his death, later in that century, by the Alsacian monastery of Maursmünster.  Around 1794 the manuscript came to the municipal library of Strasbourg, where it remained until August 24, 1870, when it was destroyed by fire during the bombing of the city in the Franco-German war.

Luckily, the epistle to Diognetus had been published in print numerous times, so the text is not lost to us, even though the manuscript doesn’t survive.    It first appeared in print in 1592, and you can read it in almost any edition of the Apostolic Fathers today.

It would be great, though, if a different manuscript of the book would be discovered.   The one that all of our translations are based on (the one now destroyed) was from the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  But the text itself was composed in the late second century – so our only manuscript is from a thousand years after its composition!  Who knows how accurate it was.

In any event, my point is that the manuscript discoveries that are discovered tend to be either of books that we already have (e.g., the Gospel of John or Paul’s letter to the Romans) or of books we didn’t know even existed.

How Are Manuscripts Discovered
Lecture: Jesus and the Historian



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 10, 2015

    The Letter to Diognetus: “…no man has either seen Him, or made Him known, but He has revealed Himself. And He has manifested Himself through faith, to which alone it is given to behold God.”

    A beautiful piece of writing, but definitely no “proof” of the existence of a Supreme Being. And everything that follows hinges on that. So the “apologetics” of those days were no more compelling than those of our own.

  2. Avatar
    dtkline  June 10, 2015

    Bart, do you have a strong opinion about Morton Smith’s fragment of Secret Mark? It seems a number of contemporary scholars have incorporated it into their thinking (Crossan, for example), but I’ve always been a little leary of it since Smith never produced the document itself. I know too that they’re have been some criticisms of Smith, but I’m torn about it myself.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2015

      I incline toward the view that he forged it, but I’d be just as happy to be wrong! I deal with it in a chapter of my book Lost Christianities, and in an article I wrote some time after that which appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies.

  3. Avatar
    Prizm  June 11, 2015

    Is there a website that tracks newly discovered manuscripts that are biblically related? Like you say, it’s interesting to hear about these but they usually don’t hit the main news sites.

  4. Avatar
    AGarrow  June 11, 2015

    “On the other hand, it rarely happens that a hypothesized document ever shows up. In fact, I’m wracking my brain and can’t think of it ever happening. Maybe someone else on the blog can?”

    Another thing that can happen is that a manuscript is discovered – but its full significance is not recognised. I have an article scheduled for New Testament Studies 32.3 (2016) which argues that the Didache contains an extant instance of ‘Q’. A video version of this paper is available at http://www.alangarrow.com/extantq.html

  5. Avatar
    J--B  June 12, 2015

    I’m straying from Christianity in Antiquity, but the introduction to this article describes the discovery of ancient fragments of the Koran in Yemen in 1972:


  6. John4
    John4  June 12, 2015

    Nice post. Many thanks, as always, Bart.

    But, tell me, who the heck is this Peter Kirby, to whose Early Christian Writings site you linked? Have you ever met him? Is he a professional scholar?

    Many thanks?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2015

      Sorry — I’m not sure whom you’re referring to. Peter Kirby? Where do I mention him?

  7. John4
    John4  June 17, 2015

    Hey Bart! 🙂

    You don’t mention Peter Kirby. But, you linked to the Letter of Diognetus on what appears to me to be a website maintained by Kirby: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-roberts.html. Hence, my question.

    But, maybe you just use the handy website without knowing the fellow who maintains it?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2015

      No, I don’t know who he is, so far as I can remember. The translation on his site is simply the 19th century one found in the multi-volume Ante-Nicene Fathers.

  8. John4
    John4  June 21, 2015

    Okie Doke. Many, many thanks for all of your wonderful work, Bart! 😀

  9. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  December 15, 2015

    “The first is [S]eth, who is called Christ” from the Gospel of Judas. Is this the Egyptian God, Seth? What is the connection?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      That is the name of one of the gnostic aeons in the Pleroma (borrowed from the name either of the Egyptian God or from the OT figure Seth — probably the latter, as was more common in gnostic circles.)

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