Ancient artifacts are not only to be found at  archaeological sites but can be rediscovered in museums and other collections around the world. In the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, for most of the 20th century there have lain in obscurity nearly 2500 unassembled, individual fragments which are remnants of a fourth-century Coptic papyrus book. The long-term goal of the Coptic Texts Editing Project is to rescue such ancient manuscripts from oblivion and make them available to scholars via publication in critical editions. The project began with the surviving 2500 fragments of the Coptic book, now called Codex Berolinensis 20915. Through the painstaking work of reassembling the pieces of papyrus, some no larger than a thumbnail, more than 200 fragmentary pages have now been reconstructed. The text is a Coptic translation of a much older Greek composition, now lost.

A fragment can speak volumes, even when the volume is lost. This papyrus fragment, one of the 2500 fragments belonging to what was once a Coptic Book, contains the name of a Gnostic group, the “Sethians,” only known from Christian heresiologists, as well as names of Sethian cosmological beings, previously attested only in the Nag Hammadi corpus.

The painstaking and time consuming work of regrouping, replacing, and reconnecting the scattered fragments will result in the restoration of a previously unknown text that provides a rare glimpse into the thought-world of early Alexandrian Christianity.

The emerging text appears to be a previously unknown Christian theological treatise of the second- to early third-century. One of the larger fragments (shown at right) contains names of cosmological beings known from the Nag Hammadi corpus, and then refers explicitly to “the teaching of the Sethians,” a Gnostic group attested only by the later heresiologists. There are also references to other non-canonical writings, as well as extensive quotations of Scripture. The treatise betrays highly speculative philosophical thinking on various topics, mainly connected with scriptural exegeses, and exhibits recurring themes of God’s creation and God’s wrath. At this stage, the text promises to be a valuable witness to Alexandrian theology and to the development of early Christianity.

The final edition appeared in two volumes, published by Peeters in the CSCO series, containing--along with transcription, translation, and text-critical notes--digital images of the actual papyrus pages, assembled electronically by using digital imaging tools, a technology that has never before been applied to papyrological research.

Dr. Gesine Robinson is a New Testament scholar and author of numerous publications in the fields of Gnosticism and Coptology. She is the Director of the "Coptic Texts Editing Project" at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University.