Ancient manuscripts, written in some old and forgotten languages, can offer truly insightful glimpses into the distant past. Many such tomes were written hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, and their grammar can still pose a serious impediment to scholars today in understanding them completely. While some are still a complete mystery, others offered just enough to make them even more intriguing. In any case, books and scripts written long ago were rare, if not unique, even during their time, let alone today. Here are ten such enigmatic and one of a kind manuscripts that survived to the 21st century.
10. The Gospel of Judas
In 325 AD, the First Council of Nicaea took place, convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I. Though it wasn’t actually the first such council, here, most of the discrepancies of the Christian faith were put in place in an attempt to attain consensus over various interpretations of the faith. As a result, it was more or less common knowledge that Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, betrayed him to the Roman authorities in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. However, a leather-bound papyrus document surfaced during the 1970s near Beni Mazar, Egypt. Written in Coptic, the document was later dated to sometime around 280 AD. What the text revealed seemingly turned the entire series of events taking place in the New Testament on its head. This document, though not written by Judas himself, but rather by Gnostic Christians, was called The Gospel of Judas.
As it turns out, Judas wasn’t the traitor the Bible made him out to be, but rather Jesus’ most trusted apostle. The text reveals how Jesus told Judas to turn him in to the authorities in order for his soul to reach God. Judas’ reward here wasn’t silver, but his ascension to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples. However, not all scholars agree with this interpretation. Historian April D. DeComick believes the Coptic word “daimon” to mean demon, and not spirit, as it was previously assumed. If this is the case, which is most likely, then Judas was considered to be a specific demon called the Thirteenth, or the king of demons, and that Jesus wasn’t killed in the name of God, but rather for the demons themselves.
Due to the religious importance of the Gospel, its authenticity was put in question. While the papyrus itself was dated to the 3rd century AD, the ink used posed more questions. There were some inconsistencies regarding the ink used in that time period of the 200s, but later research unveiled the fact that it is actually legitimate.
9. The Grolier Codex
Named after the location of its first public appearance (the Grolier Club in New York), the Grolier Codex is an 800-year-old manuscript belonging to the Maya of the pre-Colombian Yucatan Peninsula. Discovered by looters in a cave in Mexico during the 1960s, the codex was hidden alongside a Maya mosaic mask and some other treasures. A wealthy Mexican collector by the name of Josué Sáenz was then flown to an undisclosed location at the request of the looters, and the exchange was made in 1966. In 1971, Sáenz displayed it at the Grolier Club, after which he donated it to the Mexican government. Due to its rather shady means of discovery and acquisition, the manuscript was under heavy scrutiny and was initially believed to be a fake. Other factors about the document seemed to point in the same direction. However, Yale professor Michael Coe, together with other researchers from Brown University, subjected the 10-page-long manuscript to a series of various tests, ultimately proving it to be genuine.
Radiocarbon dating placed the document somewhere around 1250 AD, during the late Maya period, about the same time when the city of Chichen Itza was being built. The date refers to the papyrus itself, and not when the document was actually written. No evidence of modern pigments was discovered, including those able to produce the famous “Maya blue.” The codex, as it turns out, is a 104-year-long calendar predicting the movements of Venus. Alongside Mayan symbols, there are a lot of Toltec-influenced styles, not that uncommon during those times. The Toltec were regarded as ancestors by the Aztec civilization and many of their elements appear in Maya art as well. Its pages are adorned with “workaday gods, deities who must be invoked for the simplest of life’s needs: sun, death, K’awiil—a lordly patron and personified lightning—even as they carry out the demands of the ‘star’ we call Venus,” said Stephen Houston, Brown University social scientist.
8. The Egyptian Handbook of Ritual Power
Sometime during the late 1970s or very early ’80s, an antiques dealer came across a 20-page-long ancient manuscript, which he then sold to the Macquarie University in Australia in 1981. Nobody knows were the document was found exactly, or when, but the scholars who later studied it say it was written sometime around 700 AD, by someone in pre-Islamic Upper Egypt. For decades scientists tried in vain to decipher it, but no one was successful until recently. Written in Coptic, the codex “starts with a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power,” said Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, professors at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney.
Egypt was populated mostly by Christians at the time, and thus there are a number of invocations referring to Jesus. However, most of the spells and summons within the book seem to indicate the Sethians. One invocation calls “Seth, Seth, the living Christ.” The Sethians were a group of Christians which flourished in Egypt during the early centuries of Christendom, but by the 7th century they were declared as heretics and were slowly disappearing. They held Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son, in high regard. The manuscript also makes mention of a “Baktiotha,” an unknown but divine figure, ruler of the material realm, and of ambivalent allegiance.
Who actually used it is still a matter of debate among scholars, but it might not have necessarily been a monk or a priest. And even though the text was written with a male user in mind, it doesn’t exclude a female user either. Whatever the case, the codex gave “helpful advice” in the form of incantations or spells in curing various curses, possessions or ailments, as well as bringing success in love and business. There is even a spell on how to subjugate someone by saying a magical spell over two nails and then “drive them into his doorpost, one on the right side (and) one on the left.”
7. Liber Linteus
Following Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt at the turn of the 18th century, a sharp increase in the country took place in Europe in a phenomenon known as Egyptomania. As a result, the following decades saw an influx of Egyptian artifacts all over the continent. In 1848, a Croatian official under the Hungarian Royal Chancellery decided to resign his post and travel to Egypt. While there, he purchased a sarcophagus containing a female mummy. When he returned to Vienna, he displayed it in his home for 11 years, up until he died. His brother, a priest, inherited it and gave it away to the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb in 1867. And even though the mummy was on display since it arrived in Europe, with the wrappings displayed separately in a glass case, it was only here at the museum that the German Egyptologist, Heinrich Brugsch, realized that there was actually writing on it.
Believing them to be Egyptian hieroglyphs, Brugsch didn’t investigate any further. A decade later, while talking with a friend and explorer, Richard Burton, he realized that the script was of unknown origin and not Egyptian after all. Fourteen years later, in 1891, while back in Vienna, the writings on the wrappings were identified as being Etruscan. The Etruscans were the precursors of the Romans on the Italian Peninsula. The text was then known as the Liber Linteus (Latin for ‘Linen Book’).
Even to this day, Etruscan is not fully understood, as there are very few pieces of the ancient language in existence. But based on what already existed, Jacob Krall – an expert on Coptic language – was able to deduce that the Liber Linteus was a sort of religious calendar. The question, then, was what Etruscan text was doing in Egypt? Krall was also able to deduce from a piece of papyrus scroll inside the sarcophagus that the mummy’s name was Nesi-hensu, the wife of a Theban ‘divine tailor’ named Paher-hensu, an Egyptian. The best explanation is that the text was transported from Italy to Egypt sometime in the 3rd century BC, and was the only linen available when the woman was embalmed. As a result, the Liber Linteus is an “accident” of history, but one of the most important texts when it comes to the Etruscan language.
6. The Sultan’s Book of Delights
One interesting and totally unique manuscript comes to us from India. The Ni’matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu, as it is also known, dates back to around 1500 AD. Unlike any other medieval Indo-Muslim manuscript of its time, which often tackle subjects like politics, war, social history or political organization, the Sultan’s Book of Delights centers itself on domestic arts and the personal likes of the eccentric Sultan Ghiyath Shahi of the Malwa Sultanate in Central India. It is one of the earliest books written in Urdu, with its first miniature illustrations being made under a Persian influence with the later ones becoming more Indianised.
Ghiyath Shahi ascended to the throne in 1469, but once his son, Nasir Shah, became of age in 1500 AD, he decided to step down and focus his attention on the pleasures of life. He then filled his palace with musicians, painters, cooks, and thousands of women. Many of these women were taught in the fine arts of wrestling and cooking, among others. Five hundred female Abyssinian slaves, clad in armor and skilled in combat, became his permanent bodyguards. During this time, the capital city of Mandu became known as Shadiyabad, or City of Joy.
The manuscript was also written during this period, and it consists of several hundred recipes for food, perfumes, salves and pastes, medicines, and all sorts of aphrodisiacs. What combinations work together, and what others should be avoided. These are accompanied by 50 illustrations depicting their preparation. The paintings also show Ghiyath Shahi himself, easily recognized by his moustache, either supervising or enjoying various activities such as hunting, fishing, or eating. These works were collected together into the manuscript by his son, Nasir Shah.
5. Gospel of the Lots of Mary
This is a 1,500-year-old book, in possession of Harvard University since 1984, which received it from Beatrice Kelekian, Charles Dikran Kelekian’s widow. Charles was a trader of Coptic antiquities, deemed the “dean of antiquities” among New York art dealers. Where he got this book is still a mystery. An interesting fact about this book is its small size, at just 3 inches in height and 2.7 inches in width. Its size made it easy to transport and to be hidden if need be. Written in Coptic, the book was, up until recently, undecipherable. And now that it’s been translated, the text came as a surprise to many scholars.
In the opening it reads: “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.” Even though it calls itself “a gospel,” this manuscript is not one in the sense of what we normally know the word to mean. Usually a gospel is a narrative about the life and death of Jesus, but this book hardly makes any mention of him. This is because the word “gospel” literally translates to “good news.”
In fact, this little booklet is a collection of 37 oracles, written vaguely, and which were probably used as a form of divination. The user would ask himself a question about the future, and then open the book at random to look for an answer. For example, oracle 24 reads: “Stop being of two minds, o human, whether this thing will happen or not. Yes, it will happen! Be brave and do not be of two minds. Because it will remain with you a long time and you will receive joy and happiness.” Given its purpose, its small size starts to make sense, especially when many church leaders at the time were against divination and put strict rules in place to ban the practice. Regardless, the booklet was heavily used with thumbprints still being clearly visible on its margins.
4. The Sibiu Manuscript
In 1961, a professor of Science and Technology at the University of Bucharest came across an old manuscript in the national archive in Sibiu, Romania. The 450-page-long document was dated to sometime before 1570 and it described various subjects of artillery and ballistics from the 16th century. Doru Todericiu, the previously mentioned professor, began studying it in more depth, focusing on its scientific and technological content. On closer inspection he realized that in the third part of the manuscript, a man by the name of Conrad Haas was describing in remarkable detail the basics and function of a “flying javelin,” a modern multistage rocket. He describes and depicts rockets with two and three stages, as well as how to build the rocket, stabilizing fins, and the use of liquid fuel.
Not much is known about this Conrad Haas. He was born in Dornbach (now part of Hernals, Vienna). He held the post of arsenal master in the Imperial Austrian Army and in 1551 he came to the Principality of Transylvania to become a weapons engineer in Sibiu (then Hermannstadt). Here he wrote the manuscript. Todericiu says that Haas also built and tested the rockets by using soli fuels. The document is now located in the Sibiu Museum in Romania, and is the first documented proof of rocketry in the world. This style of multistage rockets was later used by astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. In the last paragraph on the military use of rockets, Haas wrote: “But my advice is for more peace and no war, leaving the rifles calmly in storage, so the bullet is not fired, the gunpowder is not burned or wet, so the prince keeps his money, the arsenal master his life; that is the advice Conrad Haas gives.”
3. The Eight-Foot Long Leather Manuscript
For about 70 years, one of the most unique and, without a doubt, the largest manuscript disappeared from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In 2015 they rediscovered it, cramped in an old, dusty drawer somewhere in the back of the museum. Like other entries in this list, the exact location of its discovery is unknown. It was bought from a local antiques dealer by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo sometime after WWI and it was first unrolled just before WWII. It dates back to sometime around 2000 to 2300 BC, from the Late Kingdom to the early Middle Kingdom. It stands at 8.2 feet long, and is adorned with writing and beautifully colored drawings of exceptional quality.
Made out of leather, it is a real miracle the huge manuscript was able to withstand the rigors of time over more than 4,000 years. Leather was considered a very precious writing material, and only holy texts or great historic events were written on it. Papyrus was more common, and it better endured the test of time, especially in the scorching heat of the Egyptian desert. In any case, this particular manuscript is written on both sides and contains depictions of divine and supernatural beings, predating the famous Book of the Dead. Religious spells, formulated in the first person singular, make up the text. These were most likely recited by a priest, and even though it was portable, the scroll was most likely kept in a temple.
2. The Codex Washingtonianus
Located at the Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art, the Codex Washingtonianus consists of four gospels of the so-called Western order (Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark), and is the third oldest Bible in the world. It dates back to about the 4th or 5th century AD, during the time when Christianity began to turn from an underground cult to a standardized religion. The Codex was most likely copied from several other manuscripts found at the time. Its covers are made out of wood and the pages are of parchment (processed animal skin). Its pages are highly sensitive to light and humidity, and thus, the codex is rarely put on display.
What makes it so unique, besides being 1,500-years-old, is the fact that it holds an extra passage in the Gospel of Mark, not found in any other Biblical text anywhere. It reads: “And Christ replied to them, ‘The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near.’” What this single line seems to imply is that Satan, and not God, is the one in charge. When it was first translated and made public in 1912, it caused much controversy and distress around the world. Today, people’s perspectives have somewhat shifted, but back then this passage shook a lot of people. Since this passage, known as “the Freer Logion,” makes no appearance anywhere else in the world, it was probably an oral saying that made its way into the gospels, according to Michael Holmes, a biblical scholar at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
1. The Copper Scroll
Between 1946 and 1956, some 981 different texts and scrolls were discovered in eleven caves in the eastern Judaean Desert of what is now the modern-day West Bank. This collection is what’s known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unlike the other scrolls found in these caves by local shepherds, the Copper Scroll was found by archaeologists in 1952 at the end of one of these caves. It was also the only one made from copper, while the others are in either parchment or papyrus. Made out of two rolled sheets of corded copper, it was impossible for scientists to unfold the scroll by any usual means. So, they instead decided to cut it in 23 thin strips, and then place them back together.
The text, although in Hebrew like the others, uses a different dialect. And while all of the others are religious in nature, like copies of Hebrew Scripture, uncanonized Hebrew texts and sectarian manuscripts, the Copper Scroll is a “treasure map.” In it there are actual directions to various hidden treasures of gold, silver, coins, and vessels. For example, column two, verses 1-3 say: “In the salt pit that is under the steps: forty-one talents of silver. In the cave of the old washer’s chamber, on the third terrace: sixty-five ingots of gold.” Summing them all up, researchers estimated the value of all of them at $1,000,000 in 1960. In today’s money that would be slightly over $8 million.
To date, however, nobody has been able to recover any of these treasures; or at least they say they haven’t. Nobody knows who wrote it, or to whom the treasure belonged. Some say the treasure never actually existed and that the Copper Scroll is a work of fiction. Others believe it refers to the Temple of Jerusalem, just before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and the scroll was made to safeguard its riches. Others go even further, believing the treasure to belong to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. However, all of these are mere speculations, and whether the treasure exists or not is yet to be determined. But if it did exist, there’s always the possibility that it was already found in ancient times and nobody reported it.