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By Daniel Guido

Here’s a thought: consider the 3.2 million books and journals found within the Bartle Library collection. Compare that to all the text that’s ever been written down since the beginning of humanity’s ability to write. Then think about how much of that knowledge is now lost to time, perhaps destroyed and gone forever; maybe locked away in some ancient basement, just waiting to be rediscovered.

As we learned in high school history class, the earliest form of writing developed somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia and was used for record keeping. The earliest form of literature we have discovered dates back to 2600 BC from ancient Sumer in present-day Iraq and is known as the Kesh Temple Hymn. Archeology has helped us uncover ancient pieces of literature like these, which in turn better help us understand the history of humanity. However, the question remains as to how many pieces of literature are still out there, yet to be discovered. Have we only just scratched the surface? 

There exists an interesting category of lost literature referred to as “Known Lost Literary Works,” in which certain lost texts are referenced in other works of literature to which we currently have access. It creates an interesting paradox as we know that these lost books exist, at least according to the work referencing them, but we have never been able to physically find them. Sometimes small fragments and lines of text have been recovered alluding to a lost book, but the full text has never been found. Some famous examples of these lost books we know to have existed include Homer’s “Margites,” Aristotle’s “Second Book of Poetics,” Trajan’s “Dacica,” Confucius’s “Classic of Music,” “Inventio Fortuna,” and “Yongle Encyclopedia.” The fact that some of these lost works have actual names accredited to them shows that they were once well-known enough to be referenced in our surviving texts.

One cannot talk about lost literary works without mentioning the Bible. The Bible is not just a singular book but a collection of works of literature considered Holy and divinely inspired. In broad terms, the “Hebrew Bible” or “Old Testament” for Christians is a collection of Hebrew Scriptures going over the history of the Israelite people and their covenant with God. The New Testament, on the other hand, centers around the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the writings of his apostles. Given that these books were written around 2000 years ago at the earliest, certain books mentioned within the Bible have been lost to time. Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated solely to these lost texts that were referenced in the Bible. These include the “Book of Jasher,” “Book of the Wars of the Lord,” and the “Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah,” among numerous others. 

The Bible as we know it was the result of hundreds of years of evolution, with it only being standardized around 200 AD in Rabbinic Judaism and standardized within Christianity by the Council of Rome in 382 AD. However, even today there exists dispute over the Christian “canon” with Protestants declaring certain books within the Catholic Bible “apocryphal” (i.e. not divinely inspired), as well as certain sects including books considered “non-canonical” by most churches, such as the Book of Enoch in the Ethiopian Biblical canon. There even exist books deemed heretical by early Christian writers such as Eusebius and Irenaus which include Gnostic texts such as the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Judas” (rediscovered in the 1970s). 

When reading the Four Gospels in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, and Luke share many of the same stories and even identical lines amongst each other, unlike John. These three are referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” due to this overt similarity, leading scholars to believe that the authors had copied from each other or potentially had access to a source that has now been lost to time. This led to the creation of the “Two Source Hypothesis” developed by German academics in the 19th century claiming that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and a lost document referred to as Q. English theologian B. H. Streeter iterated upon this hypothesis in 1925 with his “Four Source Hypothesis,” adding two more sources, M and L. This example with the origin of the Gospels shows how there are likely lost documents upon which the Bible was drawn from. Certain books within the Bible most definitely draw upon even older books and stories which have been lost to time, books which will hopefully one day be uncovered in order to better understand the evolution of the Bible and the stories within it.

The fact that I am even able to mention books once considered lost such as the Gospel of Judas and other “Gnostic Texts,” is a testament to the great work done by archeologists, historians, philologists, and others who specialize in this field. We have made great progress in the pursuit of rediscovering works that were considered lost only a few decades ago. It is the goal and hope as a society that we will one day uncover much more of these lost works and rediscover the knowledge that has been forgotten over time. It is through their work, often unrecognized, that we appreciate the depth of lost knowledge, and its capacity to radically change our understanding of the past.

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