It was in March, 2013, when reports flooded the headlines about a newly deciphered Egyptian text, dating back almost 1,200 years, which controversially described Jesus as having the ability to change shape. But just as quickly as the story made its way through major news sites around the world, it disappeared and has hardly been mentioned since. Why has the study and research surrounding this text faded into oblivion? Why has there been virtually no scholarly debate on the subject?
Written in the Coptic language, the ancient text written in the name of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a distinguished theologian who lived during the fourth century, tells part of the crucifixion story of Jesus with apocryphal plot twists, some of which have never been seen before. They have been revealed thanks to a translation carried out by Roelof Van den Broek of Ultrecht University in the Netherlands, and published in the book ‘Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem On the Life and the Passion of Christ: A Coptic Apocryphon’.
The ancient text explains why Judas used a kiss, specifically, to betray Jesus. According to 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.
The Judas Kiss – ‘Capture of Christ’ by Cimabue, 13th Century AD (Wikimedia Commons)
This understanding of Judas’ kiss goes way back. According to Van den Broek, the explanation of Judas’ kiss is first found in Origen, a theologian who lived 185-254 AD. In his work, Contra Celsum, the ancient writer, stated that “to those who saw him [Jesus] he did not appear alike to all.”
Van den Broek is careful to note that he is not suggesting that Jesus was in fact shape changing but only that some people in early Christian times may have thought he was.
The text is one of fifty-five Coptic manuscripts that were found in 1910 by villagers digging for fertilizer at the site of the destroyed Monastery of Archangel Michael of the Desert near Al Hamuli in Egypt. Apparently, during the tenth century, monks had buried the monastery’s manuscripts in a stone vat for safekeeping. The monastery 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, and the text described, are now housed in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
While headlines at the time of the announcement were quite sensationalist and described the text as containing Christianity-shattering information, the publishing scholar never claimed anything of the sort. It is also clear that the text is not a hoax but a genuine item published by a respected scholar by a notable academic press (E. J. Brill). So why hasn’t such a fascinating text led to further research, interpretations, or discussion among scholars?