For hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, Jesus is not only a prophet and miracle worker, but also the Son of God. And while our knowledge of Christ comes mostly from sources that were penned some time after his death on the cross, many accept the Bible’s accounts of his life as the truth. But just how accurate are our assumptions about Jesus? Well, some say that scripture doesn’t have all the right answers. In fact, one widely assumed fact about the Messiah could well be downright wrong.
For many people, their knowledge of Jesus comes from what’s written in four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And although the accounts given of Jesus’ life in these gospels do not always tally, they nevertheless give a rounded picture of Christ’s time on Earth. For most believers, that is good enough.
It’s believed, moreover, that the four gospels were written sometime between 66 and 110 A.D. So, while they were penned after Jesus’ death, the time lapse is not extreme. Yet it’s likely that these works were not in fact penned by people who had witnessed the events of Christ’s life for themselves; instead, they may simply have transcribed accounts that had previously been passed from person to person.
And if the gospels were not written by first-hand witnesses, this means, of course, that there is room for factual error. In fact, some mistakes have been carried through right up until the present day – including one detail in particular that is surprising in its inaccuracy.
But there are actually other sources to which scholars have turned for information about Jesus: most notably, the works of Roman historians Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Titus Flavius Josephus. In Tacitus’ volume Annals, for example, he claims that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, had Jesus put to death – an assertion that tallies with details contained within the gospels.
Josephus, meanwhile, was actually Jewish and originally given the Hebrew name Yosef ben Matityahu at birth. He was born in Jerusalem, which was in the Roman province of Judea when he came into the world in around 37 A.D. And in his works, Josephus refers to both Jesus and his brother James.
So, we have good historical evidence for the existence of Jesus – better than the proof we have for the life of Alexander the Great, for example. Yet unfortunate errors can still creep into the information we have about the Messiah, and that’s partly down to the fact that the four gospels were written in ancient Greek.
What’s more, it’s in the translation – or transliteration – of these biblical texts that errors can slip in. And there’s an important distinction between translation and transliteration that’s worth highlighting at this point. Transliteration involves the transfer of a word from one alphabet to another, and this can be severely complicated where two different alphabets don’t have exactly corresponding letters.
Translation, on the other hand, is the simpler act of changing a word in one language to the corresponding word in another. But although translation is generally more straightforward than transliteration, it too can have its pitfalls. The upshot is that the scholars who translated – or transliterated – the words of the Bible were faced with various tricky problems, leaving them sometimes susceptible to error.
And there have been some glaring mistakes in Bibles over the centuries. As far back as 1562, the Geneva Bible’s second edition featured the words “Blessed be the place-makers” instead of “Blessed be the peacemakers.” As a consequence, this version of the sacred book became known as the “Place-makers’ Bible.”
Another particularly noteworthy error occurred in an edition of the Bible that was published in English in 1631. Two men called Robert Barker and Martin Lucas were responsible for this version of the good book, which rather alarmingly came to be known as the “Sinner’s Bible” – or sometimes the “Wicked Bible.”
Barker and Lucas were not trying to create a new translation of the book, either. Instead, their intention had been simply to publish a new edition of the King James Bible that reproduced every word. And as Barker had in fact been the publisher of the very first edition of the King James Bible in 1611, the more recent version should have been in good hands.
But a terrible inaccuracy crept into Barker and Lucas’ work – probably owing to the carelessness of a compositor. The compositor was the skilled worker tasked with setting the individual lead letters into wooden blocks ready for the printing press. So, if either this individual or the typesetter made an error, then it would appear in the final text.
And, unfortunately, said typographical error was slap bang in the middle of one of the most important passages of the Old Testament: the Ten Commandments. Even worse, the mistake succeeded in completely reversing the commandment’s meaning. Ultimately, you see, the text should have read, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
In the Barker and Lucas Bible, however, the affected passage read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Crucially, the word “not” was entirely omitted by the compositor. Somewhat inevitably, then, this edition of the book was also dubbed the “Adulterer’s Bible.” And the consequences of this inexcusable blunder were dire.
The English king of the time, Charles I, was said to have been particularly furious with the error, and so Barker and Lucas were summoned to appear before the Star Chamber – a powerful special court of the day. The two men were then fined the large sum of £300 – approximately $40,000 in today’s money – while their licenses as printers were revoked. Most of the copies of the so-called Wicked Bible were then tracked down and burned.
But not all of the Bibles in question were destroyed. And while no one knows for sure how many are still in existence today, the consensus is that they are rare indeed. That makes copies of the Wicked Bible very valuable; when one came up for sale at auctioneers Bonhams in 2015, it sold for some $40,000. So, if you happen to stumble across a very old version of the Good Book, check the Ten Commandments – as you may just have hit the jackpot.
Another error crept into a 1653 printing of the King James Bible by the Cambridge Press. More specifically, the slip-up was included within the New Testament’s 1 Corinthians, which states “Know ye not that the righteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” This, of course, makes perfect sense to any practicing Christian.
Yet the Cambridge Press managed to change the meaning of this verse entirely simply by adding an unintended “un.” And as a result, the passage printed ended up reading, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” Understandably, the affected edition would go on to be known as the “Unrighteous Bible.”
And there was yet another typographical lapse in a 1682 version of the King James Bible. In a passage in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy that deals with divorce, the phrase “And if the latter husband hate her…” should appear. Within the so-called “Cannibal’s Bible,” however, this verse was rendered as “And if the latter husband ate her…”
In a 1716 edition of the King James Bible, however, the book of Jeremiah contained a particularly unfortunate gaffe. There, the phrase “Sin no more” had somehow been changed to “Sin on more” – which obviously has a quite different meaning. And, apparently, some 8,000 copies of this version of the Bible were printed before the typo was spotted.
Then, in 1795, came what would ultimately be dubbed the “Child Killer Bible.” Normally, the Gospel of Mark, chapter 27, verse 27, should read, “But Jesus said unto her, let the children first be filled…” In this, the Messiah appears to say that the youngsters should be allowed to eat first. Yet the meaning of this verse changes dramatically if – as in this edition of the Bible – you replace “filled” with “killed.”
Perhaps the most bizarre misprint of them all, though, appears in what has since become known as the “Owl husband Bible.” While women should have been beseeched to “submit [themselves] to [their] own husbands,” this 1944 edition had “owl” in place of “own” – making the entreaty strangely surrealistic.
So, over the centuries, a choice collection of errors have been printed in various Bibles – with the examples we’ve cited being only a selection. But there is one mistake that puts all others in the shade. This blunder concerns Jesus himself, and it’s related to the very name that we know the Messiah by.
Before we get onto this monumental inaccuracy, though, let’s just take a moment to consider how we refer to the man whom many believe to be the Son of God. Often, he is simply known as Jesus Christ – despite the fact that Christ is not actually a name but a title.
Yes, Christ is an honorific that comes from the Greek word christos, which in turn derives from the Hebrew term mashiakh. This means “the anointed,” and it has been transliterated into English as “messiah.” In the Hebrew tradition, you see, outstandingly righteous people were anointed with a special holy oil. But this particular messiah would not have been known in his everyday life as Jesus Christ.
In Jesus’ time, Jewish people typically followed a first name with “son of.” This meant that Christ would likely have been referred to as “Jesus son of Joseph.” Alternatively, the “son of” formula could be replaced by location, with this perhaps explaining why we speak of Jesus of Nazareth.
And the “son of” or “daughter of” system could be extended further. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is referred to as “the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon.” This brings to the table Jesus’ entire family – with the notable exception of his father, Joseph.
But an error we all make almost every time we refer to the Christian Messiah has to do with the very name “Jesus.” Why? Well, this was not how the man was known during his own life. Instead, his Hebrew name – the one used in the Gospels in their original Greek – is Yeshua. And in modern English, it’s incorrect to render Yeshua as Jesus, as the moniker is in fact the Hebrew version of Joshua.
What’s more, there are actually several other Yeshuas in the Bible, with the name appearing no fewer than 30 times in the Old Testament in reference to four different characters. And we don’t call any of these men Jesus; instead, Yeshua is transliterated as Joshua. Perhaps the Bible’s most famous Joshua is the one who brought down the walls of Jericho and seized the Canaanite city – massacring all of its inhabitants as a consequence.
So, as Christ was actually called Yeshua in his own time, how have modern Christians come to refer to him as Jesus? And why do we refer to the four Yeshuas in the Old Testament as Joshua rather than Jesus? Well, the explanation largely comes down to translational and transliterational mistakes.
Let’s remember for starters that the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew with some Aramaic, and in time it was translated from those languages into English. By contrast, the New Testament – including the four gospels – was originally written in Greek. And as we’ve seen, when scholars came across the Hebrew name Yeshua in the Old Testament, they transliterated that as Joshua.
However, when “Yeshua” appeared in Greek in the New Testament, it looked rather different. You see, the ancient Greeks did not have the sound “sh” in their language, and this led them to substitute the “sh” with an “s” sound. An extra “s” was then added to the end of what would have been “Yesua” to conform to Greek grammar rules and make the name masculine.
So, thanks to those changes to the Son of God’s name, we end up with Yesus. Then the initial “Y” was changed to an “I” in the Romanized transliteration, turning the word into “Iesus.” And that moniker is said to have been featured within the initialism “INRI” that was supposedly inscribed on Jesus’ cross. Those letters stand for the Latin phrase Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Meanwhile, the “J” that we are familiar with at the beginning of Jesus’ name only appeared much later. There is no such letter in the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin alphabets, nor an equivalent sound in those respective languages – hence the Latin use of “I” instead. And even in English, “Iesus” was frequently used right up until the 18th century.
In fact, there was no distinction between “I” and “J” in the English language until sometime around the middle of the 17th century. As a result, the first King James Bible – published in 1611 – used the form “Iesus,” with Jesus’ father’s name similarly being rendered as “Ioseph.” So, where did the “J” eventually come from? Well, the surprising answer to that question is most probably Switzerland.
An English queen had a part to play, too. Mary I began her reign in 1553 and was a determined Roman Catholic at a time when many of her people had left the church to become Protestants. And her persecution of religious dissenters was so cruel that it would go on to earn her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” During the Tudor monarch’s time on the throne, some 280 Protestants were burned at the stake.
In the face of this persecution, many English Protestants therefore fled their homeland and went to Switzerland, where their religious beliefs were tolerated. Then, while in the country, the refugees began work on a new English edition of the Bible. And during their time in exile, these people came across a linguistic innovation: the Swiss “J.” In that way, the first complete Geneva Bible – published in 1560 – used the form “Jesus” for the Messiah’s name.
And over time, this moniker was the one that prevailed. By 1769, then, the Geneva Bible’s new formulation of Jesus was the only way in which the Son of God’s name was spelled. In English, Yeshua, Joshua and Iesus had been completely replaced, and today they are largely forgotten.
It’s possible to argue, then, that the most glaring error in all contemporary English Bibles is the Messiah’s name. A purist could argue that it should be Yeshua, after all, though perhaps Joshua would be more accurate. But in the real world Yeshua became Iesus, and eventually this was changed to a word that resonates around the world: Jesus.
Unofficially, though, there are other old writings that tell us a little about Jesus’ life. These snippets – penned centuries ago – may not be part of Christian scripture as we know it today, but they have nevertheless proved invaluable in the quest to determine what Christ was really like. And in 2015 two researchers came across one such artifact that proved to be of huge theological significance.
At the University of Oxford, two biblical scholars are hard at work investigating ancient fragments of scripture. And one particular find stands out during the course of the academics’ efforts: a piece of text that at first they believe to be a “lost Gospel” of the New Testament. But while this isn’t quite the case, the duo have still uncovered something special. Astonishingly, they have found an ancient copy of the heretical First Apocalypse of James – an account of Jesus’ lessons to his brother.
The document is of a considerable vintage, too, as it’s believed to be 1,500 years old or more. But that’s not the only reason why it’s noteworthy. You see, the fragment also appears to be in Greek – the language in which the story of the First Apocalypse was originally composed.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Dr. Dirk Obbink and Professor Geoffrey Smith were the ones who stumbled upon this incredible item, and what they discovered is of great importance. You see, not only does this rare manuscript bear text in the Greek language, but it also appears to feature teachings that Jesus is said to have once given to his brother. And the theological implications of the find could therefore prove to be very significant indeed.
But first, let’s consider the notion that Jesus actually had a sibling – something that may not be known by everyone. You see, the New Testament does in fact refer to “brothers” of Jesus: Simon, Judas, Joseph and James. The scripture also alludes to “sisters” – though these women are never actually referred to by name.
However, a number of Christian denominations – including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church – believe that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a virgin both before and after Christ’s birth. According to these branches of the faith, then, the Son of God couldn’t have had any biological brothers or sisters.
And the men and women mentioned in the New Testament may not actually have been full siblings of Jesus. They could potentially have been children from a former relationship between Jesus’ father, Joseph, and another woman, for instance. Alternatively, these so-called brothers and sisters may instead have been merely nephews and nieces of Joseph or Mary.
Such confusion may simply have arisen as a result of poor translation throughout the centuries. You see, the words in the New Testament that have come to be interpreted as “brother” and “sister” actually mean a variety of things in the original language in which they were written. In the end, then, there could well have been some misinterpretation down the line.
But the fact that brothers and sisters are referenced at all in the Bible suggests that these individuals had a particularly close relationship to Jesus – regardless of whether they were actual siblings. Some experts have posited, then, that these people were once important figures of early Christianity.
For instance, a figure known as James the Just is named in the New Testament as being a “brother” of Jesus. It’s also known that James was influential during his lifetime – and that’s the case whether he was a brother, a half-sibling, a cousin or merely a close associate of Christ.
In particular, James is said to have been at the helm of the Jerusalem Church. And, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Book of Acts, the holy city was apparently the site of the first-ever religious monument to be dedicated to the Christian faith – making James somewhat of a pioneer.
James’ importance is only thought to have increased, too, when his namesake, the Apostle St. James was killed – apparently at the behest of King Herod Agrippa I of Judea. St. Peter also left Jerusalem in around this period, leaving James to further consolidate his power.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church explains James’ significance further, revealing that he was “from an early date, with Peter, a leader of the Church at Jerusalem. And from the time when [he] left Jerusalem after Herod Agrippa’s attempt to kill him, James appears as the principal authority who presided at the Council of Jerusalem.”
Mentions of James also crop up within the Gospels of Luke, Mark and Matthew as well as the Acts of the Apostles. He is also alluded to in the Pauline epistles and appears within works by the ancient historians Jerome and Eusebius.
And, naturally, the erstwhile leader of the Jerusalem Church plays a critical role in the First Apocalypse of James – a section of the New Testament apocrypha. The apocrypha are a collection of texts that are said to have been composed during Christianity’s beginnings and which frequently speak of Jesus and his apostles.
In fact, certain parts of the New Testament apocrypha were once touted as being true Christian scripture. From about the fifth century onward, however, only a limited range of texts became largely accepted within the religion. As such, then, many of Christianity’s major denominations don’t regard the apocrypha as official writings.
Indeed, at one time, the New Testament apocrypha were believed to be heretical. In essence, they were deemed to contain religious ideas and points of view that exist in contradiction to the agreed consensus. And a person who stood by such nonconformist beliefs could – for several centuries, at least – have been labeled as a heretic.
Interestingly, though, there’s a simple reason why the New Testament apocryphal texts are said to be heretical. You see, a man named Athanasius the Great – who served as the 20th bishop of Alexandria during the fourth century A.D. – didn’t consider them to be official doctrine.
Notably, Athanasius is believed to have chosen the 27 books of the New Testament that are still used today. And in 367 A.D. the religious man clearly laid out his opinion on his picks, writing, “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”
Before Athanasius’ ruling, there had been much debate regarding what should be deemed an official part of the New Testament and what would be omitted. And if different decisions had ultimately been made, then some of the apocrypha may well have been included in the Bible.
So, how were the New Testament books chosen? Well, broadly speaking, the earliest texts about Jesus made the cut. Other documents, by contrast, were deemed as being apocryphal and often prevented from reaching the masses. And owing to the fact that these manuscripts were often less well-preserved than their more legitimate counterparts, they typically only exist today as incomplete documents.
But there may still be a lot that we can glean from the apocrypha. For example, the four official gospels included within the New Testament tend to ignore the younger years of Jesus’ life. However, details of this period can be found in other texts that weren’t officially accepted by Christian officials.
The First Apocalypse of James is just one such example, with its narrative focusing around conversations that were supposedly held between the book’s namesake and Jesus. And as we’ll soon discover, the document not only speaks about the afterlife, but it also mentions visions of the future.
Interestingly, though, the First Apocalypse of James was actually uncovered relatively recently. Alongside 52 other documents, a man named Mohammad Ali al-Samman found the text in December 1945. This copy of the First Apocalypse – which had been worded in Coptic – was discovered in a community in Egypt called Nag Hammadi. Another Coptic version of the script was later found, too.
Then, in 2017, the First Apocalypse hit the headlines once more. This time, though, the fragment found was in Greek – the language in which the piece of apocrypha had originally been written. And the important artifact had actually been unearthed within a collection of other texts known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri were originally discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries. Only around 10 percent of these manuscripts are literary documents, though, with many of the others relating to taxes, trading or censuses. And while most of the texts were composed in Greek, some were written in other languages such as Latin and Arabic.
What’s more, experts have been trying to put some order to the Oxyrhynchus Papyri for over 120 years now. But while more than 5,000 of these fragments have since been analyzed, this number reportedly represents up to only 2 percent of the total works that need to be translated and sorted through. Many of the pieces of text are apparently tiny, too – coming in at no more than an inch or two each.
In 2015, though, the scraps that feature the First Apocalypse of James in Greek were discovered at the University of Oxford’s Sackler Library. And this was all down to Obbink and Smith – the biblical scholars who had been sifting through the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
This document was originally created, it’s said, in the fifth or sixth century A.D. And based on the manner in which the fragment was written, experts believe that it may have once been used for the purposes of teaching someone how to understand and compose the written word.
Brent Landau is among those who suggest that this particular copy may have been an educational document. In 2017 the University of Texas at Austin lecturer told the college’s website, “The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots. Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts.”
Landau went on to characterize the scribe of this Greek version of the First Apocalypse of James, saying that they would likely have “had a particular affinity for the text.” And the academic reached this conclusion from the length of the writings. You see, while most teachers would only have utilized a brief passage of the work, this document presented it in full.
And while reflecting on the discovery that he had helped to make, Smith said to the University of Oxford’s website, “To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement. We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James [had] survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us.”
So, what exactly does the First Apocalypse of James reveal? Well, in general, it speaks of some of the lessons that Jesus supposedly bestowed upon James. There are mentions of heaven along with some prophecies in the text – even a reference to James’ own demise.
The account primarily takes the form of a discussion between Jesus and James, although the bottom of the script also features a section that vaguely alludes to James’ fate. And though this part of the document is a little fragmented, it’s believed to suggest that James will be crucified.
In fact, the initial section of the text speaks about James’ understandable worries of crucifixion. Ultimately, though, it’s said that he will receive “passwords” that will apparently allow the religious leader to overcome evil adversaries and get into heaven.
The document also tells us a little bit about James himself. According to the text, he was the leader of the Christian church in its initial stages. His relationship to Jesus is made explicit, too, when Christ is quoted as saying, “You are not my brother materially.”
Smith has elaborated on the importance of this narrative, explaining to the University of Oxford’s website, “The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus’ life and ministry by allowing us access to conversations that purportedly took place between Jesus and his brother, James – secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus’ death.”
Obbink, who had worked with Smith on the text, was also thrilled by the discovery of this Greek version of the First Apocalypse of James. And according to the academic, the document gives us an intriguing window into how readers engaged with scripture in the past.
Obbink told the University of Oxford that the writings “[show] how the early reading public interacted with different versions of the gospel. In the city center of Oxyrhynchus [in Egypt], Greek-speaking elites read the Gospel of James in the original Greek – alongside our earliest surviving copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
According to Obbink, though, things were different for people who lived outside of the urban centers. He added, “In the rural countryside, at Nag Hammadi, it was the heretical Gospel of James that hermit monks chose to translate into Coptic for native Egyptian speakers.” So, people of the period apparently soaked up information in varying ways.
The discovery of this Greek-language section of the First Apocalypse of James was first announced in November 2017 at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston. And there may be further revelations to come, too. Ultimately, you see, Landau and Smith intend to publish their initial discoveries on the subject in the Egypt Exploration Society’s Graeco-Roman Memoirs series.