Three BYU professors have uncovered mysteries in ancient Egyptian writings aided by new technology that allows people to see inscriptions invisible to the naked eye.
The professors Roger Macfarlane, Stephen Bay and Thomas Wayment, have been working on deciphering these writings on papyrus found in an Egyptian dump where an ancient city known as Oxyrhynchus previously existed. The papyri are now housed at the University of Oxford in England and studied by various scholars around the globe.
The technology developed by BYU called multispectral imaging, can penetrate through dirt, stains and other material on the papyri, making it possible to expose obscured lettering.
"BYU has made the most substantial advance in reading these papyri in over 100 years," said Macfarlane, associate professor of classics at BYU. "We are beginning to learn where the BYU technology makes given problems go away."
Multispectral imaging uses filters from ultraviolet to infrared waves of light to see through the dirt and stains on the papyri surface. These filters reveal what was written on the papyri over 2,000 years ago. BYU scholars have found original texts from the Bible and even new apocrypha using this technology.
Specific material in these texts include an unidentified Christian apocryphal Gospel, a new ending to the Gospel of Mark, a different version of two verses in the book of Philemon, and a missing section in Luke 22:43-44. In the King James Version, these verses in Luke talk about Christ shedding blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This material raises many questions, such as whether the Oxyrhynchus collection contains the original text of the Bible or if there are mistakes in the papyri.
Scholars have only brought less than five percent of the Oxyrhynchus texts to life, Macfarlane said.
Thomas Wayment, associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU, has shown through his studies of the papyri that most of this five percent needs to be redone because of the errors of scholars using the wrong technology.
Wayment said the Oxyrhynchus papyri are unique compared to other collections in the past.
"They're the most extensive collection of early Biblical text that exists and it's the largest collection of papyri in the world," he said. "We have the potential to publish the oldest New Testament manuscripts."
Wayment, Macfarlane and Stephen Bay, plan to publish their findings in the future. BYU also plans to continue working with Oxford for many years on the collection.
In addition to the Oxyrhynchus papyri, Wayment, along with a group of BYU students, plans to publish a book that will contain early Christian apocrypha for 2 to 3 centuries after the death of Christ. Wayment said most apocrypha are now in Greek and publishing this material in English will expose many unknown gospels to the public.
Seth Kohrman, a senior from Decatur, Ind., majoring in ancient near eastern studies, is one of the students involved with this project and on the Oxyrhynchus collection. Kohrman said he has learned a lot about the gospel from his studies.
"In a funny way it has strengthened my testimony of the gospel and the Book of Mormon especially," Kohrman said. "There are over 5,600 manuscripts of the New Testament, not to mention all the apocryphal writings we are working on now, and none of them contain the New Testament as we have it today. This shows me personally of the immense importance of the Book of Mormon. Without it, we would be lost and confused."
Jon Rainey, a student from Prescott, Ariz., who graduated in December with a Bachelor of Arts in classical studies, is also working on the Oxyrhynchus papyri. He currently edits several fragments of the texts and has enjoyed his experience.
"The Oxyrhynchus project is very extensive and has involved the collaborative efforts of many of the brightest scholars out there throughout the last century," Rainey said. "It brings a lot of prestige to BYU to be able to add the names of three of our own papyrologists to that list."
In addition to these recent findings from BYU, scholars around the world are also studying the ancient texts.
Although many papyri have been translated already, there are still thousands left untouched at Oxford.
"I don't know how long we have, until the things sitting in shoeboxes in this or that university turn to dust, but we've got to get rolling," said Duke University professor, Joshua Sosin, in a November 2006 PBS broadcast. "There are a great many, I mean, many thousands of papyri that are sitting in boxes in dark hallways, waiting to be read."