And behold, a leper approached him and said, “Teacher Jesus, while I was traveling with some lepers and eating with them at the inn, I myself contracted leprosy. If, then, you are willing, I will be made clean.” Then the Lord said to him, “I am willing: be clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. Jesus said to him, “Go, show yourself to the priests and make an offering for your cleansing as Moses commanded; and sin no more….”
This may sound like the Bible, but it’s not. This is one of the stories found in a document known to scholars as Papyrus Egerton 2. This papyrus consists of four small pieces of papyrus manuscript, written on front and back (so it comes from a codex, not a scroll). It contains four different stories: (1) an exhortation by Jesus for his Jewish opponents to “search the Scriptures” (in terms similar to John 5:39-47 and 10:31-39); (2) a foiled attempt to stone and then arrest Jesus (cf. John 10:31f) and then his healing of the leper cited above (similar to Mark 1:40-44); (3) the question of whether it is right to pay tribute to the ruling authorities (as for example in Mark 12:13-17); and (4) a highly fragmentary account that cannot be satisfactorily reconstructed – i.e., the scrap of manuscript has too many holes in it – that appears to be about some kind of amazing miracle Jesus did by sowing seed on the Jordan River (this story is unlike anything in the NT).
Clearly this is not a copy of any of the books of the NT: its similarities are with different Gospels and in the fourth story with none of them; and when there are similarities in contents there are differences in words. When this “Unknown Gospel,” as it was called at the time, was first published in 1935 it made a huge stir. Its two editors, H. Bell and T. C. Skeat – renowned experts in ancient papyrus manuscripts – indicated that the manuscript dated to around the year 150 CE. At the time, that made it THE earliest Christian manuscript of any kind that we had, much earlier than any manuscripts of the NT. But it was of a book not found in the NT! Could there have been apocryphal Gospels that pre-dated the NT Gospels???
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