The Gospel of Savior

By Mary Jane Chaignot

In 1967, the Berlin Egyptian Museum obtained 33 fragments of papyri that had been part of the Oxyrhynchus discovery. The fragments were simply labeled as P22220. They were unceremoniously placed in metal boxes and forgotten for decades. Then, in the early 1990s, two American scholars began to independently decipher some of these texts. The first scholar, Paul Mirecke, pulled fragments at random out of the box in which they had been stored. He spent the next few years restoring and translating these Coptic texts. Included among them were two longer fragments of P22220. At first, he thought the verses were a sermon paraphrased from the existing gospels; this wasn't his focus, so he sort of dismissed them. He placed the fragments in a paper folder, intending to come back to them for additional study.

In 1995, the second scholar, Charles Hedrick, came upon the folders, and took it upon himself to count and number the fragments. Both scholars took extensive photographs of the (now) 34 fragments belonging to P22220. As they continued to work on it, they pared the fragments down to 28, which, from then on, were properly stored and conserved between glass plates. Several of the fragments included page numbers that ranged from 97 through 114, though several pages were missing. Scholars estimate that this gospel might have been 30 or more pages long. Because so much is missing, the first order of business was to put the fragments in order. Needless to say, there was more than one possibility, which has led to some lively discussions.

As they worked on the fragments, they realized that these weren't just paraphrases, but actual sayings of Jesus recorded in an unknown gospel. Initially, the fragments were referred to as the "Unknown Gospel of Berlin," but later scholars began to call the work "The Gospel of the Savior" because the speaker is identified as the "Savior." It is a gospel in that it is comprised of sayings attributed to Jesus and short stories about him, as well as longer passages about his career. However, scholars are quick to point out that neither Jesus' name nor the title, The Christ, appears in any of the verses. Some of these sayings are entirely new; others resemble what we have in the canonical writings.

The sayings are most like what one might find in the Gospel of John, though several also parallel Matthew (more so than Mark). One example of this would be the familiar verse in Matt 5:13, "You are the salt of the earth." This gospel, however, continues, "You are the lamp that illuminates the world." (p97:19) The latter phrase, while different from Matthew's, has some affinities with a saying in the Gospel of Thomas (24). Many other sayings are also quite familiar: I and my Father are a single one; I am the Good Shepherd; It is written: I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered."

These sayings are followed by admonitions to not "sleep nor slumber," again reminiscent of Jesus' commands to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Shortly thereafter, there is a new speaker named Andrew (references to two other apostles, John and Jude, occur later in the text). But, since the context is lost, it is uncertain whether he is asking or answering a question.

Then comes a change in subject wherein the speaker now talks about going down to Hades, though the purpose is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, the Savior will soon joyfully appear to them. And while they are in the body, they should not allow matter to rule over them. (Such hints of Gnosticism can be found throughout the text.) Then, they all arise because "the betrayer" is at hand. Predictably, the Savior anticipates that the disciples will all flee, but affirms that God will always be present.

Indeed, shortly thereafter is a visionary ascent "upon the mountain," in which the disciples accompany the Savior. This alarms those who are already in heaven and creates a considerable disturbance. Nonetheless, the Savior "pierced through all the heavens," thus opening the gates for his followers and making them eyewitnesses to what transpired. Though the text is quite difficult to decipher, it appears that the Savior is speaking. Different scholars arrange fragments differently, leaving some discussion as to whether the Savior is addressing God or the cross at this point.

There is a section in which the Savior addresses the cross directly. He acknowledges that the purpose of the cross is to be raised. The cross should not be afraid. "I am rich. I will fill you with my wealth. I will mount you….Do not weep, O cross, but rather rejoice and recognize your Lord as he is coming to you." Later on, the Savior adds, "What is lacking will become complete …what is empty will become full….what has fallen will arise." He continues, "I will precede you….Whoever is far from you is far from me." Scholars assume that promises of wealth have to do with the power and Spirit of God. In this exchange, it appears that the Savior is eager for the cross in that poverty, lack, emptiness, and "fallen" will be replaced with wealth, fullness, completion, and "will arise." These terms and images are common in gnostic texts, and describe the physical giving way to the spiritual.

In another section, the Savior and the apostles are standing in the throne room before God. There are the usual references to hymn singing, crowns, and robes. The Savior, however, falls down before God and speaks directly to him. He apparently does this three times, but again, much is missing from the text. It does appear that the Son is "weeping and distressed," which might also account for the departure of the angels and the disturbance in heaven. The Savior seems to be upset about "the people of Israel." When he begins speaking, he asks, "O my father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." This is very close to the synoptic account in Matthew. The conversation then returns to the people of Israel for whom he is praying.

Unfortunately, much is missing at this point. When the text is resumed, it appears that salvation will be granted to Israel and the world in consequence of the Savior's intercession. The Father continues to address the Son, but the answer remains unknown except for occasional words – "Come my Son…Be strong, Son…Come, my Son and you…" Scholars would love to know more about the Father's response.

Such phrases and words obviously indicate that this was part of a larger narrative. Clearly, many of the phrases are similar to verses from the passion narratives. In this gospel, the disciples are witnessing Jesus' transfiguration after the Last Supper. That would mean, if the fragments had been correctly placed in chronological order, in this Gospel, the transfiguration would have occurred after Gethsemane. On p108, the crucifixion is still a future possibility, but it is probably described around page 114; unfortunately, those pages are missing.

The occasional scholar has also thrown out the possibility that all these conversations could already be post-resurrection appearances, though there is no consensus on this. The Gnostic flavor includes teachings that salvation comes through a higher understanding and the Savior's conversation with his disciples in which secret "visionary" truths about the universe are revealed.

Scholars are delighted with this new gospel. It presents a Savior (Jesus) that is both familiar and different while it elaborates upon Jesus' farewell discourse with his disciples. The highlight is their telling of their ascent to the heavens. Needless to say, this brings an added dimension to the study and reconstruction of the early Church.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha