Wizard battles and demon circles revealed in newly translated Christian texts

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Wizard battles and demon circles revealed in newly translated Christian texts

By Owen Jarus – Live Science Contributor 6 hours ago

The texts describing the wizard battle are from the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Egypt. This image shows the shrine of St. Macarius in the monastery.(Image: © Danita Delimont / Alamy)

Have you ever heard the story of a wizard battle that supposedly took place when an early church was constructed? Or how about the story of a border guard who defied King Herod’s orders and spared Jesus‘ life? Scholars have now translated these and other “apocryphal” Christian texts (stories not told in the canonical bible) into English for the first time. 

More than 300 Christian apocryphal texts are known to exist, Tony Burke, a professor of early Christianity at York University in Toronto, Canada, wrote in the book he edited “New Testament Apocrypha More Noncanonical Scriptures (Volume 2)” (Eerdmans, 2020). “Apocryphal texts were integral to the spiritual lives of Christians long after the apparent closing of the canon and that the calls to avoid and even destroy such literature were not always effective” wrote Burke. 

Ancient Christians often debated which texts told the truth about Jesus and which did not. By the end of the fourth century the church had ‘canonized’ the texts which they thought were accurate and included them in the bible. 

Related: From Jesus’ time: The 10 most interesting biblical discoveries

Wizard battle

One of the newly translated texts tells of a wizard battle that took place at the ancient city of Philippi, in Greece. Shown here, the ruins of Philippi . (Image credit: Shutterstock)

One of the newly translated texts tells of a battle against ‘diabolical’ wizards who are trying to destroy an ancient church being built as a dedication to the Virgin Mary in the city of Philippi in Greece. 

The text is written in Coptic, an Egyptian language that uses the Greek alphabet, and may have originally been written around 1,500 years ago, Paul Dilley, a professor of religious studies at the University of Iowa, who translated the text, wrote in the book. The story is told in two texts that were both from the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Egypt. At that time, much of the population around the Mediterranean had converted to Christianity, although some still followed polytheistic faiths. 

“There was a tendency to identify the remnants of polytheism with ‘magoi’ or ‘wizards’ who posed dangers to the Christian community, sometimes openly, sometimes clandestinely,” Dilley told Live Science. 

In the text, the Virgin Mary comes to Bishop Basil (who lived from A.D. 329-379) in a dream and tells him where to find an image of her that is “not made by human hands,” the translated text says. She also directs him to place the image in the sanctuary of her church on top of two columns, which he will find in a temple outside of Philippi. 

“These two columns have been set up since the time of the giants. Demonic images cover them. It is not possible for anyone to take them down except through the order of my beloved son [Jesus],” the Virgin Mary says in the text. 

Related: 6 Interesting facts about Jesus, the man

In this story, when Basil takes a group out to the temple he is confronted by a group of wizards who knew diabolical magic. “When they heard about these plans [to move the columns], they went with great disturbance and wretchedness and they made some great diabolic illusions.” 

Basil takes a staff that had been placed on a “sign of the saving cross” and puts the staff on the columns. “I placed it [the staff] upon the two columns, and immediately a great rumbling happened under the columns. Suddenly, they [the columns] leapt up at their bases and thus they rolled until they came to the place of the city’s stadia,” Basil says in the text. 

The wizards stop them, and the magical tug of war between the wizards and Basil’s group comes to a standstill; as night comes, Basil decides to dismiss his group and rest. 

When Basil goes to sleep, the Virgin Mary comes to him in another dream and vows that the wizards will be defeated: “Those who did this evil deed of impertinent magic, behold, they are blind, grasping,” she says. 

Later on, after Basil wakes up, water bubbles up beside the columns creating a stream that miraculously heals people. The wizards were not so fortunate, as “immediately the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them,” the text says. Basil also finds that the image has been placed on the columns by the Virgin Mary herself. 

Today the two surviving copies of the text are in the Vatican Apostolic Library and the Leipzig University Library. 

Border guard helps Jesus

Another newly translated text tells of a bandit named Dimas (also called Dymas/Dismas) who was crucified next to Jesus. The text claims that Dimas once worked as a border guard and was crucified after aiding Jesus and his family when they were fleeing to Egypt. The text says that Jesus was a baby at the time and his family was fleeing King Herod who wanted to kill Jesus. 

This apocryphal text is written in Latin and dates back to the 12th or 13th century, said Mark Bilby, a senior assistant librarian of scholarly communication and lecturer of Religious Studies at California State University, Fullerton, who translated the text. Bilby notes that during the Middle Ages there were a number of stories that claim to tell the story of the criminals crucified beside Jesus. The text was likely written in a French monastery Bilby noted. 

“I think the storyline is wholly fictitious, as a legend built on top of at least 10 discrete earlier legends” Bilby told Live Science. In the book, Bilby noted that this story and others like it may have been intended “to carry an implicit call for the young to leave family, join the Crusades, and become a friend of Jesus in and around the Holy Land.” 

The story takes place, according to the text, when Herod was trying to find and kill Jesus, and the guards had received orders to kill any infant boy they came across. To watch for Jesus, Dimas and his father guarded the border between Judea and Egypt, the story goes.Advertisement

In the text Dimas’ father goes off to do his rounds and tells Dimas to watch the border crossing carefully. Shortly afterward, Joseph and Mary arrive at the border carrying a poorly-clothed baby Jesus. Dimas approaches the family and asks about Jesus. Mary is afraid that Dimas is going to snatch Jesus away but Joseph talks to Dimas and convinces him to let them go. 

Joseph convinces Dimas that a poor family posed no threat to Herod. “It is fitting that you all watch out for the sons of the rich men of this region who are capable of begrudging his superiority at a later time. Yet, when you see people squalid in misery, it is not appropriate to reproach them with these talks,” Joseph says in the text. 

Dimas lets them cross the border and even provides the family with some food. When Dimas’ father finds out, he is furious. “What will I do now? Bound by oath, I will not be able to lie. If he [King Herod] convicts me of treason, he will kill me in place of the boys,” Dimas’ father says. 

Herod later summons Dimas, who tells him of the family that was allowed to escape. Dimas is disowned by his father and turns to banditry. 

Related: Cracking codices: 10 of the most mysterious ancient manuscripts

“Expelled from his father’s house and neighborhood, he commenced engaging in banditry, and it became a tribulation, because he was hardened with weapons and perversity…” the text says. About 30 years later Dimas is captured during the time that Pontius Pilate was prefect (governor) of Judea and is crucified beside Jesus (who is now an adult) the text says. When they are about to be crucified, Dimas confesses the sins he made as a bandit and is forgiven by Jesus. 

The only surviving copy of the text is in the library of the Grand Séminaire in Namur, Belgium.

Demon trapping

Another newly translated text, this one in Greek, tells how the Apostle Peter trapped seven demons who were masquerading as angels in the city of Azotus (also called Ashdod in what is now Israel). 

Though it dates to the 11th or 12th century, the story was likely originally written centuries earlier, perhaps around 1,600 years ago. “The narrative resonates with the context of the fourth and fifth-century speculations about sin, but its loose form and lack of regimentation seem to represent an early phase in that development” wrote Cambry Pardee, a visiting professor of religion at Pepperdine University, London, in the book. 

The author of the text “was writing a work of fiction, valorizing the adventures of the great Christian hero Peter,” Pardee told Live Science. While the events are fictional, “it is very likely, though, that many common Christians who encountered this legend, either as a writing or in spoken form, would have believed it to be a true account, a lost story from Peter’s life” Pardee said. 

Related: The Holy Land: 7 amazing archaeological finds

In the text, Peter, who is suspicious of the “angels,” marks a circle around them and states “my Lord Jesus Christ, let your glory be revealed through the Holy Spirit. Are these, as they say, angels of your divinity or spirits who hate what is good?'” (translation by Cambry Pardee)

One translated text tells of Saint Peter using a circle to trap seven demons, while in the city of Azotus (Ashdod), which is shown here. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Six of the demons admit to Peter that they are demons of deception, sexual immorality, falsehood, adultery, avarice and slander. The seventh demon challenges Peter and asks why demons are treated so badly compared to humans, saying that human sins are forgiven by Christ but demon sins are not. “You have the partiality of Christ; for which reason he chastises us, but he spares you when you repent. Therefore when he leads a prostitute and a tax collector and a denier and a blasphemer and a slanderer into his kingdom, then he ought to gather all of us with you!” Advertisement

The demon also notes that humans should stop blaming demons for their mistakes. “I, the devil, am not their troubler, but they themselves fall down. For I have become weak and am without vigor. Therefore, I no longer have a place nor an arrow, for everywhere people have become Christians. Therefore let them guard themselves and not cast blame” the demon says. Peter then lets the demons go. 

The only surviving copy of this text is in the Biblioteca Angelica library in Rome. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Study casts doubt on ‘sky disk’ thought to be oldest representation of the heavens

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Study casts doubt on ‘sky disk’ thought to be oldest representation of the heavens

By Tom Metcalfe – Live Science Contributor 4 days ago

The Nebra Sky Disk of bronze decorated with gold is one of Germany’s most famous archaeological artifacts. But a new study suggests it dates to the Iron Age, at least 1,000 years later than scientists had thought.(Image: © Anagoria/CC BY 3.0)

One of Germany’s most famous ancient artifacts may not be what it seems, if a new study is to be believed.

Fierce debate over the Nebra Sky Disk has been reignited by a new study that suggests it is at least 1,000 years younger than previously thought, and probably doesn’t have any of the elaborate meanings proposed for it.

The 12-inch-wide (30 centimeters) bronze disk inlaid with gold circles, arcs and crescents was reportedly unearthed in 1999 near the town of Nebra, in Germany’s Saxony-Anhalt state. 

Experts have long debated where the disk originated and what meaning, if any, it holds; some have even declared it is fake (and created very recently) — although scientific tests suggest it’s an authentic artifact that may date from Europe’s pre-Celtic Bronze Age, up to 3,800 years ago.

If that dating is correct, then the Nebra Sky Disk is the oldest-known representation of the heavens anywhere in the world, said Jan-Heinrich Bunnefeld, an archaeologist at Saxony-Anhalt’s State Museum for Prehistory in the city of Halle, where the disk is now on display (The next oldest is an ancient Egyptian star map on the ceiling of a tomb from about 3,500 years ago).

“The Nebra Sky Disc features the oldest concrete depiction of cosmic phenomena,” Bunnefeld told Live Science in an email. “It is a key find, not only for the discipline of archaeology, but also for astronomy and the history of religions.”

The researchers argue that motifs of the full moon, crescent moon and stars were common in the Iron Age from about 800 B.C. to 50 B.C. — such as on this Early Celtic sword found near Munich, from about 500 B.C. (Image credit: State Archaeological Collection Munich, Manfred Eberlein)

Ancient artifact

But a new study casts doubts on the origins and meaning of the Nebra Sky Disk. 

Writing this month in the journal Archäologische Informationen, University of Munich archaeologist Rupert Gebhard and Rüdiger Krause, an archaeologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, argue that the artifact could not have been unearthed at the location near Nebra, according to a statement.

That also means the sky disk probably isn’t from the Bronze Age at all. In addition, a new examination of its iconography suggests the artifact dates to the period of the Celtic Iron Age between about 2,800 and 2,050 years ago, the researchers wrote.

The study has created outrage in parts of the archaeological scene in Germany, where the Nebra Sky Disk is considered a national treasure and an emblem of early European civilization — and where any challenges to its provenance or authenticity are aggressively confronted.

“It’s like Beethoven’s Ninth,” Gebhard told Live Science, referring to the composer’s famous symphony, a nationally revered symbol of German achievement. 

“That makes it difficult for me … you can understand that people are not very happy about this.”

This photograph shows the Nebra Sky Disk before restoration work was carried out at the State Museum for Prehistory at Halle. It shows the corrosion and damage to the desk, including a fragment of gold missing from the circle near the center. (Image credit: Hildegard Burri-Bayer)

Bronze Age hoard

The biggest reason the new study casts doubt on the sky disk’s provenance is that scientific evidence suggests it was not part of a hoard of Bronze Age axes, swords and bracelets allegedly unearthed by treasure hunters near Nebra in 1999, although it was initially thought to be, Gebhard said.

The collectors sold the disk and hoard to a black-market collector for around 70,000 German marks ($42,000) and it was sold on for up to a million German marks ($600,000), until police recovered the hoard in 2002 and handed it over to state archaeologists.

A court found the two treasure hunters guilty in 2005 for the illegal excavation, sentencing the pair to several months in jail.

Statements made by the treasure hunters in their attempts to appear to be cooperating with authorities explains the resulting confusion about the location of the artifacts, Gebhard said.

Related: 10 historical treasures the world lost in the last 100 years

But archaeological evidence, soil analysis and studies of trace isotopes (variations of an element with different numbers of neutrons) in the metals of the disk show it must have been found somewhere else, and then sold as part of the hoard from Nebra: “If you go back to the basics, then you won’t find any argument that these objects belong together,” he said.

Gebhard hopes the treasure hunters will eventually explain where they actually unearthed the Nebra Sky Disk, information that would cast new light on its origins.

“I think our article now brings some movement in this story,” he said. “I hope it will be the first step to get some information about the original site.”

Disputed origins

Past analysis of the construction of the disk and the metals that were used shows the Nebra Sky Disk was made in several phases. Its creators first added a central group of gold stars, which have been interpreted as the Pleiades, and a large gold circle and crescent, which have been interpreted as the full and crescent moon. 

They later rearranged some of the gold stars, also adding two “horizon” arcs to the edges of the disk which may show the movement of the sun on the winter and summer solstices. 

During a later phase, the artists added an arc near the bottom edge of the disk, which was previously interpreted as a “solar boat” carrying the sun through the sky. 

Proponents of the disk’s Bronze Age origins say the artifact represents a sophisticated understanding of astronomical phenomena as well as the intricacies of religious thought at the time.

Archaeologists at the Saxony-Anhalt State Museum for Prehistory in Halle, who support the Bronze Age dating, insist the latest study is wrong. They say some of the soil samples suggest the sky disk could have been part of the Nebra hoard, while chemical analysis of its metals establish its earlier date.

“Gebhard and Krause are ignoring important publications and quoting only those facts that seem useful to underline their theory,” deputy state archaeologist Alfred Reichenberger said in a statement. “The theory of an Iron Age date for the Nebra Sky Disc is demonstrably incorrect.”

But Gebhard said the iconography of the sky disk shows it was probably made in the Iron Age, possibly by peoples in the north of Germany who were strongly influenced by the Celtic civilization farther south. 

Iron Age swords and other objects from the region are also decorated with symbols of the moon and stars that reflect the symbolic importance of the night, he said.

Any new interpretations of the Nebra Sky Disk would have to account for the uncertainty of its origins, Gebhard said. “We just have to start at the very beginning again.” 

Originally published on Live Science.

Facial reconstruction reveals Egyptian ‘mummy portrait’ was accurate except for one detail

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Facial reconstruction reveals Egyptian ‘mummy portrait’ was accurate except for one detail

Vikings may not have been blonde, or Scandinavian

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Vikings may not have been blonde, or Scandinavian

Mummy Found Hiding Inside Ancient Buddha Statue

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Mummy Found Hiding Inside Ancient Buddha Statue

By Tia Ghose February 23, 2015

During routine restoration, researchers discovered a surprise hidden in an ancient gold-painted Chinese Buddha statue: a mummy hidden inside. The mummy was once the Buddhist monk Liuquan, according to text found with the statue.(Image: © ©Ben Heggelman (Meander Medical Centre, Amersfoort) / Universityhospital Mannheim)

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on March 3 at 10:10 a.m. E.T.

A Chinese statue of a sitting Buddha has revealed a hidden surprise: Inside, scientists found the mummified remains of a monk who lived nearly 1,000 years ago.

The mummy may have once been a respected Buddhist monk who, after death, was worshipped as an enlightened being, one who helped the living end their cycle of suffering and death, said Vincent van Vilsteren, an archaeology curator at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands, where the mummy (from inside the Buddha statue) was on exhibit last year.

The secret hidden in the gold-painted statue was first discovered when preservationists began restoring the statue many years ago. But the human remains weren’t studied in detail until researchers took scans and samples of tissue from the mummy late last year.

The mysterious statue is now on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest. [Image Gallery: Inca Child Mummies]

Mysterious history

The papier-mâché statue, which has the dimensions, roughly, of a seated person and is covered in lacquer and gold paint, has a murky history. It was likely housed in a monastery in Southeastern China for centuries. It may have been taken from the country during the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous period of social upheaval in Communist China starting in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong urged citizens to seize property, dismantle educational systems and attack “bourgeois” cultural institutions. (The current owner bought the statue legally.)

A gold-painted papier-mâché statue of the Buddha contained the mummified remains of an ancient Buddhist monk who lived during the 11th or 12th century. Here, a researcher inspects the statue. (Image credit: © Drents Museum)

The statue was bought and sold again in the Netherlands, and in 1996, a private owner decided to have someone fix the chips and cracks that marred the gold-painted exterior. However, when the restorer removed the statue from its wooden platform, he noticed two pillows emblazoned with Chinese text placed beneath the statues’ knees. When he removed the pillows, he discovered the human remains.

“He looked right into the bottom of this monk,” van Vilsteren told Live Science. “You can see part of the bones and tissue of his skin.”

The mummy was sitting on a rolled textile carpet covered in Chinese text.

Researchers then used radioactive isotopes of carbon to determine that the mummy likely lived during the 11th or 12th century, while the carpet was about 200 years older, van Vilsteren said. (Isotopes are variations of elements with different numbers of neutrons.)

In 2013, researchers conducted a CT scan of the mummy at Mannheim University Hospital in Germany, revealing the remains in unprecedented detail. In a follow-up scan at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, Netherlands, the researchers discovered that what they thought was lung tissue actually consisted of tiny scraps of paper with Chinese text on them.

The text found with the mummy suggests he was once the high-status monk Liuquan, who may have been worshipped as a Buddha, or a teacher who helps to bring enlightenment after his death.

Last year, the mummy was on display at the “Mummies – Life Beyond Death” exhibit at the Drents Museum in Netherlands, before moving to the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest.

Common practice

Mummies from this period are fairly common in Asia. For instance, researchers in Mongolia recently found a 200-year-old mummified monk still in the lotus position, the traditional cross-legged meditative pose.

It’s not clear exactly how Liuquan became a mummy, but “in China, and also in Japan and Laos and Korea, there’s a tradition of self-mummification,” van Vilsteren said.

In some cases, aging Buddhist monks would slowly starve themselves to eliminate decay-promoting fat and liquid, while subsisting mainly on pine needles and resin to facilitate the mummification process, according to “Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan,” (McFarland, 2010). Once these monks were near death, they would be buried alive with just a breathing tube to keep them holding on so they could meditate until death.

“There are historical records of some aging monks who have done this practice,” van Vilsteren said. “But if this is also the case with this monk is not known.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to note that the current owner of the Buddha bought the statue legally.

Follow Tia Ghose on Twitterand Google+. Follow Live Science @livescienceFacebook & Google+Originally published on Live Science.

In Photos: Treasures of Mesopotamia

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In Photos: Treasures of Mesopotamia

Honanki Ruins: Photos Reveal Sprawling, Ancient Pueblos

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Honanki Ruins: Photos Reveal Sprawling, Ancient Pueblos

Chaco Canyon Photos: Amazing Ruins from an Ancient World

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Chaco Canyon Photos: Amazing Ruins from an Ancient World

Woman seeks man in ancient Egyptian ‘erotic binding spell’

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Woman seeks man in ancient Egyptian ‘erotic binding spell’

This Is ‘Lola,’ a 5,700-Year-Old Woman Whose Entire Life Is Revealed in Her ‘Chewing Gum’

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This Is ‘Lola,’ a 5,700-Year-Old Woman Whose Entire Life Is Revealed in Her ‘Chewing Gum’



Originally published on Live Science.