Apocryphal texts and early Christianity
Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in the fourth century C.E. that the Christian apocrypha—texts that refer to the life of Jesus and his followers that are not included in the New Testament—“are used to deceive the simple-minded.” It was once believed that after the Church had determined the contents of the canon, all of these additional (noncanonical) texts were abandoned, hidden or destroyed. In “‘Lost Gospels’—Lost No More” in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical scholar Tony Burke challenges this assertion.
“Today scholars of the Christian apocrypha are challenging this view of the loss and rediscovery of apocryphal texts,” explains Burke. “It has become increasingly clear that the Christian apocrypha were composed and transmitted throughout Christian history, not just in antiquity.”
Burke explains that after the invention of the printing press, scholars began to travel the world in search of ancient manuscripts that they could bring to light again with the use of this new invention.
Another modern “invention” has also aided in the scholarly understanding of the history of Christian apocrypha: archaeology. At Egyptian sites such as Oxyrhynchus and Akhmîm, archaeologists have unearthed texts or works that were previously known only from their mention by other ancient authors.
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Other texts, such as the Nag Hammadi Codices—13 codices that include complete copies of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip—have come from the antiquities market.
“It has become increasingly clear that Christianity began as a multitude of voices, each one declaring itself right and others wrong,” states Burke, who rejects the idea that these gospels were “lost” through intentional suppression by the “winning” tradition, the Roman Church.
All this leads Burke to conclude that the Christian apocrypha “were valued not only by ‘heretics’ who held views about Christ that differed from normative (or ‘orthodox’) Christianity, but also by writers within the church who did not hesitate to promote and even create apocryphal texts to serve their own interests.”
Learn more about the Christian apocrypha and their role in Christian history by reading the full article “‘Lost Gospels’—Lost No More” by Tony Burke in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 13, 2016.
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BAR……..pity they didn’t print more material in relation to the Bible, rather than the teachings of men, many of whom are self professed “scholars.” Colossians 2:8
I agree with everything Joseph said above.
It’s highly disingenuous on the part of BAR to lump Gnostic writings under the umbrella of “Lost Gospels,” when the beliefs and ideology of gnosticism are utterly at odds with and opposed to the 1st Century writings of Christian Jews. In fact, a considerable amount of what was written and rightly considered canonical in the New Testament consists of polemics against gnosticism, which at the time went under various names, e.g., Manicheism, and the teachings of Marcion, Basilides and Valentinus, amongst others, but all of which had their roots in pre-Christian pagan dogmas and ideologies. BAR seems to want to confuse the public by conflation and omission, as if to say that gnostics were merely a Christian sect, and their writings were Christian apocrypha. The facts have long borne out that they were most definitely neither. Gnosticism is an opposing religion to Judaism and Christianity, and the fact that they’re one of the earliest cults to hijack Jesus for their own purposes does not make them Christian. I’m frankly surprised at the lack of journalist integrity in BAR, and it’s one of several reasons I no longer subscribe to them.
Yes, many people held onto these texts, continued to believe them, allowed them to reduce and disfigure the image of the Messiah. They were human beings.
In the last two centuries, in the United States, we have seen the acceptance of the Book of Mormon, and other heretic writings.
Because they are written, should we believe them? Or should we continue to be as the Bereans?
This is so interesting and informative. I really enjoyed it and greatly appreciate Mr.Burkes study and research. He is a wonderful writer and i really enjoyed this.
There were writings that had a very large following, and some that had less so. The outlier is that text which was not really all that widely beloved, yet which found an advocate in some articulate “Church Father.” John was not in very good position to be included in the canon, but one advocate pushed John very energetically, and the result is that it’s in there, at the end of the other gospels, but having split Luke I and Luke II (which we now call Acts). There was no suppression; the less popular documents simply did not tend to get copied, and after a generation or two were lost and forgotten. In the land of human-copied texts, it was a world of publish or perish, as least in the long term, and we certainly are talking long term here.
While much of the scriptures were pretty much set from very early on, e.g., the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke (both volumes), many parts were included for some time which are no longer familiar to us, and some were nearly excluded. The Council of Florence took steps to set the canon but it was not until later that the canon was actually set and closed. Athanasius, God be good to him, did not set the canon; that would come much later.
The opposition to heresy was a very early (apostle Paul, example) occurence, long before the ascendancy of the Church of Rome’s claim to being top dog!
Gee I wonder what irenaeus would have thought when writing “Against the Heresies”?
While I think and have no problems with people restoring Gnostic Texts to keep the facts straight, sects like the Manicheans believed that their founder was the reincarnation of multiple semi divine beings, to say that the Church fathers of the orthodox faith would ever have said, sure it’ cool to write you own, whatever, and declare it canonical is nuts, because otherwise any type of writings would be merely of the nature of theological discussions and or positions.