A German scholar has found the first material evidence that the Gospel according to St. Matthew was an eyewitness account written by contemporaries of Jesus Christ, The Times newspaper reported Saturday.

The newspaper said the evidence was a potentially important breakthrough in biblical scholarship on a par with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.St. Matthew's Gospel was generally thought to have been written in the late second century.

But after examining the writing style of three scraps of the Gospel in the library of Oxford University's Magdalen College, German papyrologist Carsten Thiede believes it was written a generation after Christ's crucifixion or even earlier.

"The Magdalen fragment now appears to belong to a style of handwriting that was current in the first century B.C. and slowly petered out around the first century A.D.," Thiede told The Times.

"Even a hesitant approach to questions of dating would therefore seem to justify a date in the first century, about a hundred years earlier than was previously thought."

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The Times said the claim, which Thiede will publish in a specialist German journal next month, was likely to produce fierce controversy among biblical scholars.

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