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Understanding the Bible, Gnostic Gospels, Apocrypha, & Pseudepigrapha

In the second last of my apologetics courses, I covered the complex issues surrounding the authorship, transmission, and reception of the book we have come to know as the Bible.

In answering questions after class, I developed the following graphic, which illustrates in simple terms the relation of the various types of writings important for understanding Judaism and Christianity

The Old Testament (Jewish, the Tanakh)

The books which Christians call the “Old Testament” and Jews call the “Tanakh” were written and assembled as a unity before about 400 B.C.

The Old Testament (the Tanakh for Jews) was written, sometime between 1,500-400 B.C. Liberal and Conservative scholars will both agree that the Old Testament, as we know it today, was likely assembled by the Jewish peoples at our around the Babylonian Captivity. Convervative scholars would see Moses, David, Solomon, etc. as the ancient authors, with Ezra and others only performing only a minor role of assembling the documents. Liberal scholars would see various factions within the Babylonian Jewish community of more or less inventing most of the Old Testament for their own political/religious reasons, from very minimalistic pre-existing sources. That debate is for another day: but what is clear is that what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament” was written and assembled before about 400 B.C.

The entire Old Testament, with the exception of Esther, was found in manuscript for in the famous “Dead-Sea Scrolls” discovery. These documents date to 70 AD at the latest, and as early as 200 BC. That there is only a few centuries between the closing of the Old Testament Canon, and the discovery of the first extant sources speaks volumes for their reliability!

Apocrypha

Apocrypha literally means “hidden writings.” It has come to refer to any writings which claim to be Scriptures, but have – for one reason or another – are not considered Scriptural. There are at least four types of apocrypha which concern us: 1) Old Testament Apocrypha (often referred to simply as “The Apocrypha”), 2) New Testament apocrypha, which I have divided between a) Church Fathers & Traditions, b) The Gnostic Gospels and other writings.

We need to be careful to distinguish between apocryphal writings (which is a broad group) and The Apocrypha, which refers to a specific group of apocryphal writings.

Old Testament Apocrypha (“THE Apocrypha”)

These are Jewish writings, written during the 400 years between the Babylonian captivity and Jesus. They include the very significant books of the Maccabees. They also include pseudepigrapha. That is, writings which were either added to books by later authors (such as additions to Esther, and Daniel), or books falsely attributed to an earlier historical figures, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Enoch.

In one of the last books accepted as Scriptures by the Jews, the prophet Amos prophesied a coming “drought.” “not a famine of food or a thirst for water,” explains the prophet, “but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.”  (Amos 8:11-12) This prophesy signals the end of the coming end of the writing of new Jewish scriptures. In theological language, we would say that the canon was “closed” with the penning of the final books of the Old Testament, at about 400 B.C.

During what is sometimes known as the “Silent Years,” Jews continued to write prophecies, prayers, psalms, wisdom literature, and histories of their people. However, the Jewish people cherished these writings, which detailed the complex years under Alexander the Great, and the tumultuous years when Israel was a battle-ground between two of the four dynasties
which Alexander left behind (one for each general). Probably the most important work during this time was the book of the Macabees, which details the history of the Maccabeean family, who fought against the “Helenizing” influence (aka, the influence of Greek culture/religion/thought). Through a succession of miraculous victories, won a short-lived liberty from the Greek empire, which is celebrated every year in the celebration of Hanukkah.

These books are incredibly formative for the self-identity of Jews today. They are also important to Catholics, but tend to be ignored by Protestants.

The New Testament

The Historical Jesus lived from around 5 BC to around 33 AD. After His death/resurrection, His followers wrote biographies of His life (Gospels). Church leaders also wrote letters to one another and to the emerging Christian communities explaining the teachings of Jesus and resolving new questions and problems. These writings were kept and copied by the early church, and became the New Testament.

The majority of the New Testament documents were written in the half-century following His death and resurrection, with a few remaining works (such as Revelations and John) being written towards the end of the first century, or the beginning of the second century. Although the possibility of the New Testament being written much later was seriously considered in the 19th and early 20th century, text criticism, as well as the use of Scriptures within the writings of established historical figures such as the Church Fathers, has located them squarely within the first century.

Christian Traditions and Writings

In addition to the documents now known as the New Testament, the early Christians circulated books and epistles which they also held in very high regard. For various reasons, these writings did not finally make it into the canon.

The Christian Church was first a movement that grew organically from Jesus, and those who had contact with Him. In addition to the writings of Paul, Peter, and James, the early church also cherished the writings of later writers and church leaders. Papias, for example, was the disciple of the apostle John, and his writings were held in very high regard. Also, various writings which did not claim any direct link to the apostles were held in high esteem by various Christian communities. Examples include the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. 

Although not considering them Scriptural, Catholics tend to place a much higher importance on these writings than do Protestants. Various practices such as the veneration of Mary and the baptism of infants have their origins in some of the early traditions and Church Fathers.

Christian Pseudepigrapha

As with the Old Testament (but in much greater numbers), many unknown writers in the second to fourth centuries tried to pass their works and ideas off as those of an earlier, known figure. For clarification, I would divide this type of apocrypha into “Christian” and “non-Christian” pseudepigrapha.

“Liberal” scholars would tend to identify certain New Testament books such as 2 Peter, 1-2 Timothy, Titus as pseudepigraphic books, claiming that later authors (but not that much later, since they were still written in the first century, or very early in the second) used the names of Peter and Paul to write their own books. Conservatives reject this claim, which is based largely on linguistic grounds.

However, certain other books were identified by the early Church as clearly being frauds. Perhaps the most famous is the Gospel of Peter, which contains an account of the crucifixion which is clearly a reworking of the Canonical Gospel account, with various additions to cast Christianity in a more positive light. Another important pseudepigraphic writing is the so-called Epistles of Dionysius, (now referred to as the pseudo-Dionysius) through which a later Christian was able to introduce neoplatonism into Christianity, by impersonating a known associate of St. Paul, (Acts 17:34)

The majority of Christian pseudepigrapha is favourable towards Christianity, and simply represents a Christian author trying to get a wider readership for their ideas. We can criticize them, but aught to remember that copyright laws and social conventions were very different then, and they likely did not think what they were doing was wrong. However, when these writings were identified, they were no longer circulated as Scriptures.

Non-Christian Pseudepigrapha

Some non-Christian movements, such as Gnosticism, also wrote pseudepigraphic works. The most famous of these is the Gospel of Thomas. Similarly to the Book of Mormon or a similar work, these works represent an attempt to express the essence of a different religion through the vocabulary of Christianity.

As Christianity started to gain traction, it began to catch the attention of rival religions. It is at this time that crosses and other Christian symbols start popping up in other religions across the Roman empire and beyond. One religion in particular took interest in Christianity. Gnosticism was a neo-platonic religion which believed that we had come from a central, spiritual being, but had become entrapped in matter. Through meditation and “secret knowledge,” one could ascend back to the Great Spirit. Various gnostic writers began using terminology from Christianity to express their faith. In some cases, they wrote books, purporting to be a “secret” book of Jesus. Whereas the canonical gospels do not claim authorship (rather, tradition has given them the authorship we know them by) these Gnostic gospels claim to have been written by Jesus’ “favourite” disciple. The most important Gnostic Gospel is the Gospel of Thomas, while the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas are also significant.

The Gnostic Gospels were circulated primarily in North Africa. Gnosticism itself was identified by the Christian church – and especially Ireanaeus – as a non-Christian sect, which was trying to distort the essential doctrines of Christianity. Iraenaeus wrote a colossal book entitled “Against Heresies” in 180 AD, in which he laid bare all of the “secret knowledge” of these Gnostics, while also attempting to refute it. Ironically, he is now our major source on the Gnostics, since the religion itself died out and would likely be lost to history without him.

Around the fourth century, the first Church Historian, Eusebius, identified a number of such books, which had been identified and rejected by previous Christian writers. Never enjoying wide circulation, and rejected or ignored by most Christians, they were lost to history, until a few were recently discovered. Whereas thousands of scraps of the Canonical gospels have been found all over the Roman Empire from 125 AD. onwards, there are only a few dozen copies of the Gnostic Gospels that were ever recovered. The most important find is the Nag Hammadi find, in which a good copy of the gospel of Thomas is contained. The find dates to the third or fourth century.

The Gnostic Gospels were quickly identified by Christians as non-Christian writings. They never seemed to have a wide readership, especially not when compared to the Canonical Gospels. Gnosticism itself died out, and the books were lost to history, until they were rediscovered in the 20th century. Many of the Gospels exist only in fragments, and thus it is not always easy to reconstruct their actual content.

A Note On Canonization…

Because Dan Brown and the Da Vinci code has cast so much misinformation over this issue, it is important to note the following about the Gnostic Gospels:

  1. Virtually all scholars agree that the Gnostic Gospels were written much after the Gospels, not before.
  2. Thomas, Judas, and Mary were most certainly not the authors of the Gospels that bear their names.
  3. These documents bear the title “Gospel” only because they speak of the life of Jesus. Any book – even written in the seventh century, or later – which claimed to speak of Jesus’ life would be termed a “Gospel” by scholars. Calling the Gospel of Thomas a “Gospel” is by no means a statement of confidence in it’s contents.
  4. The Council of Nicea (325) was not about the Canon. The books of the Bible were not decided at this point.
  5. The actual process of “Canonization” was a long and involved process. However:
    1. The Church virtually always had Paul and the four Gospels. The question was always, “What books should we add to this?”
    2. By the mid second century, Christians were already starting to bind the four Gospels and Paul together in books which came to be known as biblos, or Bibles.
    3. The Fathers were quoting the New Testament throughout this period, giving evidence of their support of Scriptures. It has been said that if the New Testament were lost, it could be reconstructed purely from the quotations from the Church Fathers.
    4. Throughout the second and third centuries, Church Fathers began publishing lists of accepted books.
      1. Although they did not always agree on some disputed books, there was wide agreement on the essential books: all contained the Gospels and Paul.
      2. Certain Christian writings – for example, the writings of Papias – were considered, but finally set aside. As has been mentioned, these writings were never “rejected,” but continue to be useful to the Church.
      3. Some of these Bibles have actually been discovered. The best one is the codex sinaiticus, which is in near perfect condition, and dates to to before the fifth century
    5. The primary criterion of the canonization process were:
      1. Universal use (do all the churches have and use this work?)
      2. Authentic authorship (yes, even in the first centuries they knew how to identify a fake)
      3. Doctrine (does it agree with other, known Christian writings?)
    6. The Gnostic Gospels were never considered, as they failed all of the tests. Not being considered is different from being rejected.
    7. Most of this process took place long before Christianity had any sort of political power. The church at this time was undergoing tremendous persecution, which was suffering under the sword of Rome, not wielding it was it would in the 13th and 14th centuries. Dan Brown is not only wrong, but profoundly insulting when he reads the corruptions of the “High Middle Ages” back on the poor, pure, suffering saints of the first few centuries.
    8. The final Canon was agreed upon at the councils of Hippo and Carthage of 393-419, and the question of the Apocrypha was settled in the Reformation in the seventeenth century. However, as has been mentioned, by the second century the New Testament was already circulating in almost the form that we have today.
  6. The Gnostic Gospels do not represent “true Christianity.” Ironically, they do not represent fertility cults and paganism either, as Dan Brown claims. Although such religions certainly existed at the time, a true Gnostic would have been horrified by their master engaging in ritualized sex: or any sex for that matter. For them, the body and the world are the enemy from which we must ascend and escape. Gnosticism is quite different from Christianity, Judaism, or Paganism: a fact of which Dan Brown seems totally unaware.

Conclusion

I hope this brief summary has been helpful in understanding these complex issues. Please feel free to post your questions and comments!

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