The Teachings

Excerpted from;
Achermann, JH. (2011) The Teachings: Two centuries of confusion. JABA 127(4):6-9.

Much has been made of 'The Teachings' over the previous two centuries, but the truth of the matter is that, despite more incisive research in the past 50 years, the historical context of the manuscript – much less, the identity of 'the teacher' – remain elusive.

The manuscript itself - while these facts remain incompletely documented – apparently surfaced in Tunisia or Morocco and was purchased by a French antiquarian at a bazaar about 1819. Thereafter, it is undocumented for approximately two generations until its purchase by the Bodleian Library in London around 1856 and attributed to 'miscellaneous historical documents and foglii from Paris'. Unfortunately, the accession record for the particular manuscript has been lost – likely in the fire of 1862. Fortunately, it is well preserved; the first two pages show fire damage to the top right while the remainder of the parchment is darkened and stained, but the writing remains vivid to the naked eye.

It is not the most likely source for such contention as it has raised. The manuscript is a mere 16 pages written verso and recto. The language is Greek, dating the copyist – by parallelisms of style and vocabulary -  to around the 8th century C.E. The manuscript is accented by highly cryptic marginal glosses in Arabic (similarly dated to the 9th century C.E.) which suggest that their author was not keen to reveal his meaning.

Among the more exuberantly supportive scholars – most from the early days of manuscript study – some have suggested that the MS is on a footing equal with the Qumran and Nag Hamadi manuscripts: indeed – so enamoured of it, where they - one to be included as an apocryphal gospel of Jesus Christ, such as the well known Gospel of Thomas. The detractors, on the other hand, strongly and compellingly propound that it is no more than a competently executed philosophical exercise drawn in the guise of a Socratic discourse.

Interestingly, none of the major religions have claimed the manuscript as their own and, in fact, all seem wary of some or other of its principles demonstrated. Biblical scholars generally acknowledge it as of Judeo-Christian heritage but discount a lineage with the teachings of Jesus Christ as reported by the apostles (see Nicholson, 1981 for a pithy review). The sound - and roundly accepted - linguistic analysis of Von der Dreisch (1987 – study based on the De Fellipi facsimile edition of 1904) demonstrated a failure of any Asian linguistic carry-through in the translation; effectively divorcing the MS from a Confucian lineage. Similarly, Islamic scholars, while accepting some of the tenets proposed by 'the Teacher', disallow prima faciae any MS not written in classical Arabic as only those can be the Word of Allah as revealed to The Prophet by the  Archangel Gabriel. Leading Judaic scholars hold, quite simply, that the Pentateuch was complete long before this manuscript or any of its antecedents were written.

Clearly, only further scholarship and, hopefully, more manuscript identifications will allow the distinction of the Bodleian exemplar between a messianic/prophetic literature and that of a strictly religio-philosophical nature. At the root of this difficulty lies the identity or historico-geographical localisation of 'the Teacher' as a first step in resolving this conundrum.

A first step toward this resolution may have been provided by Segal and Erikson (2010) in their analysis of a single folio among those from the Codex Lisbonensis. This massive volume, currently housed in the Archivios Nazionales Lisboa, contains a miscellany of parchment documents in various states of completeness and preservation which are broadly dated to the 4th century C.E. These authors (pp. 416-418) propose convincingly that the f261v/r represents a parallel document lineage to 'The Teachings' but one which reports an identical philosophy. Oddly, there is no overlap in the teachings themselves between the two exemplars but the Codex sample is also very limited.

What is remarkable, however, about this document is that it places 'The Teacher' on the island of Cypress and, by historical incidentals, in approximately 120 to 150 B.C.E. This led Harvard's Dr. John Hampton to propose at the recent annual meeting of the American Society for Manuscript Studies (ASMS) that, based on the scant evidence, 'The Teachings' could be precursor to those of Christ and, thus, negate any claim of His messianic stature. There has been no official response to this proposal from the Holy See.

Unfortunately, the Bodleian manuscript has, for some time, been inaccessible to scholars for reasons of restoration. Among the four facsimile editions which we possess, the De Fellipi (1904) is by far the clearest, most complete and detailed. As an interesting side note, the artist commissioned by De Fellipi to paint the facsimile was the British illustrator, Sidney Paget – he who also illustrated 'The Strand' magazine editions of Sir A.C. Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes. It is, therefore, incumbent upon scholars to note that Paget was not fluent in Greek. The doctoral thesis of Tilby (1958) showed – on direct comparison - numerous inexactitudes which had clear implications over the interpretation of the facsimile text.

Until the restoration of the Bodleian manuscript is complete, students of 'The Teachings' must accept that, currently, the resources available for study are limited and flawed, leaving new scholarship in limbo and plainly speculatory.

London's Archbishop, Edgar Traynor, hovered over the shoulder of the Bodleian's chief archivist, Derek Smythe.

“That is the original, Dr. Smythe?”

“Oh, yes, Sir,” emphasised the archivist.

“And no one saw you remove it?”

“No, Sir,” said the other, fumbling with the wrapping and revealing the unbound manuscript.

“Excellent,” said Archibishop Traynor. “We have top scholars standing by in Rome to produce a definitive study of this. Don't you think it is time that was done?”

Turning, Dr. Smythe passed the document over to the waiting hands of the Archbishop.


The question hung suspended in the silence of the darkened reading room. Archbishop Traynor studied Derek like a bird in a cage.

“The Vatican's best,” suggested Traynor, continuing without pause. “Did you enjoy the gift we sent you?” Dr. Smythe immediately blushed to the roots of his sandy hair.

“Yes, she... it was a lovely evening. Delightful, really.”

“Wonderful,” answered Traynor, grinning. “How are we doing with the facsimile editions?” Smythe continued to blush with the memory and wiped his palms on his trousers.

“Several copies are in private hands, but I managed to purchase four more. I will have them all.”

Stuffing the manuscript in his briefcase, Archbishop Traynor, dressed in an innocuous dark suit, turned to leave.

“See that they are destroyed.”

The door of the reading room closed with a pneumatic hiss.

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