Christian Apocrypha: The “Lost Gospels”?

Apocryphal texts and early Christianity

Athanasius

The 27 books of the canonical New Testament were settled in Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria’s annual Easter letter (the 39th Festal Letter) in 367 C.E. It was once believed that this pronouncement, alongside his denouncement of the Christian apocrypha, was enough for believers to abandon all noncanonical texts. This belief is now questioned by scholars. Photo: Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.

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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tchacos-codex

The Tchacos Codex, which contains the apocryphal Gospel of Judas, came from the antiquities market.

Other texts, such as the Nag Hammadi Codices13 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.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full article “‘Lost Gospels’—Lost No More” by Tony Burke in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 13, 2016.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke

The Nag Hammadi Codices and Gnostic Christianity

The Sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas
 


 

Posted in Bible Interpretation, New Testament.

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  • John says

    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

  • Bob says

    I agree with everything Joseph said above.

  • Joseph says

    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.

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