10 of the Most Mysterious Ancient Manuscripts

October 18, 2016

Cracking codices

Dating back hundreds to thousands of years, codices can reveal much about an ancient culture, that is, if you can decipher the text. Often written in an outdated language with unfamiliar grammar, these codices take careful analysis to crack their meanings. Some continue to completely baffle archaeologists and other scientists, while others have divulged just enough of their meaning to intrigue.

From an Egyptian book full of magic spells to a text written in an unknown language, Live Science takes a look at 10 of the most mysterious ancient manuscripts.


Liber Linteus

Preserved in the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy, this text is written in Etruscan, a language that was used in Italy in ancient times. Dating back about 2,200 years, the mummy and its removed wrappings are now in the Zagreb Museum in Croatia.

The text’s meaning is not entirely clear. It was “classified as a funerary calendar in the past, but nowadays, it is usually labelled as a ritual calendar, although months are only mentioned from column 6 onwards,” Lammert Bouke van der Meer, a professor at Leiden University, wrote in an essay published in the book “Votives, Places and Rituals in Etruscan Religion” (Brill, 2008).

In ancient Egypt, it was common for materials to be reused as mummy wrapping or to make mummy masks. Additionally, trade was widespread in the Mediterranean in ancient times, and it was not unusual for goods to be transported between Italy and Egypt according to ancient records and archaeological finds.


Gospel of the Lots of Mary

The “Gospel of the Lots of Mary,” as the ancient text is called, is a gospel like no other. Written in Coptic (an Egyptian language) and dating back around 1,500 years, the Gospel of the Lots of Mary doesn’t discuss the life of Jesus, but instead contains a series of 37 oracles, written vaguely, with only a few words that mention Jesus.

The opening to the book begins as follows: “The Gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the Archangel brought the good news. He who will go forward with his whole heart will obtain what he seeks. Only do not be of two minds.”

The text, now at Harvard University, was deciphered, and details were published in 2014 by Anne Marie Luijendijk, a professor in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. In her book “Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary” (Mohr Siebeck, 2014),” she wrote that the gospel would have been used for divination, an attempt to predict the future. A person seeking an answer to a question could have sought out the owner of this book, asked a question and gone through a process that would randomly select one of the 37 oracles to help find a solution to the person’s problem. How the process would have worked is unknown. Though it’s unclear how the book reached the United States, it was donated to Harvard in 1984.


Dresden Codex

The Dresden Codex is a Mayan text dating back around 800 years; it contains 39 beautifully illustrated sheets with texts and images on both sides. Research published in 2016 in the Journal of Astronomy in Culture indicates that the codex records the phases of the planet Venus so that the Maya would be certain that their ceremonial events were being held on the correct day.

The Maya “had a really elaborate ritual set of events that were tied to the calendar,” study researcher Gerardo Aldana, a science historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Live Science. “They were probably doing large-scale ritual activity connected to the different phases of Venus.”

The codex first appeared in Europe at The Royal Library in Dresden, Germany, in the 1730s. How it got there is unclear. Many Mayan texts were destroyed by zealous Christian missionaries trying to wipe out any non-Christian beliefs.


Gospel of Judas

In 2006, the National Geographic Society published a translation of the third-century text called the “Gospel of Judas” that may depict Judas Iscariot — who, in the New Testament, betrayed Jesus — in a positive light. Some scholars claim that the text, written in Coptic, describes Jesus asking Judas to betray him so that he could be crucified and ascend into heaven.

However, experts disagree over the translation and interpretation of the text. April DeConick, a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston, said the text actually declares Judas to be a “daimon” (demon). Tests on the gospel’s inkindicate that it is authentic, according to a team led by microscopist Joseph Barabe of McCrone Associates in Illinois.


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