Non-Canonical Writings

Every so often I see a melodramatic presentation on television talking about the “lost books of the Bible” or the “the hidden books of the Bible.”  These shows talk as if there has been a conspiracy to hide these books; hinting that these books show some annoying but real truth the early church wanted hushed up. Today we know of 4 complete non-canonical gospels with fragments of at least 7 others.  In addition, 4 other writing are known by references made in other early church writings.  So what are these writings and what do they have to teach us?  Here is a brief list of 7 of these writings:

(Note: An online sources for these texts can be found at:   Gnostic Society Library and at  Early Christian Writings)

Gospel of the Egyptians:  Probably written in the 1st or early 2nd century and used in Egypt in the
2nd and 3rd centuries.  Endorse sexual asceticism in order to overcome the sinful differences between males and females and to break the lethal cycle brought on by birth.  Salome plays a prominent role.

Gospel of the Hebrews:  This Gospel appears to have been written around Jerusalem in Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic) and it is attributed to Matthew being called the true Gospel of Matthew.  It has been lost and all we know about it is through the writings of the early church leaders. Origen wrote, "Matthew published it for the converts from Judaism and composed it in Hebrew letters.”

Gospel of Judas: Says that it tells the story from the perspective of Judas (not that Judas was the author) and contains conversations between Jesus and Judas. It is no earlier than the 2nd century and today it’s in over a thousand pieces with many parts missing. The Gospel of Judas appears to interpret Judas's act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. It asserts that the disciples had not learned the true Gospel, which Jesus taught only to Judas Iscariot. This writing doesn’t tell of any events after the arrest of Jesus. It also shows Jesus as criticizing the other disciples for their ignorance while Judas was lifted up.

Gospel of Marcion (of Sinope): Comes from C. 150 and offers a version of Luke’s Gospel which is very different from what is now the standard text. For instance, Marcion deleted the nativity story and began the story at Capernaum.  His view was that Jesus did not follow the prophets and that the earth is evil. Marcion said his material was more genuinely than Luke’s. This Gospel is only known through those who have written criticisms about it as having deviated from correct Christian thought. 

Gospel of Mary (Magdalene): Possibly written in the 2nd century and we have only a few fragments (3) of it.  We are missing pages 1-6 and 11-14.  This Gospel highlights women and especially Mary Magdalene over the male disciples.  It shows the role of women in the early church.  It also puts forth the idea that the world is passing away; not to the next world or to a new heaven or world order, but passing away to chaos and suffering and death.  It says that Christ came so that each soul might be able to return to the “Good” and find spiritual rest.

Gospel of Peter: Probably comes from the early 2nd century and looks to be legends with Docetic aspects (i.e. belief that Jesus only seemed to have a physical body but was really spirit).  It has a hostile attitude toward Jews.  In the early history of the church its passion narrative was very well known but then it faded out of common use. Some aspects of it include: blaming Herod Antipas instead of Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus was “silent on the cross as though he felt no pain”, the disciples hid not out of betrayal but because they were being pursues on suspicion of planning to set fire to the temple, and it contains more details of the events after the crucificixion than the canonical Gospels. It was condemned as heretical around 200AD

Gospel of Thomas: possible written during the 1st or 2nd century. It is mostly wisdom material (e.g. sayings) without a narrative of Jesus' life. A few scholars argue that its first edition was written c 50-60, but that the surviving edition was written in the first half of the second century. About half of the sayings in this writing are similar to those in the Canonical Gospels. It contains two unique parables: the parable of the empty jug and the parable of the assassin.  It doesn’t mention the crucifixion, resurrection or final judgment nor does it talk about a messianic view of Jesus. Many in the early church believed it to be a false gospel.

                                                                                                            October 29, 2010



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